Workforce data indicates little prospect of staff shortages improving any time soon

Luke Bocock, Research Director at NFER, and Dawson McLean, Economist at NFER.

Monday 18 September 2023

This blog was first published in FE Week on 15 September.

Recent employer surveys suggest we are seeing unprecedented levels of skills shortages, threatening England’s prospects for economic growth. T levels have been specially designed to address these national skills shortages. Additionally, earlier this year Rishi Sunak set a mission for all young people to study maths to age 18, citing the link between basic numeracy skills and individuals’ future earnings.

The success of these and other initiatives to reduce skills shortages in the economy are all reliant on the FE sector, particularly the skill and capacity of the FE teaching workforce. Funding for the FE sector from government has failed to reflect this.

In 2019/20, per-pupil funding for FE colleges was eight per cent lower in real terms compared with 2013/14, making it difficult for colleges to allocate money for higher staff pay. This trend has been partially reversed recently, but it remains to be seen how much of the 18 per cent fall in real-terms pay for FE teachers since 2010/11 will be reinstated.

Deteriorating pay is likely to be contributing to increasingly severe staffing shortages. Data from the Association of Colleges shows that the average college has 30 unfilled teaching vacancies, while DfE data shows that over the past decade the rate of FE teachers leaving the profession has been significantly higher than for primary and secondary school teachers. This situation has been getting worse, with over half of FE teachers who entered the profession in 2014/15 leaving the sector within five years.

New FE workforce data published last week provides another glimpse into the potential links between FE funding, teacher recruitment and retention and pay. Three patterns in the data suggest that, in the absence of concerted policy action, FE staff shortages are unlikely to improve in the coming years.

Long-term decline in real earnings continues

DfE’s new workforce statistics coupled with existing estimates of FE teacher pay based on pension records show that the real-terms earnings of teachers working in general FE colleges fell between 2019/20 and 2021/22, continuing a decade-long trend of below-inflation pay rises for teaching staff. This is likely to be linked to the high number of unfilled teacher vacancies in FE colleges.

Vacancies greatest in the highest-earning subject areas

Last week’s FE workforce statistics also revealed that the highest rates of unfilled teacher vacancies were in construction, planning and the built environment, electronics, agriculture and horticulture, design, engineering and manufacturing, and accounting and finance.

Evidence suggests that pay gaps between FE teaching and industry occupations are largest in the construction, engineering and digital industries. However, further research is needed to better understand the relative size of pay gaps between FE teaching and industry and how these impact recruitment and retention.

Differential levels of pay

FE teachers in the subjects with the highest rates of unfilled vacancies are paid more than average, potentially reflecting the challenges providers experience competing with industry pay.

The data shows that, generally, FE teachers in subjects with the highest number of vacancies tend to be paid more than the typical teacher in a general FE college. Unlike in state-sector schools, FE colleges set pay scales for teaching staff themselves, so this may reflect FE colleges offering a pay premium to recruit in shortage subjects.

Staff shortages have immediate and direct impacts on students, as colleges struggle to recruit teachers with the appropriate level of technical and teaching skills. Staff shortages may also impact on the government’s ability to continue to roll out T levels and implement ‘maths to 18’ – policies which could benefit disadvantaged students the most if successfully implemented.

Patterns in the data do not suggest that the necessary foundation for success of these policies – a sufficiently strong FE teaching workforce – is firmly in place.

Further research is needed on the role of pay in FE teacher recruitment and retention. NFER has been commissioned by the Gatsby Foundation to explore this area in detail and we look forward to publishing our findings and contributing further insights early next year.