What do teacher shortages look like, and what do they mean for pupils’ learning?

By Jack Worth, Lead Economist at NFER

Wednesday 23 November 2022

This article was first published in TES on Tuesday 22 November 2022.

After a slight easing to teacher recruitment and retention challenges during the pandemic, teacher supply is yet again a major issue for schools in England. Recruitment of trainees into postgraduate initial teacher training was worse in 2022 than before the pandemic, while the number of vacancies schools posted in 2022 was higher than before the pandemic.

But what are the implications for schools and pupils when large numbers of teachers leave and recruiting teachers is challenging? When we talk of ‘teacher shortages’, what do we mean?

Today NFER has published new research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, that provides insights into the implications of recruitment challenges schools face for pupils’ education and learning. The report is based on responses to two senior leader surveys we conducted in 2020 and 2021 that asked about their experiences of recruiting teachers and what strategies they use to mitigate the impact when recruitment is challenging.

These strategies may become more prevalent if the current teacher recruitment and retention challenges grow further in the coming years.

School leaders reported that insufficient quantity and quality of available applicants for teacher vacancies was a key recruitment challenge

The survey shows that many schools are facing recruitment challenges, particularly secondary schools, where recruitment of trainees to teacher training programmes has been below the target numbers required for many years.

School leaders were asked to rate the extent they were ‘unable to assemble a field of quality applicants’ (1 being ‘not at all’ and 8 being ‘to a great extent’). On average, secondary school leaders said 5 and primary school leaders 3.8.

Another significant recruitment challenge that both primary and secondary schools reported being faced with is budget pressures. In the autumn 2020 survey, only 13 per cent of primary school leaders and 27 per cent of secondary school leaders reported that they could have afforded to recruit another teacher, regardless of whether they wanted to do so or not. The figures were only marginally higher in 2021 at 17 per cent and 32 per cent respectively.

School leaders take actions to mitigate teacher shortages, but some actions are likely to have detrimental implications for pupils’ education and learning

In practice, ‘staff shortages’ rarely means classrooms without teachers in them. Faced with a low-quality field of applicants, senior leaders can either hire a teacher that applies but that may be less than ideal, or not hire at all and mitigate the impact of the resulting shortage.

Schools that reported finding teacher recruitment the most difficult were considerably more likely than other schools to report recruiting teachers with less experience than ideal, and more likely to employ unqualified teachers than they normally would. Recruiting inexperienced or unqualified teachers may have negative implications for teaching quality.

However, not hiring a teacher also has potential negative consequences for the school and pupils. A key mitigation strategy used in secondary schools when teacher recruitment is difficult is deploying non-specialist teachers to teach certain subjects. Deploying non-specialists to teach a subject is likely to have negative implications for the quality of the pupils’ learning in the classroom.

Among three key shortage subjects we explored, many schools reported non-specialists teaching maths (45 per cent reporting at least ‘some’ lessons) and physics (39 per cent) and modern foreign languages (MFL) (17 per cent).

Deploying non-specialist teachers was far more prevalent in schools that reported finding teacher recruitment the most difficult, compared to other schools. In schools that reported finding teacher recruitment the most difficult, 62 per cent reported at least ‘some’ maths lessons being taught by non-specialists, 55 per cent for physics and 26 per cent for MFL.

The schools that reported finding teacher recruitment more difficult were more likely to use non-specialist teachers

Schools that reported finding teacher recruitment the most difficult were also considerably more likely than other schools to have school leaders doing more teaching than usual. This may reduce the school’s leadership capacity and, in turn, limit the schools’ ability to function well operationally and make improvements to teaching.

Under-recruitment of trainees to initial teacher training is associated with schools finding recruitment for teachers of those subjects more challenging

Our analysis of which subjects schools find it most difficult to recruit for when filling vacancies aligns strongly with the extent to which initial teacher training (ITT) targets have been met.

The subjects that did not meet their ITT recruitment targets were reported by school leaders as being more difficult to recruit for

Whether the ITT recruitment targets are met has material implications for how challenging schools find it to hire teachers the following year. There is not a substantial, ready supply of potential or returning teachers waiting to fill the gaps left by insufficient recruitment of new trainees to teacher training courses.

The worsening post-pandemic teacher recruitment and retention situation suggests that secondary schools are likely to struggle with filling vacancies in the coming years unless urgent action is taken. The Government needs to place a renewed focus on improving teacher recruitment and retention to reduce teacher shortages and their impacts on schools.

This research points to substantial negative implications of the currently growing recruitment and retention challenges in England for pupils’ education and learning. Insufficient numbers of teacher trainees in some subjects have real implications for schools, and school leaders’ actions to mitigate the resulting shortages cannot fully insulate pupils from the effects.

These negative implications may be acting as a drag on system-wide improvement of pupil outcomes and are likely to have a negative impact on longer-term skill development and supply, particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, and ultimately on long-term economic growth.