Teacher training bursaries are effective, so should remain a central tool in the teacher supply policy toolkit

By Jack Worth, NFER School Workforce Lead

Monday 13 November 2023

This blog post was first published in Tes on Thursday 9 November 2023. 

Recruiting and retaining teachers in the state sector remains a key challenge for England’s schools. Last year only 59 per cent of the required number of secondary trainees were recruited to initial teacher training (ITT). NFER’s forecast for this year, based on applications received, is for recruitment of just 52 per cent of the target.

Policymakers are therefore searching for effective solutions to boost recruitment and retain teachers, particularly in acutely affected subjects such as physics and computing. Given the challenging state of the public finances, they are also looking for low-cost solutions which are known to be effective.

There is also policy pressure to review existing spending and reallocate resources away from policies that are costly and not delivering. The Government plans to spend £196 million on bursaries and other financial inducements to enter teacher training in 2024. The Labour party has committed to reviewing current spending on bursaries to ensure it “is being done in line with evidence of best practice”. So, what is the evidence?

The evidence shows bursaries are effective at increasing long-term teacher supply

Numerous research studies have shown bursaries increase recruitment into ITT. Their impact is abundantly clear even from this year’s ITT applications: secondary subjects that had a bursary increase saw recruitment rise by 26 per cent, while subjects and phases that did not have an increase saw recruitment fall by 16 per cent.

But what about the longer term, and the risk that these additional trainees turn up for the bursary but never set foot in a classroom?

Our new evaluation of bursaries, funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, finds these fears are unfounded. The research says the additional teachers who enter the profession due to bursary increases have a sustained impact on long-term supply, as they are just as likely to enter teaching and then stay.

Bursaries are therefore an effective policy tool for addressing national teacher shortages and the associated staffing challenges in the most affected schools. The additional teachers attracted into teaching by a higher bursary are more likely to teach in schools that tend to struggle most with filling vacancies, such as schools in London and those serving disadvantaged communities.

In the short term, bursaries lead to more early career teachers being in the profession rather than experienced teachers, meaning support from experienced colleagues is needed. It also means more teachers who are learning their craft, which has implications for pupils’ learning compared to having experienced teachers who tend to be more effective.

However, schools are grappling with teacher supply challenges, meaning an overall lack of teachers in the system. More teachers in the right subjects, even if newly-trained and requiring support from experienced colleagues, is undoubtedly preferable to other alternatives such as expensive supply teachers or deploying non-specialists.

Policymakers should continue to use bursaries, but not rely on them exclusively

Our new evidence has further implications for the role of bursaries within a wider strategy for improving teacher recruitment and retention.

The Government should at least keep training bursaries in place to ensure recruitment is supported to be higher than it otherwise would be. Bursaries offer good value for money compared to across-the-board pay increases because they can be targeted at priority subjects and at prospective teachers, whose behaviour tends to be highly responsive to financial incentives.

Raising bursaries for subjects experiencing supply challenges and where bursaries are currently low – as the Government did in October for art, music and religious education – also represents a policy approach with good value for money.

For perennial shortage subjects such as physics, chemistry, maths and computing, raising bursaries over time with the level of the starting salary also makes sense. However, this also provides a ceiling on the bursary level, so other effective measures such as early career payments need to be at least maintained, and ideally expanded. Our modelling suggests that when a bursary is around £30,000, early career payments may also offer better value for money over the long term than increasing bursaries.

Indeed, bursaries need to be supported by a range of complementary actions that improve teacher retention, rather than relied on to do some efficient heavy lifting. Bursary spending increased during the 2010s at the same time as the competitiveness of teachers’ pay was falling, undermining the overall benefit and contributing to the current teacher supply challenges.

Likewise, ensuring that teachers’ workload is manageable and providing induction and mentoring support for early career teachers is likely to encourage more of those attracted into teaching to stay for the long term, perhaps reducing the future need for such high bursaries or early career payments.

Bursaries and other financial incentives are not a silver bullet to deep teacher supply challenges, but the challenges would be an awful lot greater without them.