Teacher recruitment – will Covid-19 solve the crisis?

One leading head thinks big, bold culture change is needed to improve teacher recruitment and retention long-term

When you read the phrase ‘teacher recruitment’ in a newspaper headline it is almost invariably next to the word ‘crisis’. That might, however, all be about to change. The Covid-19 pandemic – and its economic shockwaves – could spur many talented graduates to enrol on a teacher training course.

Conversations with university leaders suggest this boost is being felt across the country. June Hughes, registrar at the University of Derby, told our sister publication, University Business, that her teams have seen “record” levels of interest in its courses. Although it was too early to officially confirm statistics on the record, two other universities have confirmed that interest this spring has been at a level “not seen in years”.

By June, teacher training applications had risen by 7,000 compared with the same point last year, statistics from Ucas show. Latest figures from the admissions service show that between 15 June and 20 July there were 91% more applications to teacher training courses compared to the same period last year. It means that teacher training applications are now around 15% up on this time last year. These increases are not uniform across all subject areas; while maths saw a boost to its enrolment figures, physics figures have continued to drop.

Analysis of the current trends by The Education Policy Institute suggests that – so long as this growth continues throughout 2020/21 – it would result in an extra 11,000 applications, which would close the teacher recruitment gap entirely for the first time since 2012. Typically, around two-thirds (65%) of these applicants then go on to enter the profession, meaning the shortfall of 3,000 teachers would easily be met.

I know of far too many amazing teachers who have since fallen out of love with the day-to-day work of inspiring young learners to grow – Prep school headteacher

The status of key workers has undoubtedly increased during lockdown and the work of teachers throughout the crisis to keep schools open and classrooms online has brought them huge recognition. Combined with the hard economic climate, fewer job opportunities and stagnant wages, talented graduates could be drawn towards jobs that can offer them stability and progression. In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, more than 4,500 additional graduates entered the profession – a similar economic shock could well provoke a similar influx.

In the week the latest issue of IE went to press, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) confirmed the UK had slipped into recession for the first time in 11 years. Commenting on the ONS statistics, Boris Johnson warned the UK has a “long, long way to go” before the economy improves. The full scale of the Covid economic downturn has yet to become clear and it is possible the recession may yet prove to be a sharp, albeit short, one.

Teacher retention is an important part of the equation – thus policymakers cannot step back and assume the supply of teachers will sort itself. The government has announced some changes designed to deal with recruitment and retention, such as the new Early Career Framework (ECF), the extension of the one-year induction phase for newly qualified teachers (NQTs) and a commitment to increasing the starting salary for teachers to £30,000 by 2022, an increase of 23%.

The independent perspective

Of course, independent schools often have considerably better teacher retention than their counterparts in the maintained sector.

Following a story on IE about the impact more than 100 independent schools exiting the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS) may have on recruitment and retention, a headteacher from a prep school in north London with more than 20 years’ experience contacted the publication to say he thought teachers were motivated to join the profession – and independent schools, in particular – because they are drawn to the creative and personal opportunities.

“I wanted greater freedom with what I taught and how I delivered it. I wanted to be able to specialise and teach to my strengths. I wanted to know that I would continue to grow and learn from those around me and I wanted to work in an environment that valued me. From that 1996 cohort who joined the maintained sector, I know of far too many amazing teachers who have since fallen out of love with the day-to-day work of inspiring young learners to grow – and when I catch up with them they say that this has little to do with salary and pensions,” he explains.

The prep school he heads has around 140 teachers and offers generous timetables that allow teachers time to plan and assess, as well as to conduct research and to develop their curricula. With 15 properties in its portfolio, the school can also offer subsidised accommodation to young teachers who would struggle to live in London. The school is also exploring flexible options for renumeration, with the option for lower pension contributions, and provision for sabbaticals.

“We are looking at ‘lifestyle’ and trying to make sure that we as teachers live healthy ones, as we are the ones who will model this to a generation who are very likely to have even greater burdens placed on their mental and physical wellbeing. A team of staff were challenged by pupils to do a sky dive – it’s not something I’m likely to do again – and before that we were challenged to cycle to Paris: all great ways to demonstrate to young people that life holds all sorts of opportunities ahead inspired in the name of charity,” the prep head adds.

‘When we talk about retention, I think we ask the wrong question’

Ian Power, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), sits on the Independent Schools Teacher Induction Panel (ISTIP) board – the single largest statutory body for induction – and has a long involvement in the development of school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) programmes, which enable trainee teachers to gain a PGCE alongside working towards Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).

As part of the ISTIP board’s annual meetings with mandarins in Whitehall, Power recently met with policymakers from the Department for Education (DfE). Top of the agenda was the government’s decision to begin piloting changes to the induction period for newly qualified teachers (NQTs); from September 2021, the DfE wants induction periods doubled from one to two years for all incoming teaching staff. The decision was criticised by the NEU at the time because of fears the extra scrutiny might harm retention.

“That’s a huge change in induction,” Power explains, “because teachers are entitled to a 10% timetable reduction in year one and a 5% reduction in year two, so there will be implications for schools to do that. The early career framework (ECF) the DfE has produced, which is meant to be guidance rather than a specification for newly qualified teachers, is as yet unclear. I think we’re not sure what precise role it will have.”

ISTIP has developed a project “to see what our second year offering would look like”, Power continues. The DfE has made mentoring a key plank of its induction plans; it’s a change Power foresees few issues with, as mentoring is something HMC schools are already delivering for NQTs as standard. But there are other areas where the DfE plans appear to be less sure.

“Are they expecting a teacher to be at a higher standard at the end of the second year than they would have been in the first? – which seems entirely logical to us – and how that will then be incorporated into the new statutory guidance will be a key consideration for our schools,” he explains. Overall, Power thinks the changes to induction periods are “welcome”.

Shaun Fenton, head of Reigate Grammar School, agrees. “All good schools have long recognised that teachers need support beyond end of first year. Most independent schools have training programmes that extend into the second and third year of employment.”

Fenton thinks the crisis will require big, bold solutions. “When we talk about retention, I think we ask the wrong question. We shouldn’t stop teachers leaving. Most incoming teachers don’t want a career for 40 years; they want a portfolio career. They want to know they can leave teaching and come back in 15 years’ time. They want to know they will have good career prospects if they choose to leave. I’ve always felt when teachers are prepared to leave – they’ve had training and support – they’re the ones that stay longest, because they’re having a good time.”

The early career framework (ECF) the DfE has produced, which is meant to be guidance rather than a specification for newly qualified teachers, is as yet unclear – Ian Power, general secretary, HMC 

Fenton also thinks the current routes for teachers “don’t pay enough attention to career changers in their 30s and 40s”, who are forced to go through the same process as a recent graduate with little to no work experience. “We should also be allowing skilled professionals, with backgrounds in professions like law, medicine and media, to join at senior levels if they have experience of management,” Fenton adds. This would help put the teaching profession on a similar standing as other professions and encourage cross-fertilisation of ideas, strategies and perspectives, he explains.

There are now many SCITT programmes up and running across the country and Power says the latest figures from those schemes, which show the vast majority of SCITT teachers end up in the maintained sector, are “really positive” and demonstrate how the “experience expertise we have in independent schools can support the maintained sector”.

Power also notes that many of the professional development programmes in the independent sector have been run online, which means there is more scope than ever to share CPD resources with a much wider audience.

“I know it’s not going to be the solution to all the problems there are. There are just too many schools and too many vacancies for the independent sector to completely fix the problem. But do I think that as a format it could be extended? Could more schools be involved? Could a greater number of subjects be involved? I think the answer to all of those questions is yes.

“We need to understand that it’s not just what we have to offer. I visited a school in London, saw the challenges they had, but wow, I was very impressed with what they achieved with the children. I think it can be a very fulfilling, mutual relationship.”

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