Short Lists: The crisis in education recruitment

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Spring Term 1 2023

Latest research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) reveals that the education system in England is facing a renewed challenge to ensure there are enough high-quality teachers. Here, Jack Worth reveals the findings.

Teacher recruitment and retention both temporarily improved during the pandemic due to the lack of alternative job opportunities in the wider labour market. However, the number of trainees entering initial teacher training (ITT) in 2022 was further below target than at any point in at least the last decade. The number of teacher vacancies posted by schools in 2022 was two-thirds higher than before the pandemic. More job adverts chasing fewer new teachers means that the 2023 teacher job market is likely to be extremely competitive. 

The latest data on applications to teacher training also suggests that the recruitment lull is likely to continue, meaning further years of tight teacher recruitment. 

This challenge is particularly acute for secondary schools, given the difficulties of recruiting enough teachers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects such as physics, computing, chemistry and maths, and the demographic challenge of serving growing pupil numbers, while primary pupil numbers are projected to fall in the coming years. 

The impact on schools and pupils 
Despite school leaders’ best efforts to mitigate the impact of teacher shortages on pupils, they are likely to have a detrimental impact on educational quality. In practice, staff shortages never means classrooms without teachers. Rather, faced with a low-quality field of applicants, senior leaders can either hire a teacher that applies but who may be less than ideal, or not hire at all and mitigate the impact of the resulting shortage. 

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) surveyed school leaders (tinyurl.com/5a6du9ua) to explore what actions they are taking to deal with teacher shortages. Schools that reported finding teacher recruitment the most difficult were considerably more likely than other schools to report recruiting teachers with less experience than ideal, and more likely to employ unqualified teachers than they normally would. 

However, not hiring a teacher also has potential negative consequences for schools and pupils. When teacher recruitment is difficult, many secondary schools have to use non-specialist teachers to teach certain subjects. Among three key shortage subjects we explored, many schools reported non-specialists teaching maths (45% reporting at least ‘some’ lessons), physics (39%) and modern foreign languages (17%). Deploying non-specialist teachers was far more prevalent in schools that reported finding teacher recruitment the most difficult, compared with other schools. 

These schools were also considerably more likely than other schools to have school leaders doing more teaching than usual to mitigate shortages. This could reduce the school’s leadership capacity and, in turn, limit its ability to function well operationally and make improvements to teaching. 

Recommendations 
Urgent action is required by the government to address teacher recruitment and retention to avert the negative impact on pupils’ education. Teachers’ pay fell by approximately 12% in real terms from 2010 to 2022, which is likely to have contributed to diminishing the attractiveness of teaching as a career option for graduates to enter and for teachers to stay in. The government needs to address the competitiveness of teachers’ pay, which is key to improving the attractiveness of teaching. 

NFER has been providing evidence on what impact pay and financial incentives could have on improving teacher recruitment and retention and making the case to the government on why it should invest in supporting adequate teacher supply (tinyurl.com/2p9xfptp). 

School leaders too can make a difference and help combat some of these challenges. Our research identifies the following key areas where school leaders can influence teachers’ decisions about whether to leave teaching: 

WORKLOAD
Workload is the most cited reason ex-teachers give for leaving teaching (tinyurl.com/mvnapv76). A recent focus by the whole sector on reducing workload and the work of many school leaders has led to teachers working fewer hours on average than they did in 2016, feeling more positive about their working hours and reducing the amount of time they spend on more arduous tasks such as marking, planning and administration. 

However, teachers still work six hours more in a typical working week than other professionals and are more likely to say they would like to work fewer hours (tinyurl.com/bdr6znde). Therefore, more must be done to reduce workload and without reducing the quality of pupils’ education. More school leaders should engage with the DfE’s workload reduction toolkit and the independent review group reports on marking, planning administration and data (tinyurl.com/ycxb4747). 

TEACHER AUTONOMY
Teacher autonomy is vital for motivation and is linked to job satisfaction and retention. However, many teachers report a lack of influence over key areas of their work. In particular, teachers report a low level of influence over their professional development goals, yet this is the area with the greatest potential to increase teachers’ job satisfaction. 

Research suggests that school leaders need to help teachers see the relevance of professional development to their individual needs, their pupils’ needs and the wider organisational goals. It suggests a benefit in involving teachers in choosing goals and ensuring teachers can have some autonomy in how they choose to meet these goals. 

FLEXIBILITY
Flexibility is an emerging issue affecting the relative attractiveness of the teaching profession. The pandemic transformed the world of work, with remote and homeworking becoming widespread and permanent features in many jobs, while teachers returned to their classrooms and relatively inflexible work environments. 

Increasing flexible working opportunities for teachers is challenging for schools, primarily because of the inherent inflexibility of the school-based, face-to-face teaching role. However, school leaders could also consider, for example, accommodating part-time or job-share working opportunities. 

Without any response, schools may lose more mid and late-career teachers, particularly women of childbearing age, who may choose professions offering more flexible working practices instead. 

Further reading
For more details about the findings and recommendations, please read the following NFER research: 

Jack Worth
Lead Economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research
@JackWorthNFER

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