Recruitment: Starved of a vital resource

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary, National Education Union

The education secretary’s promise to make recruitment his top priority is beginning to ring hollow, says Dr Mary Bousted

The teacher shortage hit the news headlines in the last week of August, just as teachers and pupils were turning their minds to the term ahead with all its challenges and possibilities.

A report by think-tank, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) revealed the scale of the crisis in STEM subjects. The numbers of graduates choosing to train to become teachers are down five per cent across all subjects. Applications to train to teach physics are, alarmingly, 20 per cent down on last year.

But it is not just recruitment which is a massive problem because the numbers of STEM teachers leaving the profession is rising as the number choosing to train in these subjects is falling.

Astonishingly, 50 per cent of physics and maths teachers leave the profession within five years of starting – a fact which only confirms the findings of the recent Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report into teacher recruitment and retention, which revealed that the government spends a huge sum – £555 million – on teacher training, but only £36 million on government-provided CPD. But the scale of the problem is not just national, it is also regional, and it disproportionately affects schools serving disadvantaged pupil in-takes. As if poor children did not already have enough disadvantages in their short lives, they are also much more likely to be taught by teachers who don’t have relevant degrees.

Fewer than one in five physics teachers in the most disadvantaged schools outside London have a relevant degree. In maths, one in three have a relevant degree in disadvantaged schools, compared with around half of these teachers in more affluent areas.

And as the 10 per cent increase in pupil numbers since 2010 move from primary to secondary school, these shortages will only get worse, and affect poor pupils even more badly.

The EPI recommends that STEM teachers be paid more in order to boost recruitment into, and retention in, STEM subjects. This sounds like a good idea, but it won’t work.

Because a very recent analysis, also by the EPI, revealed that the shortage of teachers affects nearly all secondary subjects. And the core subjects of English and maths, with the greatest requirement for teachers as they are taken by all pupils, can be covered only by a vast army of unqualified teachers – one in five maths and English lessons are taught by teachers who are not qualified in these subjects.

No education system can exceed the quality of its teachers, but our schools are being starved of this vital resource. There can be no doubt that teacher shortages are now affecting standards of education.

Speaking recently to a head of maths in a large London comprehensive school, she revealed that six out of the 10 teachers in her department did not have a maths degree. She was exhausted, she confessed, with the strain and struggle of supporting them in the teaching of the new GCSEs.

Government ministers boast of the new GCSE and A level courses – of the rigour of the qualifications and the knowledge-rich curriculum.

Aside from other objections (which include the enormous pressure put on pupils by an unrelieved diet of terminal exams), standards must be compromised if teachers struggle, themselves, because they are not appropriately qualified in the subject they are required to teach.

All of which make education secretary Damian Hinds’ protestations of making teacher recruitment his top priority sound somewhat hollow. If the secretary of state really was serious about this issue, he would have implemented in full the STRB’s recommended pay rise of 3.5 per cent for all teachers and school leaders in order to recruit them into, and retain them within, the profession.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union.

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