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Let's Innovate Our Way Out of the UK's Teacher Shortage

19/07/2016 12:52

While she is only days in post, it is highly likely that newly appointed Education Secretary Justine Greening will already have had conversations with officials about one of the most pressing issues facing the UK schools sector at present: the teacher shortage.

While it is true that there are currently more teachers teaching in UK classrooms than ever before, the problem is that increasing numbers of pupils coming through the system mean more and more teachers are required. In some regions, and certain shortage subjects in particular, this problem is becoming particularly acute.

However, there is an air of negativity around this issue that it's important to avoid. It's often been called a "perfect storm". This natural analogy is frustrating, however, because it implies that all you can do is batten down the hatches.

According to a recent report by PwC, the current crisis is fuelling the rise of recruitment agencies, which are taking at least £117 million from schools every year, despite reportedly producing much lower quality candidates than those sourced from teaching websites or publications.

The primary response to date by government has been the announcement of the resurrection of a national teacher jobs platform. The previous incarnation, however, the Schools Recruitment Service was an expensive failure. Fundamentally, the problem isn't that teachers don't know where to go to look for a job - rather that there are very few teachers looking for a job at the moment.

There are, however, constructive solutions currently being devised to tackle the shortage.

One such solution is called Try Teaching. The aim is to give graduates the opportunity to undertake a paid internship for a term at a school to see if teaching is for them before committing to undertaking Initial Teacher Training (ITT), which can be a very big and very expensive leap in the dark for graduates.

The initiative has been founded by Dr. Nicholas Breakwell, who has extensive experience in teacher training, being responsible for setting up HCUK, the UK's first online teacher training college, which recently rebranded as TES Institute. Prior to that, he worked on establishing Ireland's largest ITT provider.

He was inspired to set up Try Teaching because, as he puts it, "in September each year, 25-30,000 people start ITT courses, but five years on fewer than 50% are still in the profession". It is, he says, "an incredible waste of resources, for graduates, schools, universities and government alike".

Try Teaching aims to remove all barriers to entry and, significantly, at zero cost to graduates, already burdened with considerable student debt. Indeed they are paid at least minimum wage on the scheme. Just a few months in 1,500 graduates have already signed up to Try Teaching and schools aren't just looking to take on one intern, but between 3-5. Breakwell says this shows that there is "still a genuine interest in teaching from graduates."

Breakwell's vision is for the Try Teaching approach to become a mainstream route into the profession. While it's early days, given the level of demand he's seeing already, it seems he could have hit on a winning formula.

Another innovative initiative making waves at the moment is one looking at bringing some of the vast numbers of qualified teachers not currently teaching back into the profession. Herts for Learning, a non-profit established to serve schools in Hertfordshire, has been tackling this issue head on and last week won the prestigious Education Business "School Recruitment" award.

Herts for Learning became acutely aware of the teacher shortage before it began to hit the headlines, and began working with its schools to find new ways of attracting talent into the classroom. They undertook a range of activities, including promoting teaching careers at local schools. As Managing Director of Herts for Learning, Jan Paine, says, "too often schools give advice to pupils about every career except teaching".

Herts for Learning's flagship recruitment initiative was the launch of a recruitment fair where former teachers from around the country could come and have a face-to-face interaction with schools from across Hertfordshire to find out which opportunity might best suit them.

Launched in 2015, and growing bigger and better this year, the intricately organised event attracted over 500 attendees, with 166 Hertfordshire schools represented on the day. It was an overwhelming success - 88% of schools followed up with contacts they made.

"It's not like we've solved the whole problem," Paine says, "but this has certainly helped".

Initiatives such as this not only help the situation in Hertfordshire, but help shine a light on the kind of creative thinking needed to address the teacher shortage.

Let's drop the doom-mongering around the recruitment crisis and embrace fresh thinking, such as that embodied by Try Teaching and Teach in Herts. These are exactly the kind of initiatives needed to ensure the teacher recruitment "storm" passes sooner rather than later.

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