Issue 131 - 2024 Summer term
Economist Dawson McLean says the latest research shows there’s been little improvement to the critical state of teacher supply and there’s now a crucial need to drastically improve the attractiveness of the teaching profession.

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Dawson McLean
Economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)
The National Foundation for Educational Research’s (NFER’s) Teacher Labour Market in England Annual Report 2024 shows little improvement to the critical state of teacher supply.

The alarming state of teacher supply in England is part of a long-term trend that has significantly worsened since the pandemic. Data from the DfE shows that in 2023/24, the number of secondary initial teacher training (ITT) recruits reached only half its target. Our analysis shows that this year’s recruitment is also likely to fall well short of its target for both primary and secondary, despite increased generosity in training bursaries and higher international recruitment.

Alongside persistently sluggish recruitment, the rate of teachers leaving the profession has returned to 2019 levels after a welcome lull during the pandemic. It is unlikely that leaving rates will fall again soon, as ever higher numbers of teachers say they intend to leave teaching.

Teacher shortages are hardly a new phenomenon. However, the scale of the challenge has significantly worsened in recent years. This is indicative of a weakening attractiveness of teaching compared to other potential jobs, driven by a long-term deterioration in pay and working conditions.

Long-term pay deterioration
Data shows that in real terms, teacher pay has followed a downward trend for more than a decade. This is despite last year’s pay award that provided teachers with the highest pay rise in decades, but only partially reversed the pay deterioration teachers have experienced since the pandemic.

For instance, an experienced teacher at the top of the upper pay scale would have been earning about 12% less in real terms in September 2023 than in September 2010. Starting salaries have fared better but have still fallen over time in real terms – a newly qualified teacher starting in September 2023 would be earning about 3% less than in 2010.

Teaching has also become less financially competitive compared to other jobs, as pay growth in teaching has been strongly outstripped by pay growth in the wider economy. This has led to the gap in earnings growth widening significantly at the same time as the cost-of-living crisis took hold. Research suggests this has led some teachers to leave for better-paying jobs outside of teaching.

Echoes of the pandemic
High workload also drives teachers’ decisions to leave the profession. During term-time, teachers work more hours than graduates with similar characteristics working in other jobs, though these extra hours worked during the school year tend to be offset by the extra time off during the summer months. However, most teachers report that they are dissatisfied with their workload, while teachers’ working hours have increased significantly since the pandemic.

A likely contributor to longer working hours is worsening pupil behaviour. The pandemic has had a negative impact on pupil wellbeing and behaviour that has, in turn, been driving higher teacher workload. Surveys show that addressing pupil behaviour is teachers’ top priority for workload reduction.

The pandemic has also ushered in an era of remote/hybrid working that is popular among graduates. Nearly half of graduates work primarily from home, and research suggests remote/hybrid working is likely to remain popular, particularly among those with children and with long commutes.

The nature of the job prevents teachers, and other frontline public sector workers, from enjoying the benefits of such arrangements. Therefore, those seeking additional flexibility in their work may look to move outside of teaching into jobs that provide ready access to flexible working arrangements.

Teacher shortages are not inevitable
Adequate teacher recruitment and retention depends in large part on how competitive teaching is compared to other jobs. Teaching is in many ways inherently attractive – it is stable, involves working with young people and provides an above-average salary and long holidays. Our analysis shows that a long-term deterioration in pay and working conditions, coupled with the after-effects of the pandemic, has led to a shift in this balance away from teaching, but this can be reversed.

School and college leaders have a key role to play in supporting recruitment and retention, particularly in crafting their school’s or college’s approach to teacher workload and flexible working. Evidence shows that most schools are working to improve teacher workload and provide better access to flexible working. These efforts should be sustained and expanded – evidence shows that even small changes to schools’ flexible working policies can have big impacts on teachers’ wellbeing and productivity.

Government also plays a crucial role in supporting teacher recruitment and retention. Our analysis suggests that policymakers should be developing a long-term strategy to improve the competitiveness of teacher pay compared to other occupations. This should include compensating teachers for any new competitive threats that emerge and are challenging for the profession to match, such as the sustained popularity of remote working.

Broader government policy can also influence school culture and teachers’ working environment. Research shows that accountability measures have an impact on school culture and teacher workload. However, our analysis also shows that since the pandemic, pupil behaviour has emerged as another key factor. Therefore, systematically reducing teacher workload across the sector will require a strong, holistic policy focus.

Improving teacher supply is not an insurmountable challenge – the data provides clear indications of a path forward. However, following this path will require concerted action across the education sector to restore and maintain the attractiveness of the teaching profession.

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