There has been no shortage of worthy advice of late, from the great and the good to the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) and Department for Education (DfE), on the subject of teacher supply, recruitment, training and retention. This year alone the National Audit Office (February) and the Public Accounts Committee (June) have issued reports on training new teachers and the Education Select Committee inquiry into teacher supply rumbles along attempting to unearth whether there is a crisis, a challenge, or just a chronic shortage in some subjects; and if so why, and what is to be done?
Professor John Howson, an expert on teacher supply, going to the nub of the semantic debate in his written evidence to the Select Committee, said that ‘there are no current descriptors for how to measure either a challenge or a crisis in recruitment’, and that in any case it was more helpful to consider the matter at a more granular level, citing overall numbers, geographic location and quality of teacher supply. In any event, the debate about where the responsibility for this lies is likely to get much more heated: Schools Week reported that in making judgements about schools under the new Ofsted framework ‘one of the key questions inspectors might ask headteachers is about teacher supply’.
Meanwhile, according to the State of Education Survey 2016 from The Key, over the past year 35 percent of primary schools have faced a shortage of teachers and nearly 60 percent of primary heads reported finding teacher recruitment and retention challenging. In the secondary sector the respective figures are 49 percent and 76 percent. All in all, this makes grim reading.
Within these figures there are, of course, marked regional differences, both in the supply of teachers and distribution of training places. Worryingly, the National Audit Office found that DfE had ‘a weak understanding of the extent of local teacher supply shortages and whether they were being resolved locally’. Attempting to reassure, DfE officials explained that they sharpened their understanding of recruitment ‘by talking to the schools involved in School Direct’, the new(ish) school-led teacher training route which ‘allows school leaders to react much more effectively to local circumstances’.
The Public Accounts Committee was not slow to see the flaw in this strategy, given that the 57 percent of schools not involved in School Direct were ‘disproportionately primary schools in rural areas and secondary schools in disadvantaged areas’, which were the very schools ‘that struggled to recruit good teachers’. Add to the mix the well-aired difficulties experienced in London and the southeast, where The Key reported that 56 percent and 50 percent of all schools, respectively, were facing staffing difficulties. Particularly worrying in this survey was that primary heads reported that, of the top three reasons for teachers resigning, equal first by a good margin with ‘job offer elsewhere’ was ‘unable to cope with the workload’.
The National Audit Office report also concluded that ‘retention may be becoming an increasing problem’ based on numbers leaving the profession between 2011 and 2014, which rose by 11 percent overall (to around 42,000 annually) and was matched exactly by the increase in the proportion leaving for ‘reasons other than retirement’.
So, given that over 50 percent of the around 45,000 teachers currently entering or re-entering the profession every year are newly qualified, how is the government’s teacher supply model bearing up? Not well, it would seem. A number of factors, including sustained economic growth bringing with it a competitive labour market, mean that DfE has missed its 2015/16 targets in 14 out of 17 secondary subjects, and the cumulative effect of having missed overall targets for every one if the last four years has begun to bite. This is far from reassuring, since according to the DfE school workforce data released in June 2016 primary pupil numbers have been rising steadily since 2010, and between 2015 and 2024 primary/nursery pupil numbers are projected to increase by eight percent and secondary pupil numbers by 20 percent.
Meanwhile, during the past four years NCTL has presided over the most radical reform of routes into teaching and made annual changes in the allocation strategy and the applications process. From the point of view of marketing and recruitment, the overall effect, claims the Public Accounts Committee, has left potential applicants to the five main training routes bewildered and ill-informed about the availability, quality and cost of training locally. This conclusion is supported by the recent NCTL report The customer journey to initial teacher training .
So how is the teacher education sector dealing with the crises and challenges it faces?
The first challenge is the recruitment and ongoing retention of high quality entrants to the profession. In 2015-16, school-led routes together accounted for 50 percent of all (primary and secondary) training allocations and 55 percent of primary (post graduate) places (30 percent of primary trainees still follow the undergraduate route).
Yet evidence presented to the National Audit Office indicated that the increasing proportion of places allocated to school-led routes might be accentuating the teacher supply problem. In 2015/16, for example, university-led routes filled 85 percent of their overall training allocations while school-led routes filled less than 60 percent. Following on from this, NCTL’s recent report Linking ITT and workforce data has attempted to unpick the variations across routes in drop-out during training, before entering the profession and after three years of teaching. When the datasets are more established and robust this line of analysis will make interesting reading, but currently the clearest message is of regional variation in percentages entering the profession (lowest in northwest, northeast and southwest), which links back to the point made above about the regional variations in training places.
The second challenge is managing the repercussions of the inexorable, and recently exponential, move to school-led training. As our forthcoming CPRT research report on initial teacher education will show, the political drivers for establishing ITE partnerships, and through that for increasing schools’ involvement in the management of training, can be traced back well over 25 years. What is new is the sheer scale and speed of the transition. School-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) was introduced in 1993. By 2011-12, nearly 20 years later, there were just 56 SCITT consortia. By 2015 there were 155. The school direct route, in which (groups of) schools recruit trainee teachers directly and pay a university to train them, was established in 2012/13 and now 43 percent of all state schools in England are involved.
Shifting the power dynamic in roles and responsibilities in order to strengthen the ITE partnership model, already considered effective by Ofsted, can only be for the good, and the best managed school-led partnerships are undoubtedly excellent. However, the pace of expansion has jeopardised quality assurance of the sector overall, and left university education departments with little time to adapt. It has also raised some serious questions:
- Are individual trainees fully aware of the differences between routes? Do they know, for example, that QTS (Qualified Teacher Status), although it certificates them to teach in England, is not accepted internationally, or even in Scotland? The split between academic (PGCE) and professional (QTS) qualifications was introduced nearly 20 years ago but the stand-alone QTS qualification is becoming increasingly popular as a cheaper, less demanding option, particularly for school-led routes, than the (generally) master’s level PGCE with QTS. We believe that a QTS-only model of training, based on a ‘what works here’ craft apprenticeship approach, privileges performativity and local practical knowledge over critical reflection and theoretical, pedagogical and subject knowledge. This is currently a moot point, for over half of England’s schools – the academies and free schools – are not required to employ trained teachers.
- Does time spent in school (in excess of the two-thirds of training already school–based) inevitably and unproblematically lead to better and more relevant professional learning? The main focus of many schools is about acquiring ‘local’ curriculum knowledge and pedagogical skills and in some cases may lead to a ‘branded professionalism’ which we believe is less effective in preparing teachers for a lifelong career in which they are adaptable to future changes and other contexts. Additionally, staffing levels and restricted non-contact time limit many individual primary schools’ capability to support extended learning within a critical community in which, at times isolated, trainees can reflect on practice.
- Will the changes prove mission-critical to the university-led training sector? The effects of training numbers and funding being reduced and unpredictable from year to year have already included loss of strategic capacity, increased casualisation of staffing, and the vulnerability of programmes and, ultimately, of university education departments. This, together with the attendant impact on the education infrastructure, including the loss of research, specialist expertise and published evidence, may be extremely damaging for education as a whole in the long term. Training allocations in 2016-17 may be critical in deciding the future of some university providers. Current plans, yet to be fully revealed, to establish a number of university ‘centres of excellence’ with greater security of training numbers, may be little compensation for the loss of local, long established training partnerships, knowledge and expertise built up over decades. The National Teaching Service, when launched, is also unlikely to be able to compensate for the shortfall of teachers, and the fall-back position of a workforce largely QTS-only qualified, or unqualified, is yet another way in which England is out of step with the rest of Europe.
Olwen McNamara and Rebecca Phillips are at the University of Manchester; Jean Murray is at the University of East London. With Rosemary Webb and Mark Brundrett, Olwen produced a research report on primary teacher education, training and development for the Cambridge Primary Review, which was published in 2008 and revised for The Cambridge Primary Review Research Surveys in 2010. The present authors’ CPRT follow-up report will be published in autumn 2016.