Dropping off a cliff: What’s really behind the fall in trainee teacher recruitment?
Graduates are giving teaching the swerve in increasing numbers. The Department for Education (DfE) has announced that recruitment for Initial Teacher Training (ITT) courses at secondary level is down 41 per cent. Primary is 7 per cent under target (see Walker, 2022a). And this is no blip but a decade-long trend with chronic shortages in some subjects. We argue that this is not circumstantial, but that recent policy initiatives are the real driver. To put this into reverse, the government must think again about 1) the early career framework; 2) the ITT market review; 3) finances; and 4) school working conditions.
1. The early career framework
At an anticipated cost of £130 million, the early career framework (DfE, 2019a) was launched as part of the government’s ‘teacher recruitment and retention strategy’ (DfE, 2019b) to attract and retain early career teachers (ECTs). A government-funded two-year induction package has seen ECTs and mentors endure homogenised, de-contextualised training, with reports that much content is often a repeat of pre-service training (see Uttley, 2021).
‘If the DfE is serious about recruiting and supporting ECTs, better investment in contextually based professional learning is required along with opportunities to recognise and build on prior learning, rather than simply offering a repeat of pre-service training programmes and relying on online, prescriptive and generic training materials.’
Indications are that this investment is unsurprisingly not reaping expected rewards. By the end of the first term, the National Association of Head Teachers union reported serious concerns about its impact on ECTs’ workload, concluding that it could exacerbate rather than improve early career retention rates because it would drive people out of teaching (NAHT, 2021). If the DfE is serious about recruiting and supporting ECTs, better investment in contextually based professional learning is required along with opportunities to recognise and build on prior learning, rather than simply offering a repeat of pre-service training programmes and relying on online, prescriptive and generic training materials.
2. The ITT market review
Mid-pandemic, something troubled Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman. The number of good or outstanding ITT providers was, she decided transparently, ‘uncomfortably high’. Meanwhile, Schools Minister Nick Gibb, quite reasonably, wanted ‘war’ with ‘progressives’. Cue an unprecedented ITT ‘market review’ (DfE, 2022). Eighteen months on, 68 providers are no longer DfE-accredited (EPI, 2022), while detailed 500-words-max appeals have met a considered blanket ‘no’ (Walker, 2022b). Saved from places like the University of Durham, young talent can stake their futures on Ambition Institute or a National Institute of Teaching – uninspected, unproven, yet ‘strong’. The University of Cumbria’s 532 places will doubtless easily be absorbed by a ‘hub’ in Egremont, now the sole accredited provider in an entire county euphemistically dubbed a ‘cold spot’ (Whittaker, 2022). Change creates uncertainty. Snubbed providers must be helped to re-accreditation. Or we face yet further, preventable, falls.
Recent years have seen an increasingly difficult financial situation for trainee teachers. While bursaries remain available for those training to teach particular subjects, these are unpredictable and inequitable, with some subjects valued higher than others: for 2023/24, bursaries for Physics, Maths, Computing and Chemistry stand at £27,000; English at £15,000; other subjects, such as Art and Design, at £0. The constant shifting of bursary amounts (and sometimes sudden withdrawal altogether) makes it difficult for candidates from less financially secure backgrounds to commit to a year of further study – particularly as further financial trouble awaits after. Teaching is often seen as a comfortably paid job (see for example Harding, 2018), but salaries have failed to rise with inflation and starting salaries (£28,000 outside of London in 2022/23) no longer reflect the role. A greater financial commitment is needed if teaching is to be seen as a viable career. A step in the right direction would be to stabilise bursaries for a period of, say, three years to avoid sudden losses or gains and enable potential applicants to forward-plan.
4. Teacher working conditions
Imagine you’ve somehow managed to navigate all of the above. But what does the future hold after that? How does teaching stack up against the other options once you’ve qualified? Students and graduates have more ways than ever to connect with each other. Many are hearing from their slightly older peers troubling teacher stories of the endless ‘pressure, bureaucracy, and accountability’, in schools, much of it done ‘for show’ (Skerritt, 2021). Some multi-academy trusts, in certain circumstances, are offering curricula which are increasingly homogenised in the name of cost-effectiveness but also ‘micro-political’ control (Innes, 2021). This at a time when employers in other sectors value creativity and critical thinking, and can combine that with roles that offer greater flexibility and true collaboration. A culture change is needed to our rigid, high-stakes system to make it an appealing place to be.
The cliff edge?
The sector – for now – contains the expertise it needs to offer localised, contextualised teacher education, drawing in creative individuals who wish to become critically reflective professionals. Division and uncertainty, however, will squander this. Privatisation, centralisation and standardisation will give us poorly paid, stressed-out technicians delivering ‘teacher-proof’ scripts. Young people are already rejecting this. We must call for an urgent change in direction.
Department for Education [DfE]. (2019a). Early career framework. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/early-career-framework
Department for Education [DfE]. (2019b). Teacher recruitment and retention strategy. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teacher-recruitment-and-retention-strategy
Department for Education [DfE]. (2022). Initial teacher training (ITT) market review: Overview. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/initial-teacher-training-itt-market-review/initial-teacher-training-itt-market-review-overview
Education Policy Institute [EPI]. (2022). The reaccreditation of ITT providers: Implications for STEM subjects. https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/the-reaccreditation-of-itt-providers-implications-for-stem-subjects/
Harding, E. (2018, June 23). The average pay for teachers, who said they were underpaid, hits £38,400 which is far more than the UK average salary of £28,600. Daily Mail. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5841485/The-average-pay-teachers-said-underpaid-hits-38-400.html
Innes, M. (2021). The micro-politics of policy enactment in a multi-academy trust, School Leadership & Management, 41(4-5), 334–351. https://doi.org/10.1080/13632434.2021.2002839
National Association of Head Teachers [NAHT]. (2021). How has the early career framework (ECF) landed in schools? https://www.naht.org.uk/Portals/0/PDF’s/NAHT%20ECF%20Survey%20FINAL%20Pub.pdf?ver=2021-12-16-201611-260
Skerritt, C. (2021). Pressure, bureaucracy, accountability, and all for show: Irish perspectives on life inside England’s schools. British Journal of Educational Studies, 69(6), 693–713. https://doi.org/10.1080/00071005.2020.1839014
Uttley, S. (2021). Early career framework: School leaders’ early experiences of the new model. Koinonia Group. https://irp.cdn-website.com/b23792b5/files/uploaded/Koinonia%20Research%20paper%202-21%20Early%20Career%20Teachers%20-%20school%20leaders%27%20early%20experiences.pdf
Walker, A. (2022a, December 1). DfE misses secondary teacher recruitment target by over 40%. Schools Week. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/dfe-misses-secondary-teacher-recruitment-target-by-over-40/
Walker, A. (2022b, December 8). ITT review: DfE rejects all accreditation appeals. Schools Week. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/itt-review-dfe-rejects-all-accreditation-appeals/
Whittaker, F. (2022, August 30). DfE hopes snubbed teacher trainers will help plug ‘cold spots’. Schools Week. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/dfe-hopes-snubbed-teacher-trainers-will-help-plug-cold-spots/