Lessons to be learned in supply and retention of teachers

The UK isn't alone in struggling to meet the rising demand for teachers, but is it being ambitious enough? Professor Kate Reynolds thinks not

Earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee – Parliament’s de facto spending watchdog – took the Department for Education to task for not prioritising teacher retention and development. It amounted to a searing critique of the Government’s handling of the teaching shortage which has beset the profession in recent times. The Committee’s report catalogues a series of failures in political leadership and civil service administration, not least that the Government has been ‘sluggish’ and ‘incoherent’ in its response to the crisis.

For those of us at the frontline of training the next generation of teachers and developing those already working in the profession, one simple fact is evident: growing demand for school places, combined with a drive for schools to make efficiency savings, will only build pressure in the system to a crescendo. It’s an argument which has cut across the political spectrum and seen plenty of politicians break ranks to call for immediate action.

It’s easy to see why when we consider the scale of the challenge that lies before us. The Department for Education’s own forecasts predict that secondary school pupil numbers will increase by 540,000 (around 20 per cent) before 2025 and that pupil-teacher ratios will continue to rise, with areas of the country such as the Midlands and North of England likely to be worst hit. What’s more we’re now starting to see another disconcerting trend develop, with the number of teachers leaving the profession for non-retirement reasons steadily rising.

“We need to urgently rethink what it means to be a teacher in a global age and how can we support, recruit and retain the very best teachers.”

There are a range of initiatives in place designed to help ameliorate the problem to some degree. Most of these are what we would think of as ‘financial incentives’ aimed at encouraging teacher training recruitment, including bursaries and scholarships for trainees in certain subjects – for example, introducing early-career retention payments for maths teachers in their third and fifth year of teaching. And it’s worth sparing a thought for the short-lived initiative and pilots that never got off the ground – the National Teaching Service to place teachers in underperforming schools in areas that struggle to recruit teachers for example.

The question many of our educators are rightly asking is whether the litany of measures we’ve seen over the last five or six years amount to a coherent strategy? Are we being ambitious enough? We’re not the first nation to experience problems in meeting rising demand for teachers and we won’t be the last. Nor is teaching the first profession to have encountered staffing supply problems. So what lessons can we learn and why are we so resistant to changing tact?

History teaches us that when we have struggled to solve labour issues, we’ve typically sought to recruit from overseas. The influx of the post-war Caribbean population helped solve severe labour shortages in the UK, including in the Midlands where semi-skilled workers were needed to work in the furnaces and forges of the manufacturing industries which were expanding. Our health services have traditionally benefited from globally mobile labour as well. It’s a trend which still persists and only last year a scheme operated by the Greater Manchester devolution team and Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Foundation Trust, backed by Health Education England (HEE) – the Department of Health body in charge of education and training – brought 30 doctors across from India to plug gaps. And who can forget the familiar refrain of the financial services sector in the UK, which has expressed concern about whether Brexit may inhibit our ability to attract talent from overseas.

Against this backdrop it’s strange that we’ve seen few pronounced calls for greater mobility in teaching labour. However, our politicians will be mindful of shouting too loudly as they won’t want our teachers to leave the domestic market for what may prove to be potentially more attractive or better paid positions overseas. The tacit admission here being that we aren’t doing our utmost to create a thriving profession in England, perhaps borne out by the talent bleed we are seeing from non-retiree teachers leaving the profession in relatively high numbers.

“Growing demand for school places, combined with a drive for schools to make efficiency savings, will only build pressure in the system to a crescendo.”

The wider obstacle of course is that we still do not have a universal standard in teaching. The skills you may learn and the qualifications you get in this country are not readily accepted overseas and vice versa. The result, however, is that we not only lack the ability to be nimble and ease our present teaching crisis with targeted recruitment, but perhaps more importantly do not benefit from an influx of new ideas and learnings from other markets. Our practices evolve or course, but not at the pace they could. Our teachers are denied the ability to thrive and develop from comparing notes and experiences with their global counterparts.

Therefore, another huge challenge we face is how we create an international workforce of teachers that can meet the increasing demand for teachers across the globe (the United Nations itself estimated in 2016 that we would need an additional 69 million teachers to meet the 2030 goal) whilst recognising that at present, many countries are facing significant challenges in attracting people to become teachers in their own countries, let alone becoming a teacher who can teach across the globe. This suggests we need to urgently rethink what it means to be a teacher in a global age and how can we support, recruit and retain the very best teachers.

At Bath Spa University’s Institute for Education, we are looking at ways we can develop programmes for teachers and other education professionals which encompass the global world in which we live. Our developing international Master of Education (M.Ed.) is an attempt to equip practising teachers with an international and global perspective which would enable them to teach in countries other than England. Rather than losing them after two or three years in the profession in England, the M.Ed. would allow them to reflect on their own practice and participate in an international placement which would bring a global context to their classroom practice. Whilst accepting that what might work in England will not necessarily work in another country, the programme plays to plans to raise critical issues around the difference that teaching and teachers can make in the global 21st Century.

Our challenge is therefore two-fold. Not only do we need to address the very real issues we have with the supply of teaching labour, but we also need to address the equally real barriers to greater globalisation of teaching ideas and innovation, which includes accepting that we are not the only ones facing this dilemma.

Professor Kate Reynolds is Executive Dean of the Institute for Education (IfE) at Bath Spa University.