We have been hearing for years that there is a teacher recruitment crisis, and that the number of high-level applicants has been steadily dropping over the past decade. In December 2014, The Telegraph reported that ‘the number of new teachers has dropped by 16% over the last five years, with 8,000 fewer trainees in secondary schools alone’. Of course, this was combined with an increase in pupil numbers, adding up to a worrying ratio.
The news on the crisis has not let up in the four years since this article was published, and needless to say there have been many, many more publications like it. But most coverage refers to state schools and the issues they are dealing with due to cuts in funding and soaring pupil numbers. Conspicuously missing from these numerous reports is the effect that a lack of teachers is having on the independent sector. Is it at all affected? Have independent schools managed to side-step the crisis due to fewer budget worries and long-standing reputations as enjoyable and rewarding places to work?
Tim Wilbur, Director of School Consultancy at Gabbitas Education, asserts that this is not the case. “The independent sector is not immune from the current recruitment and shortage debate,” he commented. “However, there are a variety of levels of impact over what is a very diverse sector. In principal, the sector remains a very attractive package despite the large levels of commitment often asked.”
Indeed, this attractive package is something which often sets independent schools apart. For example, in contrast to the issues reported by The Telegraph regarding student numbers, the 2016/2017 ISC report found that ‘as pupil numbers in independent schools have increased, so have teacher numbers’. Tim also referred to the ISC report findings and commented that, “Teachers enjoy teaching at independent schools because of the freedom to develop their own curriculum, there is generally less government interference, pupils are motivated and well-disciplined, parents are supportive and there are excellent resources and facilities.”
The draw of the freedom and benefits of an independent school still need to overcome the problems of recruitment, however. This is still a problem for the independent sector, commented Mark Roberts, Headteacher at Myddelton College near Denbigh in Wales. “Having worked in both sectors in the last three years it is no easier in the independent sector. Certain subjects remain relatively easy to fill – such as PE – but maths, English and physics in particular are difficult to fill.”
It is the retention of teachers, said Mark, which is less of a problem for independent schools, and this is indeed largely down to the freedoms that come with teaching outside of the state. “Staff in the independent sector can focus more on teaching and learning and are more empowered to make their own decisions [than those in the state sector]. I think this has a positive effect on retention in independent schools,” he said.
So why aren’t we hearing as much about the recruitment issues plaguing the independent sector in the UK? Possibly because there is no need to separate the problems in independent schools from those in state schools, especially when it comes to media representation. “I think the drivers spoken about nationally in the state sector are also true for the independent sector,” added Mark. “For example, when the profession is spoken of in a negative way by certain high-profile politicians it affects recruitment and retention. Also a lot of press coverage is (quite rightly) given to the number of teachers leaving the profession but this in itself feeds into a negative narrative.”
There is work that is done on the part of independent schools to make teachers aware of their benefits, though. As Tim commented, “Schools make clear their expectations from the beginning and the terms and conditions tend to suit those who wish to make their career in the sector.” Although it can be tricky to get high-quality recruits through the doors in the first place, once they are in, making them aware of the ways in which working for an independent school can meet and even exceed expectations is an essential part of the hiring process.
These perks do come with extra responsibilities, however, and it is important to make these clear from the outset, says Mark. “Despite the increased holidays the demands during the working week are even higher [in independent schools] with many staff expected to perform boarding duties, etc after an already extended day,” he commented. But if they’re keen, and are happy to put in the extra hours, Mark is confident that it all pays off, “Obviously my staff and I think the benefits far outweigh any negatives, but I need to get applicants through the door to persuade them that the sacrifice is worth it!”
Offering up a clear picture of what the school requires of its staff, and what a teacher should expect to receive in return is paramount here. Retraining and CPD are high on the list of priorities for schools, and although finding candidates seems to be a wider institutional issue – consisting of many factors – spirits remain high, and the belief that enthusiastic teachers will gain more than they lose from these positions is solid.
The independent sector, then, is not immune from recruitment issues, but it does seem to have the upper hand when it comes to retention, thanks to attractive salaries, locations, and curricular freedom. There is not quite enough room for school leaders to get complacent, however. High-quality teachers are still harder to find these days than perhaps 15 years ago, and they are not the only ones competing for the most attractive positions; schools are similarly fighting it out for top candidates. This is, after all, a two-way street, and as Tim at Gabbitas said, “It’s probably what lies beyond the terms and conditions that makes the real difference.”