Dire teacher recruitment data should concern policymakers

By Jack Worth, NFER School Workforce Lead

Tuesday 12 December 2023

Jack Worth, NFER School Workforce LeadThis opinion piece was first published in Schools Week on Thursday 7th December 2023

Today’s dire teacher training recruitment data confirms teacher supply is a critical issue facing England’s education system.

Physics recruitment of just 17 per cent of the target numbers will grab the headlines, along with secondary recruitment at half-of-target, an unprecedentedly low level. But it is the huge extent and near-universal set of shortfalls that should concern policymakers.

Fifteen out of 18 secondary subjects failing to meet recruitment targets means it is a full crisis of teacher supply, and not just a challenge confined to the usual suspect subjects. Primary recruitment is the lowest it has been for more than a decade. This is somewhat mitigated by the diminishing need for quite so many primary trainees due to falling pupil numbers.

What are the main drivers?

Teacher supply is a multi-faceted issue and it’s possible to place too much emphasis on recruitment having a shortfall, when retaining more teachers would mean lower targets.

But this data points to recruitment being significantly more challenging than it was before the pandemic. Overall trainee numbers are 24 per cent lower than they were in 2019 and lower even than the previously unseen lows in 2022.

Part of this is explained by the surprisingly resilient state of the wider labour market. Despite high interest rates, cost-of-living pressures and talk of recession, job vacancies have remained plentiful in the labour market. In contrast to the economic woes of the pandemic leading to a surge in teacher training applicants, the strong post-pandemic labour market has provided stiff competition for teaching.

Do these recruitment woes suggest that bursaries are failing? The data suggests the opposite: subjects with a bursary increase saw enrolments rise by 19 per cent compared to last year, while those with no change saw enrolments fall by 18 per cent. Our recent evaluation of bursaries underlines that while bursaries and other financial incentives are no panacea, recruitment would be an awful lot worse without them.

Is it all about recruitment?

Of course, the health of teacher supply is not just a recruitment issue. If we retained more teachers, then the targets would not be so high. Because of trainee dropout and attrition after qualification, every seven more teachers we retain means we would need to recruit 10 fewer teachers into training. Reducing workload, improving working conditions and raising pay competitiveness would all help to improve the overall teacher supply situation.

Another key aspect of recruitment shortfalls is a technical change to the way ITT targets have been calculated since 2020. Despite leaving rates in 2022 being similar to their level in 2019, the secondary target is now 30 per cent higher. The new target methodology represents an overall improvement on its predecessor, as it now accounts for the cumulative impact of previous under-recruitment.

But it also conceals some of the underlying recruitment trends. For example, physics recruitment has fallen from 42 per cent of target just before the pandemic to 17 per cent this year. Physics remains a cause for great concern, but the actual numbers recruited is only eight per cent lower than before the pandemic.

What should the policy response be?

Despite some of the key drivers being economic forces beyond the Government’s control, the Government needs to take urgent and radical action to improve the attractiveness of teaching as a profession to enter and remain.

Policymakers should be aiming to put teaching in a position where it is attractive enough to persuade graduates to enter regardless of what is happening more widely. This recruitment data suggests teaching may be drifting further away from that position, with pay not competitive enough and a lack of flexibility being exposed as a key competitive weakness in a graduate labour market newly transformed by hybrid working.

Enhancing bursaries and other financial incentives and reducing workload are likely to help. The wider labour market weakening may also support better recruitment next year.

Increasing teachers’ pay would also likely improve both recruitment and retention and is a key lever within the Government’s direct and timely control. However, pay needs to be rising faster than average earnings to increase competitiveness.

Improving the attractiveness of the teaching profession is an essential and urgent need now to ensure the quality of pupils’ education is not further compromised by growing staff shortages.