Updated: Jan 17
A combination of a lack of staff and Covid isolation-related absences have put schools in an awkward position as the new term starts
The number of teacher training applications suggests the problem will continue without radical action
It is uncertain whether recruiting former teachers to plug gaps will be sufficient even as a temporary measure
While schools are unlikely to be forced to shut again due to lockdown restrictions, rising Covid infection rates during December have meant that numerous schools across the U.K. have been forced to revert back to online teaching due to high numbers of isolating and unwell staff. At the beginning of December, over half of 1,000 school leaders surveyed said they had insufficient staff to run all lessons normally, with this number increasing during the middle weeks of December – as shown by a 20% rise in staff absences in that two-week period.
This has raised the question of how to plug the gap and keep children in classrooms once they return in January.
What Is Being Done?
The primary policy being pursued by the Department of Education is to try and entice former teachers back into classrooms by helping sign-up to supply agencies, as well as releasing ‘eligible’ civil servants (those who are not directly involved with the pandemic response) for supply teaching.
Let us take both initiatives individually.
Is It Enough?
There is one key point that applies to both policies: ensuring all safeguarding requirements are met by those joining the teaching workforce. The DBS has given assurances that they are prepared for the rise in applications that these policies will entail, with the government saying that any check requests made before Christmas Eve should have left sufficient time for all pre-employment processes to be completed before the beginning of term. While digitisation of many checks should lead to heavily reduced turnaround times for these checks, it remains to be seen if the DBS was able to cope with the demand. First impressions, however, are not good, with supply agencies stating on December 23RD that they had a backlog of 3,000 staff awaiting clearance from the DBS before this latest recruitment drive was announced.
Let us now look at the drive to recruit former teachers:
The main critique that has been levelled at the efforts to bring former teachers back into the supply system is uncertainty as to the number who will agree to return.
Whatever the number ends up being, however, it is unlikely to compensate for the missed targets for secondary teacher training recruitment that the government set for itself this year (only 69% of the target number of Computing teacher trainees were met, with the number as low as 22% for Physics). It is little wonder, therefore, that trade union NASUWT’s General Secretary Dr. Patrick Roach, stated that this measure ‘…does not address the immediate and acute staffing pressures being faced by schools’.
There is also the issue of supply agencies that has long gone unaddressed.
The cost of hiring from a supply agency is extortionate, with schools often reluctant to do so unless absolutely necessary. It is not yet clear what impact the inevitable increase in demand for supply teachers will have on cost, and whether utilising this help will be financially viable for schools. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that former teachers will be familiar with the current GCSE and A Level specifications (especially after radical changes to GCSEs in 2017-2018).
The pledge by the Department of Education to release ‘eligible’ civil servants is also not without its problems:
It is, as of yet, uncertain as to what ‘eligible’ means in this context.
It would be a substantial risk to recruit civil servants who have no prior teaching experience and throwing them into the proverbial deep end by making them take important classes from the start.
It is also unknown how many civil servants would be available under this policy, and how many of them would agree to it.
The central tenet of these concerns is sheer numbers – it is unlikely that the number of former teachers who sign up to supply agencies will be enough to fill the gap left by Covid absences and shortages that existed before this. However, even if it does plug the gap successfully, it will be only a temporary reprieve for schools.
June 2021 saw Initial Teacher Training (ITT) applications fall below pre-pandemic levels for the first time since lockdown measures were imposed, after a ‘boom’ in applications during 2020. This has led to concerns that the open labour market that did not exist in 2020 is taking people away from teaching, and even potentially leading to more issues with teacher retention in the coming months.
While a post-pandemic dip in training applications is not overly surprising, the speed at which they dipped below pre-pandemic levels is. The teacher training process is also different now to how it was back in 2019 – bursaries for training in many subjects has been withdrawn, meaning the vast numbers of people seeking a career change are excluded or put off from entering education before they can even start.
With a very open job market and people more inclined than ever to change career, there is a great potential to recruit teachers. Advertising campaigns emphasising the impacts teachers can have on children’s lives have not been enough to see a great uptake in applications. This is because teaching is not the only sector out there that has the potential to impact lives in such a positive way. Teaching must be made easily accessible and worthwhile in the long term for new recruits, both financially and personal fulfilment. It is only when these issues are addressed will the teaching staff shortages be addressed in a way that will go some way to resolving the issue, rather than providing short-term fixes.
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