The publication last week of the latest recruitment figures for the teaching profession did not, on the fact of it, look very good at all. By mid-December 12,820 people had applied for postgraduate routes into teaching starting this autumn. This compares with 19,330 people at the same stage in 2016 and 20,330 in 2015. That is a 33 per cent decrease from 2016 to 2017. Perhaps one of the few things that can be said in mitigation is that this isn’t much of a surprise: the targets set by the Department for Education for teacher recruitment have been missed for the past five years.
The cry of “crisis!” has gone up from the teaching unions, who have for some time claimed that retention, the other side of the teacher numbers coin, has been affected by the government’s funding arrangements for schooling, which have been accompanied by pay restraint for teachers as for all public sector workers since 2010. However, the government has found enough money since the election to ensure that all schools will have access to additional case in the upcoming years and research conducted by the National Foundation for Education Research cast doubt on the idea that teachers were, in any case, leaving through lack of cash: on average, departing teachers were taking a salary 10% lower than the one they had in the classroom.
So, pay is not having an impact on retention, and given teaching is relatively well-paid on entry and has generous increment increases in the first few years to nearly £40,000 without having to take on any additional management responsibility, it seems unlikely it is the issue for recruitment either.
However, it would be churlish to suggest that nothing is wrong with teacher recruitment – but what if it wasn’t the incentives for coming into the profession that were wrong, but the process by which those interested in the profession were handled that was causing the issue? The government runs a website entitled “Get Into Teaching” on which those interested in a life in the classroom can register an interest—although hard numbers are hard to come by, it is estimated that the number of sign ups on there far exceed the numbers who actually make it to the application phase. If that is so, something surely ought to be being done about it. How many teachers are registering for the Teacher Skills Test and how many are actually sitting them? If they fail them, how many are resitting? Does the civil service know, and if it does, what is it doing about it, and if it doesn’t, why not?
Once they’ve got to the point of applying, there also needs to be some note of wastage between then and actually starting a course. The government recently announced that there would no longer be any cap on the number of trainees which initial teacher trainers could take, yet there are still plenty of people being turned down – why? Were they unqualified academically? If so, given they clearly have a desire to teach, what could be done to develop them? Or perhaps their character was thought unsuitable? Given the enormous bias amongst teachers for a certain progressive mind-set, the government should be assuring itself that it is not losing potential teachers to a distaste for the traditional.
It is easy to blame the government for causing recruitment and retention issues for not acceding to the perennial demands of the teacher unions for more money and less accountability. However, both cost effectiveness and high standards are and should be an essential feature of our education system, and should not be traded away – especially not if the real cause of these declining recruitment numbers is not the nature of the job itself, but insufficient care in helping people through the process.