Solving the teacher recruitment and retention crisis

This article was written for School Inspection + Improvement Magazine and first published in August 2018.  You can read the full article free on the SI+I website.

There is, it is no exaggeration to say, a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention in England’s schools and tackling it is proving an increasingly urgent task for school leaders.

Before we explore some ways of solving this crisis, let’s first examine its causes…

The problem

Firstly, pupil numbers are growing. This is due to a demographic bulge which is travelling through the education system, causing a large increase in pupil numbers at secondary level. The secondary school population – not counting Year 12 and 13 pupils – is projected to rise from 2.72 million in 2017 to 3.03 million by 2021, a rise of 11.5 per cent over four years. What’s more, by 2025 there’s projected to be 3.3 million 11 – 15 year olds in English schools, which is an increase of half a million compared to 2015.

If we are to ensure these children are properly educated, we will need an extra 26,500 teachers in the classroom.

Secondly, not enough new secondary school trainee teachers are coming into the sector. Initial Teacher Training (ITT) figures for 2016/17 show a decrease in the overall number of recruits compared with 2015/16, with only 93% of places being filled. The overall contribution to the secondary target was 89%, meaning nearly 2,000 places went unfilled. But the reality is even worse than these figures suggest because, since 2015/16, ITT figures have included applicants for Teach First who were previously excluded from these statistics. This therefore boosted the overall figure for 2016/17 by over 1,000 applicants. However, despite the inclusion of Teach First applicants in the ITT statistics, the overall Teacher Supply Model (TSM) target was still not met, just as it hadn’t been met for the previous four years.

In 2016/17, the only subjects where the TSM recruitment target was met were biology, geography, history and PE. All other secondary subjects were under-recruited, and some by a significant margin. For instance, maths only recruited 84% of the required number of trainees, physics 81%, and computing just 68%.

Not only are we failing to recruit enough new teachers, we’re also losing too many experienced ones…

Thirdly, teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers. Over 1 in 10 teachers left the profession in 2016. Of these, an increasing proportion left the profession for other sectors rather than retiring, suggesting their working conditions rather than their age were driving them out.

A survey by the National Union of Teachers (prior to it merging with ATL and becoming the National Education Union or NEU), carried out in March 2016, found that nearly three quarters (73%) of school leaders were experiencing difficulties in recruiting teachers, with 61% saying that the situation had got worse (42%) or much worse (19%) over the last year.

The greatest problem areas, according to the survey, were in maths (36% of school leaders were struggling to recruit in this area), science (34%) and English (23%).

The crisis in teacher recruitment means that whilst schools are struggling to fill vacancies, large numbers of pupils are being taught by unqualified teachers – or at least teachers who do not have a relevant qualification in the subject they are being asked to teach. In 2016, for example, the NUT found that only 63% of physics and 75% of chemistry teachers held a relevant post A-level qualification in the subject they taught. For maths and English, these figures were 78% and 81% respectively.

And falling retention rates is also costly. An analysis by the Labour Party estimated that secondary schools spent £56 million on advertising for vacant posts in 2015, an increase of 61% from 2010.
But high levels of attrition among qualified teachers is not only costly in financial terms; it also has an impact on the quality of education that schools can provide…

In November 2016, for example, there were 500 fewer qualified teachers in service than in the previous year. Conversely, there were 1400 more teachers in service without qualified teacher status than there had been the year before.

So what can be done to solve this growing crisis?

The solution

What is needed at a national level is a long-term, evidence-based strategy setting out how the government will tackle challenges associated with the supply of teachers which should include improvements to the Teacher Supply Model.

Whilst recruiting sufficient numbers of new teachers is clearly necessary, the government should also focus its attentions on improving teacher retention and not solely through the lens of workload.

Work-life balance is clearly a problem but many teachers cite other reasons – such as stress and a lack of autonomy – for leaving the profession.

Not only is improving retention rates a more cost effective way of tackling the issues of supply and demand, but having greater numbers of experienced teachers staying in the profession will naturally deepen the pool of leadership potential, supplying our next cohort of head teachers.

At a local level, meanwhile – which is to say, in schools and academy trusts – leaders need to develop staff autonomy, mastery and purpose if they are to improve the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers…

…to continue reading this article, which is available free, go to the School Inspection + Improvement website.


Follow me me on Twitter @mj_bromley

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.