Will Covid make the recruitment crisis worse?

Teacher-training courses are supposed to benefit in times of economic uncertainty. But, in this as in all else, coronavirus has made things less predictable, says Mark Heaton

Mark Heaton

Rows of empty stadium seats

I’m recruitment lead for teacher training at Sheffield Hallam University, and these are anxious times for all involved. The numbers are pored over daily – sometimes hourly – as we seek to ensure we come up with the number of trainees needed to provide teachers for the region and beyond. 

There is some good news: some courses appear to be full, or even oversubscribed. But these are uncertain times. The number of postgraduate teacher trainees is at its highest in seven years, new data shows. However, recruitment has still not returned to the levels of the start of the last decade, when trainee numbers topped 35,000. 

Figures published this week by the Department for Education show that the number of postgraduate initial teacher training students in their final year in 2018-19 was 28,949.

Disruptions to the admissions cycle

For students, the decision to accept a university place is a big one. This is even more true this year. Significant amounts of teaching is due to take place online, making socialising very difficult.

If, as has been predicted by many, we have increased numbers of requests to defer, the annual clearing period may well be even more important than usual.

Disruptions to the admissions cycle have been significant, but we have been doing our best to be creative. Open days have moved online, and interviews have been replaced by virtual selection events. 

Most applicants still want a rigorous process, and some have been very critical of universities where this has not happened. Some tell us of quick chats, or significantly reduced selection events, in which they did not feel that their strengths and concerns were being explored and fully considered, despite subsequently receiving an offer of a place. 

From what we repeatedly hear, students want assurances about quality now more than ever, and they feel that some institutions have not been providing them. 

There are potential risks if standards are lowered, for all involved. We need to be confident that we are recruiting future teachers who are fully committed to teaching as a profession and have the necessary skills, knowledge and capacity to meet the teaching standards by the end of their course. 

Benefiting from a raised profile

The students themselves also need to choose the right course and provider to meet their training needs. This is where they would benefit from a rigorous and supportive process. 

According to a survey of undergraduate applicants for London Economics, more than one in five are considering deferring for a year if universities are not going to operate normally. A perceived drop in standards is certainly not going to help teacher-education institutions. 

But one department’s headache is another’s opportunity. In teacher training, we are seeing increases in the numbers of applications. As always, some traditional hard-to-recruit-to subject areas continue to bring challenges. But, overall, numbers are strong, with applications coming to us from school leavers, recent graduates and career changers

Why is this? One hypothesis suggests that, along with NHS workers, teachers have been seen as a vital element of the fight against Covid-19, and have benefited from the raised profile.

Also, some applicants tell us the fact that they are unable to consider traditional gap-year activities, such as travel or work experience, has also played a part. In addition to this, applications to courses such as teaching do rise in times of economic uncertainty.

Still facing shortages

But my concerns as a recruitment lead in teacher education are not solely about the numbers of students who start undergraduate and postgraduate courses in September 2020.

Despite the rise in numbers, we still face significant teacher shortages. Teacher supply in England is very likely to remain an important issue over the next few years. 

From a training perspective, I am also concerned by recent reports that a worryingly high number of schools have pulled out of offering teacher-training placements for the next academic year, as they adapt to a post-pandemic world. 

When applicants do make it to university this year, much more support for transition and academic induction will be needed. Higher-education policy analysts at WonkHE recently reported significant concerns for the prospects and welfare of the most vulnerable students. At Hallam, we know we have a significant amount of work to do to ensure new arrivals receive the high-quality course that they expect and are paying for.

Yes, it may not be the same student experience as in other years. Nonetheless, I am sure that, in professional courses such as teaching, there are many students who want to start to make a difference to the lives of children and young people as soon as possible – and especially in these challenging times. 

Yes, the Covid cohort of new teachers may have less time in schools than previous cohorts. But there are still some outstanding potential NQTs, ready to take on the challenge and make a difference.

Mark Heaton is principal lecturer and recruitment lead of teacher education at Sheffield Hallam University

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