Cutting back on retention measures now would be short-sighted

By Jack Worth, Lead Economist

Friday 13 November 2020

This blog post first appeared in TES.

Before the pandemic, England’s school system was facing a teacher supply challenge, not least to meet the demand caused by growing secondary pupil numbers and high leaving rates. 

Incentives, such as high bursaries, were offered to attract people into the profession, and there was a focus on measures to improve retention, such as pay and workload.

Covid-19 has brought disruption to all aspects of our lives. But the recession-proof nature of teaching has led to a surge in the number of people applying to enter the profession. 

Coronavirus: Turning the supply situation on its head

Our own research highlights how this changed landscape has brought both opportunities and challenges for initial teacher training. Labour market uncertainty has meant that accepted offers to primary and secondary courses are up 14 and 20 per cent respectively in 2020, compared with the previous year. 

Most noticeable and particularly welcome are substantial increases in accepted offers for shortage secondary subjects, such as maths, modern foreign languages and chemistry. However, the number of accepted offers in physics is only 6 per cent higher than at the same time in 2019.

Our teacher survey data also highlighted that teacher retention is likely to be higher in 2020-21, effectively reducing the number of new teachers schools will need in September 2021. The proportion of teachers who were considering leaving in July 2020 was substantially lower than in June 2019: 15 percentage points for primary and secondary teachers alike.

Overnight, the teacher supply situation has been turned on its head. This seems to have influenced the government’s recent announcement that it was cutting all teaching bursaries for arts, English and humanities subjects in England from 2020/21. 

There are still bursaries available for subjects including sciences, languages and maths, but the amount offered is lower than it had been previously. 

Managing the teacher supply pipeline

Bursaries have been used for many years as a tool to help manage the teacher supply pipeline, as they are able to be switched on and off in response to changes in the availability of – and need for – teachers. Given the significant increase in applications to teacher training this year, the government has chosen to review its bursary arrangements. 

Removing bursaries for subjects that have typically recruited strongly – such as history and English – is not a big surprise, as recruitment to these subjects is likely to remain strong enough to meet demand. 

However, the strategy behind some of the individual subject bursary decisions is a little less clear. For example, the languages bursary have been significantly reduced , despite the fact that recent recruitment figures have been similar to maths and chemistry – which have seen only small reductions in bursaries.

An additional concern is the decision taken to limit the early career retention payments, which were specifically put in place to address the high numbers of early career teachers leaving within the first five years of qualifying. 

Premature and short-sighted

While the economic downturn has stimulated an increase in applications and teacher retention, we need to ensure that other aspects of the job – workload, flexible working and supporting new teachers to remain in the profession for the long term – remain a priority, in order to help stabilise teacher supply.

Cutting back on retention measures at this point would be premature and short-sighted. The wider labour market is likely to be in better shape in three to five years’ time, so a retention incentive for shortage-subject early career teachers would serve as a useful strategy.

It will be crucial for the government to maintain its focus on delivering the teacher recruitment and retention strategy, in order to ensure that teaching remains an attractive career choice for those looking for more than just job security.