Debating policies to improve the teacher recruitment crisis

How can the teacher recruitment crisis be tackled longer term? Emma Hollis from the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers, unpicks some proposed and existing policy strategies

We have now heard from the Conservatives and Labour at their party conferences about how they plan to address the teacher recruitment crisis.
All eyes were on Labour, especially, for new thinking but at the time of writing, details are scarce on how exactly they will recruit 6,500 extra teachers to fill vacancies and skills gaps, and they have so far only announced plans to award £2,400 teacher retention bonuses to all those who complete the two-year Early Career Framework (ECF).
We all recognise the need, of course, to recruit more teachers – and this does not in any way help schools needing teachers today – but the question is ‘how’ this will be done longer term. A common view is this must be a part of a vision for increasing the competitiveness of the teaching profession via pay and other financial incentives, and tackling public perceptions about teaching and the work of a teacher. We also need to factor in all-encompassing issues on the funding of the profession, that teachers are having to ‘do more with ‘less’, and schools being required to run at a deficit model all the time.
Don’t forget that Conservative policies have been geared towards recruitment and this government has tinkered with most things which could make teaching a more competitive career option, such as raising the starting salary, and there is a reasonable argument that we need to let some of these latest interventions play out before rolling out more new policies.
A focus on retention, even prioritising this over recruitment at least in the short term, would definitely lessen the need to recruit so many teachers going forward but overall there are not enough teachers in the system. We know why people want to become teachers, but we really need to understand why undergraduates are not considering or choosing a career in teaching – and use the evidence from that to inform action.

A two-pronged attack

In their ‘Breaking Down the Barriers’ plan for education, and away from the headlines created at their conference, Labour set out a two-pronged attack for recruiting more, high quality teachers and retaining excellent teachers and leaders.
They propose to introduce a requirement for all new teachers coming into schools to hold or be working towards Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), as part of the guarantee that every child will be taught by a qualified professional. Nobody would disagree with that, but this is generally happening already. Whilst technically SATs and MATs have the right to recruit teachers who do not have QTS, evidence from the most recent school workforce census suggests very few take advantage of that.

In terms of children being taught by ‘non-expert teachers’ in some common subject areas, reflection on the required subject knowledge development should be the focus. For example, do we need to have specialist science teachers at Key Stage 3 and 4? The reality is we will never have enough Physics teachers in the system to do that.
Teachers may be upskilled via a specialist ECF across all sciences up to A Level. This could look at the broader skills teachers need to support effective teaching of those subjects at GCSE/A Level and that same model could work for other subjects, such as Maths, MFL, Drama.

Development for new teachers

To support retention, Labour wish to revise delivery of ECF, maintaining the grounding in evidence, to ensure the highest standards of professional development for new teachers. There is already a review of the ECF underway which will lead to its delivery in tandem with the ITT Core Content Framework. We are only three years into the ECF, and should be wary of making further significant change to the ECF before allowing it to play through. To disregard the ECF so early in its rollout could be a kneejerk reaction. A full independent evaluation of the ECF, looking at cost/ROI/impact, should be commissioned after five years’ delivery.

What we do know, however, is that the ECF was not widely popular at its inception. For example, fears around mentoring capacity have played out, and even with funding staff mentors are often not available as their first priority is children in their care. A funding model that allows more flexibility for teachers not to be in front of children during the working day – and not being expected to undertake professional development in their own time – is required.
To facilitate this, we advocate for the introduction of a funded senior leadership team role of Teacher Professional Development Lead in every school (similar to the role of SENCo). That individual, who does not have full-time class responsibility, would be responsible for ringfenced time and funding for every teacher, the CPD chosen for every individual, role and the next steps around that. This could be coaching and mentoring, programmes delivered by sector bodies such as the Chartered College of Teaching and NASBTT, or a Masters’ level qualification. Developing staff who understand what high-quality CPD looks like.

Financial incentives

Financial incentives are important, and Labour propose to review bursaries to ensure the £181 million a year the government spends on incentivising people into teaching is being best used to attract and critically to retrain teaching staff. Bursaries for postgraduate ITT have always been a key policy tool used by government to attract more people to enter teacher training, particularly for high-priority subjects that might otherwise struggle to recruit enough teachers.
While bursaries tend to attract more people into ITT than otherwise would have entered, they also change the characteristics of those who apply. In some cases, these composition changes from bursary increases promote greater equality (e.g. increasing the proportion of men) while in others it appears to reduce it further (e.g. reducing the proportion of BAME trainees). NFER research also shows that Physics and Maths teachers leave the system at the same rate, with or without the bursary, so whilst we know bursaries get them into profession they are not a factor in retaining them.
A bigger game changer – although this needs to be modelled – would be student loan forgiveness for new teachers working on state schools up to a certain amount for years.  Labour’s commitment to restructuring teacher retention payments into one payment scale incorporating different factors such as subject and geography, based on evidence showing incentive payments are an effective means of retaining teachers with knowledge and expertise, is another pledge that requires more detail. Should primary teachers be paid less than secondary teachers? Should Maths teachers earn more than English teachers? What are the implications? For example, if it costs schools more (via staff bill) to deliver a Physics A Level, will they choose to offer cheaper subjects? Who is going to fund these payments?
Finally, returning to the idea a new ECF retention payment upon completion of the updated framework recognising the professional development staff have undertaken. This is not being modelled at the right stage of the ECF nor is the mooted £2,400 the right amount. A more effective model would be to distribute the payment over Years three, four and five on the pay progression scale as part of an annual increase to encourage retention over a longer period.
There are other factors to consider here: we need to see how the current government’s higher teacher starting salary and the ECF play out, before committing to additional spend – the overall funding for which is still unclear.

New bursaries

During the Labour conference, the DfE came out with its commitment of £196 million to support teacher recruitment to attract more teachers across key subjects as part of a move intended to support the Prime Minister’s announcement about the Advanced British Standard.
Scholarships for those training to teach Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Computing will now be brought up to £30,000 tax-free, in order to attract more teachers into the subjects.     
As part of the increase, existing bursaries for Biology and Design and Technology will also be increased to £25,000 and additional bursaries for subjects that are compulsory to the curriculum have been introduced, including one in music.
Of course we welcome any investment into the recruitment and retention of teachers. New bursaries for a wider range of subjects will be welcomed by the sector. As always, there is some concern in the sector that primary teachers are not eligible for bursaries, despite many areas of the country reporting recruitment challenges for primary. Additional classroom hours for pupils is unlikely to be feasible given existing workload pressures so care needs to be taken that schools are funded and staffed adequately before any policy change is introduced. Recruitment and retention issues are going to need to be resolved and the workforce far more stable before we can reasonably expect schools to be able to provide the resource for pupils to study more subjects, therefore requiring more teachers.

Going forwards

Taking a step back, whilst seeking to support those in government, we are also keen to depoliticise teacher recruitment and retention. There is a need for a long-term vision for the education sector, and a process for getting there, and this is something that we would argue should remain regardless of who is leading the country.
At the heart of this is a discussion on the purpose of education and what we want schools to be/do. Teaching is one thing, but with the closure of other key services, teachers have to support wider health and social care issues which come with the job. How we evolve beyond the current status quo is something that should be shaped by voices from the ground up.

Emma Hollis is executive director of the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT). NASBTT is holding its Annual Conference, which this year in themed Mind the Gap, on 28th and 29th November.