Crisis Point

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Autumn Term 1 2022

Findings from an ASCL survey show widespread recruitment and retention difficulties in schools and colleges, with the situation exacerbated by Covid. Director Richard Bettsworth shares the details.

If you’ve been struggling to fill staff vacancies in your school or college and worrying how you’re going to cover the gaps, you’re, sadly, far from being alone. 

An ASCL survey in June showed very widespread difficulties in recruiting teachers and support staff, and most respondents also reported problems in retaining teachers. The headline findings of the survey of 766 state-sector school and college headteachers and principals were:

  • 95% have been experiencing difficulty in recruiting teachers, with 43% saying it is ‘severe’.

  • 72% of these are using supply staff to cover for vacancies; 69% are using non-subject specialists to teach classes; and 31% said pupils were having to be taught in larger classes.

  • Physics was the most cited subject where recruitment was difficult, followed by maths, design and technology, chemistry and computing.

  • Nearly two-thirds (65%) have been experiencing difficulty with teacher retention. The most common reasons were workload and pay.

  • 92% also reported difficulties in recruiting support staff – leaving many schools and colleges with serious challenges across their workforces. 

You can read the full report here But it’s worth reflecting on some of the points that emerged from the survey. 

One of the most interesting – and disconcerting – came among the reasons given for difficulties with teacher retention. The most common reasons were workload (235 mentions) and pay (226 mentions) – neither of which is a surprise given the impact of funding constraints on staffing levels and a decade of governmentimposed pay erosion. However, several respondents also mentioned their sense that teachers were reassessing their work–life balance following the Covid pandemic. 

One respondent said: “I think there are many reasons why teachers are leaving – some linked to workload/stress/pay – but Covid has also given many a push to follow their dreams. Quite a few said they were applying to ‘be nearer home’ or ‘closer to their family’ as part of their reasons for wishing to leave.” 

Another said: “Post pandemic, staff have been reassessing lifestyle and we are losing staff from the profession. Other professions that offer greater flexibility in home/office working are now just as attractive as teaching with the holidays. Workload issues are often cited despite workload not increasing since before the pandemic but there is a perception shift in how people want to work, coupled with challenging behaviours from students and families that have been exacerbated by the impact of the pandemic.” 

And from another: “They can earn as much working in business, often remotely from home, as they can at school. The lack of flexibility of being a teacher, coupled with the relatively poor salaries is causing unprecedented numbers to leave our school.”  

New expectations 
The question this raises is whether we are seeing a societal change in working patterns that puts further pressure on teacher supply. Perhaps the experience of the pandemic – and the fact that many workers in many sectors have enjoyed the flexibility of remote working (or at least a hybrid between home and workplace) – has created a new expectation. 

In truth, this was always likely to happen at some point because of the availability of technology that makes remote working possible. But the pandemic – and the crash course it necessitated in the use of Zoom/Teams and so on – has arguably accelerated that process. 

All of which makes recruitment and retention potentially all the more difficult in professions that are anchored to the workplace. That doesn’t apply to education only, of course, but also to other vital public services such as the NHS and the police, not to mention the commercial sector, and the shops, bars and restaurants on which the economy and communities depend. 

An attractive proposition 
What’s the solution? There’s not a lot that can be done about the dynamics of a system where staff have to be in the workplace because that’s where the students are. Flexible working practices may help, but there’s probably a finite limit to what is possible. 

What it emphasises, however, is the importance of making a career in education as attractive as possible. Pay is clearly one part of that picture, and it is surely simply untenable for any government to continue to impose below-inflation awards and pay freezes year after year in this context. 

But of equal importance is that the level of funding for schools and colleges must be sufficient to afford the cost of pay awards, and other inflationary pressures. Without sufficient funding, staffing is bound to be tight and this impacts on workload, which in turn impacts on retention as well as the perception of the profession as an attractive career choice. 

It isn’t just about money though. Another key driver of stress and anxiety is, of course, a high-stakes accountability system in which schools and colleges live and die by the next Ofsted inspection or set of performance results. 

And then there is the issue of further professionalising the profession, through a professional development thread that runs throughout the career of a teacher, giving them time out of class to refresh and update their practice (although this is, of course, aligned to funding because of the need to have enough staff to allow this to happen). 

Improved pay, funding, professional development and a less onerous accountability system would help to make teaching more attractive as a career choice and improve retention – and at a time when society appears to be changing to different working patterns is arguably more important than ever. 

It is, at least, a starting point for the sort of joined-up strategy that the sector needs the government to engage in. 

What is for sure is that all the targets and policies that governments are so keen on announcing are meaningless if there aren’t enough teachers to put in front of classes and staff to run our schools and colleges. The workforce is the non-negotiable resource on which the system is absolutely reliant. It really should be a political priority to address teacher shortages, which have gone on for far too long and show no sign of abating. 

Richard Bettsworth
ASCL Director of Public Affairs

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