Teacher recruitment and retention crisis facing the incoming Secretary of State means significant decisions to make from day one

Monday 10 June 2024

This blog was first published in Tes on Friday 7 June 2024

It is said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. We are four weeks from polling day, and the political campaigning is gathering pace, with political parties setting out their poetic visions, including Labour’s pithy pledge to ‘recruit 6,500 teachers’.

But there is a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention facing whoever is the next Secretary of State for Education when they take office. The transition from poetry to prose will need to be swift to avert the negative consequences the growing crisis could have for the quality of education.

The new data on teacher retention underlines a key challenge. More than 40,000 teachers left the state sector in 2023, which is 9.6 per cent of the teaching workforce and slightly higher than the year before the pandemic. Unfilled vacancies and temporarily-filled posts are the highest since 2010 when comparable records began. Sustained under-recruitment in key subjects has also fed through into the proportion of lessons being taught by specialists falling in 2023: in maths from 87 to 85 per cent, science from 95 to 94 per cent and English from 92 to 91 per cent.

However, overall teacher numbers rose very slightly and fewer teachers left in 2023 than in the previous year. Survey data had suggested that more teachers were considering leaving, which may have simply reflected disgruntlement with pay and conditions during industrial action. Economic factors may have trumped that frustration – teachers who leave for other jobs tend to earn less after they do so, which may have been particularly unappealing with the cost of living rapidly rising. The number of working-age teachers leaving did rise slightly in 2023, but was offset by fewer teachers retiring.

Recruitment is the other side of the teacher supply coin and is in a woeful state. NFER’s latest forecast for recruitment into initial teacher training (ITT) highlights continued poor recruitment numbers. We forecast that just 23,000 are likely to enter postgraduate ITT in September, which is lower than both the 29,000 recruited in the year before the pandemic and far below the combined target of more than 33,000.

Eleven out of 17 secondary subjects are highly likely to be below target, including business, physics, music, computing, design and technology and languages recruiting less than half of the required numbers. Primary postgraduate recruitment, which is usually at or above target, is on course to be around 15 per cent below target.

Immediate decisions

The new Secretary of State will have a bulging in-tray, with the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) recommendations on teachers’ pay for 2024 requiring a key decision that cannot be delayed to September. Simply accepting the STRB recommendations may be an easy decision, but if they represent more than the 1-2 per cent increase that the Government thought affordable, then additional funding for schools will be needed.

The pay of experienced teachers is 12 per cent lower in real terms than it was in 2010. Crucially it has lost competitiveness compared to wages outside teaching, as average earnings in the wider economy are three per cent higher than they were in 2010. Reversing that trend by accelerating teacher pay growth ahead of average earnings growth could contribute to a way out of this crisis, but is an expensive route.

Strategy time

Next up, the prose writing will need to begin in earnest. A post-pandemic refresh to the 2019 teacher recruitment and retention strategy is long overdue. The Conservative Government started one, providing a starting point for the incoming Secretary of State.

The strategy will need to address growing teacher workload. The final recommendations of the workload reduction taskforce will also be on the Secretary of State’s desk. If the officeholder is new, they may want to further consider a workload reduction strategy which goes beyond Gillian Keegan’s original parameters. For example, Labour has pledged to reform Ofsted to avoid it ‘adding to the recruitment and retention crisis’, which could improve retention as two-thirds of teachers considering leaving cite ‘pressure relating to pupil outcomes or inspection’ as a reason.

The strategy will also need to consider how policy offers on flexible working, professional development, school leader support and school accountability can be formulated and delivered to improve recruitment and retention. A key weakness of the 2019 strategy was that it did not set out a strategic approach to pay and financial incentives, so this would be a beneficial addition.

Spending priorities

The strategy will be needed to inform the requirements in the government’s spending review for the next three years.

Despite constraints on the public finances and there being more and less costly ways of improving teacher recruitment and retention, there is no getting round the fact that solving the teacher supply crisis will require investment.

Crucially, the Government will need to find the funding for schools to implement pay rises without making cuts elsewhere. Labour has ambitions for improving the professional development offer for teachers. However, ensuring there is high-quality provision available and that schools have the capacity to release teachers to engage with it, without increasing their overall workload, would both also require additional funding.

Improving the resources available for specialist services that support schools (special needs, mental health, safeguarding) could also support with tackling teacher workload. Teachers tell us that pupil behaviour is the number one priority area for workload reduction, and support from external services are a key enabler.

In short, the Secretary of State that takes office on July 5th will take on a major teacher recruitment and retention crisis and will need to turn from poetry to prose on day one.