For a while there was denial about the teacher recruitment crisis in the higher echelons of government, but now at least there seems to be acceptance. Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has publicly stated that the issue is her highest priority. But unfortunately her Cabinet colleague Home Secretary Theresa May could be shortly making the crisis a whole lot worse - by forcing an unknown number of teachers from overseas to leave the country, and blocking new ones from coming in.
The big change coming into force in early April this year is that most immigrants on a "Tier 2" visa from outside of the EU will need to be earning £35,000 or more to qualify for indefinite leave to remain in the UK. This is one of the upshots of decisions made by the Migration Advisory Committee prime minister David Cameron formed following last year's election to consider new measures to reduce migration to the UK from outside the European Economic Area. The aim is to reduce the total number that are granted permanent residence each year down from 60,000 to 20,000.
Now as any teacher will tell you, they aren't in it for the money. According to leading graduate careers service Prospects, the average primary school teacher's salary in England starts at £21,804, rising incrementally to £31,868 once they've spent around 10 years in service. Secondary school teachers can command a little more, but not by much. So this means that a very significant proportion of teachers working in the UK from overseas - who under previous rules qualified for a visa by earning over £20,800 - may soon be facing deportation. The government says that "some teachers" won't be affected - but exemptions only extend to maths, chemistry and physics teachers, and the current recruitment crisis now extends to most subjects.
A mass exodus won't happen overnight. Teachers earning less than £35,000 will be given up to six years to get their affairs in order before they leave the country. But how many will leave it until the last minute before they decide to move elsewhere? Indeed how many teachers will this affect? No-one, including the Home Office, seems to know.
It's hard, therefore, to disagree with the General Secretary of headteacher union NAHT, Russell Hobby, when he claimed last year, "Headteachers across the UK are struggling to recruit. Pupil numbers are on the rise and budgets are being cut all the time. In light of these challenges, it certainly seems counterproductive to force out valued personnel just to meet an unrealistic migration target."
It's not just that teachers will be forced out, however, it also means that the steady stream of teachers from overseas into UK classrooms will be reduced to a trickle, with the exception of young twenty-something teachers from Commonwealth countries who can teach in the UK on (non-extendable) two-year youth visas. This has historically played an important role in counterbalancing the brain drain of teachers abroad. The International School Consultancy believes that last year more teachers left the country to teach in English international schools than even qualified to become a teacher in the UK through the standard PGCE route.
Unfortunately the impact of the new visa restrictions on the recruitment crisis does not stop there. As the recent TES Global Recruitment Index showed, school leaders are increasingly turning to supply teachers to plug the shortfall of teachers in the classroom. But what have supply teachers been doing to try to boost their pool of candidates? Recruiting from overseas, of course.
As the Independent has reported, agencies are looking as far as the US, Canada and Singapore for candidates. And they have already been struggling to get Tier 2 visas for teachers. In it, Tish Seabourne, co-founder of the UK's first supply teaching agency Timeplan, rightly argued: "I just fail to see how in any way a special needs teacher from America is going to damage the UK economy if they come over here to teach."
Quite. But despite a petition that has now been signed by over 100,000 people, it looks almost certain that come April 6th such teachers will no longer be able to come to the UK. And others already here will be forced to slowly pack their suitcases and leave.
Sadly, the biggest losers in the teacher recruitment crisis are UK schoolchildren who are all-too-often deprived of a teacher who has the knowledge and training necessary to give them the schooling they deserve. Unless urgent action is taken - potentially through offering exemptions to all shortage subjects, not just STEM - forthcoming visa restrictions will inevitably mean that an ever greater number of children will suffer from this deprivation.