Five Reasons For the UK's Worst-Ever Teacher Shortage

26/02/2016 17:43 | Updated 26 February 2016

Earlier in the month, the National Audit Office (NAO) confirmed that the teacher recruitment crisis in the UK is as bad as government, schools and parents alike had long feared. It has been four years since the Department for Education's recruitment targets were last met, and the recorded rate of vacancies and temporarily filled positions that exist in schools has doubled between 2011 and 2014.

The extensive 54-page report gives a fantastically detailed deep dive into the full extent of the recruitment crisis, with charts outlining how much the government's recruitment targets were missed per subject - shockingly, only 41 per cent of Design and Technology places were filled this year, for example. However, for all the infographics showing that 42,050 teachers left the workforce last year, the NAO's report is disappointingly lacking when it comes to the reasons why this is taking place - and why fewer people are joining the profession.

Understanding the root causes behind the teacher shortage is essential to be able to answer the question about what needs to be done to tackle this issue, which Education Minister Nicky Morgan has now claimed is top of her priorities list. Much dramatic language has been used to characterise the current crisis - it has regularly been called a 'perfect storm', a 'nightmare scenario' and a 'toxic mix'. There's certainly some truth in these descriptions. But let's leave aside the hyperbole for a moment, and consider five key reasons for the shortage.

1) Numbers of pupils are increasing

The government's stock response when responding to questions about the teacher shortage, rolled out time and time and time again, is that there are more teachers in the profession than ever before. This is indeed factually correct, the number of teachers rose by 1.3 per cent last year, from 506,000 to 512,000. However it fails to take into account that there are also many more pupils going through the system than ever before.

Over the course of the current decade and into the early 2020s, the school population is likely to increase by between 800-900,000 pupils as a result of the rise in the birth rate in recent years. School rolls have already been on the increase in the primary sector for some time, and this surge in pupil numbers is shortly going to hit secondary schools - which will see a rise of 20 per cent between now and 2024 - where the teacher recruitment crisis is most pronounced.

So, yes, there are technically more teachers, but if class sizes are to remain at their legal limit of 30 - a cap that there are already increasing exceptions to - then many thousands more will be needed to ensure there is sufficient capacity.

2) Graduates are finding jobs elsewhere

Perhaps counter-intuitively, recessions can be good for the teaching profession. Seen to be a safe haven by bright young graduates at a time when there are few private-sector jobs, in 2008/9 moving into teaching was so desirable, many training courses were massively oversubscribed and candidates had to outdo each other to get places. Perhaps it is understandable, then, that a recent U.S. study has found that teachers hired in a recession tend to get better results.

Now the economy has started to recover, however, the jobs market is becoming more and more favourable and graduate starting salaries have been moving upwards as a result. The annual survey of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) is reporting a 13.2 per cent year-on-year increase in vacancies being offered by graduate recruiters and a £1,000 increase in the average graduate starting salary to £28,000.

Teaching has simply not followed this trend, with starting salaries for a secondary school teacher over £5,000 lower at £22,244 - just beginning to increase after a three-year freeze. And this is only once Newly Qualified Teacher (NQT) status is obtained. Just to get to this point means graduates being saddled with more debt to be able to cover the costs of training, which are only generously subsidised for a small number of subjects.

If graduates can easily get better-paid jobs elsewhere without having to go through the rigmarole of training, then is it really a surprise that fewer are entering the profession?

3) Routes into teaching have fundamentally changed

During his tenure as Education Secretary, Michael Gove undertook some of the most radical reforms the education sector has seen in over a generation. A key area of reform was teacher training, which was fundamentally overhauled. Gove waged war on the traditional Higher Education teacher-training institutions - what he saw to be the homeland of the "Marxist Blob" hell-bent on destroying schools and who representing the "Enemies of Promise" - and re-structured funding and recruitment targets to favour the School Direct route. Long established university teacher-training courses, such as those run by the Open University, Anglia Ruskin and Bath closed as running them no longer proved financially viable.

The upshot of the rise of School Direct is that increased pressure has been put on schools to hire and train young graduates. Many, understandably, proved ill-equipped to do so and struggled to cope with this additional responsibility alongside the crucial task of running a successful school, and were unused to the process of recruiting graduates rather than trained teachers. As a result, time and again the School Direct quotas have been missed.

Regardless of whether you agree with the rationale behind Gove's reforms, teacher-training is currently in transition and the right model has not yet been found - this is bound to have a serious knock-on effect on the recruitment and retention of trainees.

4) The burden on teachers is greater than ever before

Over the past five years, 1,100 schools have become sponsored academies, with the government recently pledging to convert 1,000 more. Run more like businesses, with greater targets and budgetary responsibility, these are notoriously disliked by teachers due to the additional pressure to perform.

Survey after survey shows that teachers are working longer hours, burdened by ever-increasing admin and curriculum changes. They are increasingly fearful for their jobs - they are now much easier to fire - and of the next time a snap Ofsted inspection is announced. The teaching assistants brought into the classroom to lend assistance are now facing significant reductions in numbers as budgets are tightened. Even teachers' much-valued holidays are being threatened.

It's all-too-easy for embattled teachers to begin to forget the reasons that inspired them to join the profession in the first place. Nicky Morgan has launched the Workload Challenge in response to teacher feedback, but many teachers are voting with their feet and moving to private and international schools in unprecedented numbers where pay and conditions are better - or, indeed, leaving the profession entirely.

And, inevitably, the more the teacher recruitment crisis bites, the greater the workload of remaining teachers will become, as teachers have to sacrifice precious preparation time to cover classes.

5) Education budgets are seeing real-terms cuts for the first time in decades

In a recent large-scale survey of secondary school heads undertaken by BESA, 72 per cent said that they were pessimistic about their budgets next year, the highest for years. And for good reason - last November's Comprehensive Spending Review announced, among other things, a £600 million cut in schools' Education Services Grant and a six per cent real-terms cut. Next month's budget is likely to be the worst for education in decades.

The impact of this on the recruitment crisis is massive. Schools are facing the very real risk of bankruptcy, and are having to make wide-ranging efficiency savings. This means fewer support assistants, tighter budgets for essential resources and considerably less for ICT, and less money to spend on furniture at a time when research is demonstrating its importance on attainment. This also means less money to spend on the recruitment of the best teachers and their professional development - both of which are fundamental to resolving the recruitment crisis.

Given all this - coupled with forthcoming visa restrictions shutting out overseas teachers - it's hard not to conclude that a "perfect storm" is indeed brewing. But where the analogy falls flat is that the teacher recruitment crisis is not something we can just weather by battening down the hatches until it improves. It is something that needs decisive action soon. Failure to do so will mean, first and foremost, failing to give the unprecedented number of pupils about to enter into UK secondary schools the education they deserve.