It’s time to address the growing teacher recruitment and retention challenges head on

By Jack Worth, NFER School Workforce Lead

Monday 27 March 2023

This blog post was first published in TES on Thursday 23rd March 2023.

NFER’s latest annual report on the teacher labour market in England, published today, shows that the teacher recruitment and retention challenge has significantly intensified since the pandemic.

Recruitment to initial teacher training (ITT) was considerably below target last year across a wide range of subjects. Our forecast from ITT applications up to February 2023 suggests that recruitment is likely to be little better this year. Bursaries have boosted applications in some subjects, but applications in subjects that did not receive a bursary increase are 10 per cent lower than last year.

The latest data on teacher leaving rates shows that fewer teachers left during the pandemic, but no data on the post-pandemic situation is yet available. However, data on teacher vacancies from TeachVac shows that schools posted significantly more jobs last year compared to the year before the pandemic. The number of vacancies schools have posted so far this year is even higher – nearly double the pre-pandemic level.

More job openings chasing fewer new teachers means that we have a worsening crisis. It may mean school leaders increasingly resorting to the use of non-specialist teachers to plug gaps, which will ultimately affect pupil attainment outcomes. Addressing recruitment and retention should be an urgent policy priority, to ensure schools have sufficient staff to provide a high-quality education for pupils.

The three significant long-term drivers of recruitment and retention that we have focussed on in this year’s report can be summarised as the good, the bad and the (potentially) ugly.

Let’s start with the good news: indicators of teachers’ workload appear to have improved since 2016. Average working hours are lower and fewer teachers are usually working in their evenings and say they would prefer to work fewer hours. However, all these metrics are still higher than for other graduates. So there is more work for government and school leaders to do to make sure teachers’ workloads are sustainable.

The bad news is that teachers’ pay has lost competitiveness compared to earnings in the wider labour market over the last decade. Pay is lower in real terms and has not grown as fast as average earnings or the earnings of other graduates since 2010.

DfE is raising the teaching starting salary outside London to £30,000, to raise the attractiveness of the profession at entry. However, with experienced teacher pay proposed to rise by 3%, the government’s overall pay proposals for 2023 only match the expected growth rate in UK average earnings next year of 3.5%.

The teacher pay award would need to exceed outside earnings if it was going to have a positive impact on recruitment and retention. By merely matching the growth in the wider labour market, the proposals won’t close the competitiveness gap, and are therefore likely to have minimal impact.

To make matters worse, the Office for Budget Responsibility also upped its forecast of average UK earnings growth at last week’s Budget, from 3.5% to 4.1%.

We think the pay award for 2023 needs to exceed 4.1%, to narrow the competitiveness gap and improve retention. But we are also calling for a long-term strategy on teacher pay to tackle the growing crisis and improve the competitiveness of teacher pay. Crucially, this plan must also ensure schools have the funds to pay for it.

Lastly, the potentially ugly factor on the horizon is flexibility. Opportunities to work flexibly in the wider world of graduate work has been transformed by the pandemic.

In 2021/22, nearly half (44 per cent) of similar graduates * worked mainly from home, up from 15 per cent in 2018/19. At the same time teachers’ opportunities to work from home remain very limited, which could affect its relative attractiveness compared to alternative careers.

Given the demand for flexible working arrangements, school leaders should explore what options may work for their schools. But fully addressing this challenge with more flexibility is extremely difficult given the nature of the teaching role. Maintaining the attractiveness of the teaching profession inevitably means compensating for the lack of flexibility in other ways, or else seeing more teachers leave to gain more flexibility in another job.

Schools are being forced to stumble from budget to budget and strike to strike without the help of a clear strategy designed to address a worsening supply situation. It’s time to address the challenges head on with a long-term approach.

* In our analysis, the term ‘similar graduates’ refers to the comparison group of graduates in other occupations who are similar to teachers in age, gender and region.