Several industries in the U.K. have been in the news recently for the wrong reason – staff shortages and the stretching of services to near breaking point. While HGV drivers and care have, understandably and not incorrectly, received attention for this, the problem is also taking hold in schools.
Though this issue is being discussed regarding other industries, it is not being addressed in the most constructive of ways. Analysing whether the pandemic or Brexit should be the primary source of blame for the shortages we are experiencing may be good for short-term political point-scoring, but it did not help those queuing for petrol only a few weeks ago, and it is not helping schoolchildren being sent home because there are not enough teachers to take their classes.
While short-term, emergency measures have to, and will, be taken to address the issue, this is an opportunity to look at issues within teacher recruitment that have been causing issues for years – otherwise we will simply limp along for another few years until the next crisis arises and the same issues come to the fore once again.
While it is therefore obvious a solution is needed, coming up with a solution is difficult. What is clear is that at a time where people are changing career paths at a rate we have not seen before, teaching must be made appealing. At the moment, people potentially going into the industry know that there has not been a pay rise for years, and that unless they intend to become an English, Maths, or Computing teacher, they will not receive a bursary for their training.
The Extent of the Problem
What is abundantly clear is that the shortage in school staff has been brewing for the last few years. According to an article by Forbes earlier this year, one in six NQTs quit after just one year in the profession, while only 75% of those who qualify are still in teaching after three years. An even more concerning statistic comes from the National Education Survey of this year, which indicated that one in three teachers plan to quit and change industry soon).
From this, we can tell there is a major issue in keeping teaching staff in the profession once they join. It is also clear that there are major discrepancies in the level of shortages wherever you are in the country. Compared to 83% in the East of England, only 61% of teachers in the North West who qualified in 2020 were working in state schools within 16 months. There has also been a shift in where the demand for teachers lies, with a pupil boom being experienced in secondary schools, while a declining birth rate over recent years has slightly reduced demand on primary schools.
It is also worth noting that it is not just in teaching where schools are struggling to meet resource demands, with a shortage of nurses reportedly hindering the COVID booster vaccine rollout. With shortages in these vital areas, it is not surprising that the recent shortage of petrol led to threats of potential school closures.
What The Issues Are
Confronted with this information, let us look at the current solutions being offered of making visa applications easier and fast-tracking training. Let’s discuss these policies individually.
Making the visa application process more straightforward to encourage teachers to come in from abroad, on the surface, seems like a good idea, with the most recent ONS figures revealing that around 12% of school staff in the U.K. were born overseas. It is important to consider where they teach, however, and this is where the problem with this policy lies. According to the same ONS report, the proportion of foreign-born teachers in London is 31%, while it is only 4% in the North East – one of the worst regions statistically in the U.K. for teacher retention and for NQTs trying to find a role. and does not account for having to hire more people to conduct the training.
Fast-tracking training also seems like a good idea, but is fraught with logistical and financial issues when one digs a little deeper beneath the surface. In July this year, the government announced plans to make major changes to the teacher process, with institutions providing teacher training having to reaccredit themselves in the name of strengthening standards. As honourable as the intention is, meeting the proposed new standards would be financially unviable for many institutions, with early-stage research by the all-parliamentary group for the teaching profession suggesting that up to 10,000 teacher training places may cease to exist due to institutions no longer accepting applications.
Fast-tracking training can only have an impact if there are enough institutions and resources to provide it.
There are also substantial financial barriers to entry that this proposal does not address; unless they intend to become an English, Maths, or Computing teacher, they will no longer receive a bursary for their training.
There is also the issue of workload and working conditions. At the moment, those potentially going into the industry know that there has not been a pay rise for years, with an 8% real-terms fall in pay across all pay scales between 2007 and 2014, and pay freezes for all for the last three years. This has occurred while workloads have remained high – the latest Teacher Workload Survey (2019) revealed that average, self-reported working hours for all teachers and middle leaders was 49.5 hours, considerably higher than the U.K. full-time worker average of 36.1 hours. It is also worth noting that while school staff receive more holiday time than the average U.K. employee, they are unpaid, and the 2019 Workload Survey showed that teachers work an average of 12.8 hours a week during out-of-school hours (this includes weekends, evenings, and holidays).
These long-standing and politically difficult issues are the real cause of the current school staff shortage, with Brexit and the pandemic only serving to exacerbate them. The simple answer to this is more funding – remove financial barriers preventing people from training to be a teacher and invest in support to keep teachers in the industry once they are there, particularly in the hardest hit areas in the North of England. There is no bottomless pit of money from which to do this, but we must seriously ask ourselves the question of how we can treat the public sector better, particularly after the 18 months they have just navigated. Inequalities and infrastructure problems have come to prevalence over the past 18 months – putting money in the right places (both industrially and geographically) is the only way that it can be resolved. By anyone’s estimates, education should play a vital role in this. Treating those who help it run well is therefore key.
Staff shortages have been an issue long before the pandemic and Brexit, although the two have exacerbated the issue in certain ways. They did not cause it, however. Years of pay freezes, lack of resources and funding when it comes to training new staff, and heavy workloads are putting people off entering the industry and staying in the profession once they’re in it. This makes the government’s current plan to address the issue look like nothing more than a sticking plaster over a gaping wound.
The answer, simply, is investment and worker welfare. Remove financial and administrative barriers to entry, from training to the hiring process, and make teaching a more appealing profession to enter for the significant number currently looking for a career change. Investment in education pays off – this is the time to invest and put a lot of wrongs right.
About Talent Clouds
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Cover image courtesy of Vectorjuice