REBECCA MORRIS, DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION STUDIES, UNIVERSITY OF WARWICK, UK
BENG HUAT SEE AND STEPHEN GORARD, SCHOOL OF EDUCATION, DURHAM UNIVERSITY, UK

There is widespread concern about the shortage of schoolteachers in England. In some regions and some subject areas or phases, finding and retaining appropriately qualified teaching staff is a major challenge for school leaders (Ovenden-Hope and Passy, 2020). Ensuring that we have enough teachers within the system continues to be a pressing issue for schools, policymakers and, perhaps, the life opportunities of young people (DfE, 2019b; Sorenson and Ladd, 2020).

While recent analyses have highlighted promising increases in the number of applications and offers for initial teacher training as a result of the COVID-19 crisis (Worth and McLean, 2020), it is impossible to know the longer-term effect of these new entrants to the profession and their impact on teacher shortages across the country. A suite of government initiatives designed to improve teacher recruitment and retention have also been introduced in recent years. These include approaches to understanding and reducing teacher workload (see DfE, 2018) and the Early Career Framework (ECF), which is designed to provide a two-year funded package of training and support for newly qualified teachers (DfE, 2019a), with a view to increasing their retention.

In this article, we outline some findings from a large ongoing ESRC-funded study of teacher shortage in England. We consider their implications for policy and practice, and make the case that further research is needed in some key areas relating to recruitment and retention.

Who wants to teach and why?

In 2018–2019, we conducted a large nationwide survey involving over 4,400 undergraduate students, studying at 53 universities across England. Our intention was to find out about their career interests and motivations, and – more specifically – their views on teaching as a career. Unlike the majority of studies in this field, which only engage with participants who have already begun training as teachers or who are teachers (see Heinz, 2015), our survey targeted all undergraduates, including those who had never considered teaching as a career. This provides a much broader and more accurate overview of undergraduates’ career interests and the factors that might influence them to consider teaching (or not) than is usually portrayed.

The survey provided some important and sometimes surprising insights (see Gorard et al., 2020 for full discussion and data tables). Nearly 60 per cent of our participants had considered a career in teaching, and 20 per cent were intending to become a teacher. Across our whole sample, job satisfaction, pay, job security and career prospects were the most influential factors reported as affecting career choices. For those already applying or intending to teach, however, extrinsic factors such as salary, career status and progression were less important; instead, they were reporting more intrinsic drivers such as wanting to give back to society and sharing knowledge of their subject. This is in line with earlier literature that has only surveyed teachers (Heinz, 2015). Crucially, though, when we look to the group who considered but rejected the idea of teaching, extrinsic motivators such as pay and career status/opportunities were more important. This information would have been lost if we had not engaged with these participants, who form an important group if we are interested in attracting more people into the profession.

Our survey work also highlighted some interesting differences in the background characteristics of those considering or intending to teach compared to those who were not. The analyses revealed that prospective teachers were more likely to have lower tariff points on entry to university and were more likely to enter university with a vocational qualification (e.g. a BTEC). They were also less likely to be from families with professional backgrounds and more likely to expect second class degrees (2:1 or 2:2) rather than firsts at the end of their studies. Again, awareness of these potential differences is important for developing policy and targeting resources towards those who could be attracted to the profession.

Getting selected to train

Once students have made the decision to teach, they are required to select an ITT (initial teacher training) route and apply. The DfE have recently acknowledged the ‘cumbersome systems’ (DfE, 2019b, p. 32) involved with this early stage of the teacher pipeline and have sought to streamline and simplify the ITT application and recruitment process. Our time-series analyses of government and official statistics, however, suggest that looking closely at the selection phase may be helpful for addressing recruitment to teaching (See and Gorard, 2019).

Recent UCAS data, for example, shows that around 35 per cent of applicants to ITT did not receive an offer to train last year, and just 22 per cent of physics and maths applications received placement offers (UCAS, 2020). These figures potentially represent a considerable waste of prospective teachers at a time of national shortage. That is not to suggest that all applicants should or could be offered training opportunities; providers must ensure that applicants have the basic requirements to join ITT courses, and they are also committed to developing high-quality teachers. They may also face constraints in the numbers that they can accommodate due to staffing or other resource issues.

Nevertheless, these relatively high rejection rates do raise questions, prompting us to ask why those applicants with appropriate prior qualifications are not selected. As highlighted in other in-depth research (Davies et al., 2016), bias is likely to be a factor, with ITT providers being influenced by their own beliefs about teaching and teachers, and perhaps tending towards over-confidence in their professional judgement. Some selection practices may also favour certain applicants over others, while having limited association with the knowledge or skills needed to be a teacher. Research exploring new methods of selection, such as situational judgement tests and ‘realistic job previews’ (Klassen et al., 2020), argues that such approaches may offer more transparency and honesty for applicants in relation to the job role, in turn better preparing them for the realities of the teaching itself. While we do not yet know the extent to which these approaches might provide effective alternatives to traditional selection methods, rigorous testing of innovative strategies such as these is vital for understanding their impact on recruitment to the profession, and perhaps on retention too.

What does the evidence say about interventions to improve teacher shortage?

In the simplest sense, to reduce the persistent teacher shortage we need more people coming into the profession and fewer people leaving it early. But how can this be achieved, and what are the most promising policy interventions to improve the situation?

Another strand of our research, an international systematic review of the most effective approaches to improving recruitment and retention, set out to answer these questions (See et al., 2020). Based on 120 studies, our findings indicate the potential value of financial incentives (such as bursaries, bonuses, stipends or wage increases) for recruiting more teachers into the profession. Monetary rewards appear to be less effective for promoting retention. This was the case even where the financial incentives involved a kind of a tie-in, whereby teachers were committed to staying on in a school or district for a specified period or else incurring a penalty. This approach tended to be used in ‘hard-to-staff’ areas or those with higher levels of deprivation, but was rarely found to be beneficial for retaining the teachers who received these incentives. It is likely that teachers in these schools looked beyond financial gain and were perhaps more influenced by factors such as their working conditions (Waters-Weller, 2009).

The majority of studies included in our review focused on financial incentives as a way to improve recruitment and retention. While there may be considerable promise for approaches involving mentoring, induction programmes, leadership support, flexible working, professional development and improved workload, there are unfortunately very few studies where these initiatives have been robustly evaluated. This makes it very difficult for policymakers and school leaders to know which strategies to adopt and implement, and which are likely to be less useful. The introduction of the Early Career Framework in England, a policy that incorporates a number of the non-financial approaches noted above, provides an excellent opportunity for a rigorous assessment of their effectiveness in supporting the career progression and retention of new teachers.

Conclusion

This article has outlined some of the ongoing issues that the education community faces in relation to teacher recruitment and retention. It also highlights some of the most recent research – by us and others – that helps to understand and address these challenges. Tackling the teacher shortage is a complex process involving multiple stakeholders, including policymakers, teacher education providers, schools and teachers. It requires longer-term, more joined-up planning and well-resourced, evidence-informed policies, along with system-wide shifts in practice. As others have noted, while there may be cautious optimism that COVID-19 could improve recruitment issues, it will not necessarily impact retention and does not provide a sustainable approach to addressing teacher shortage on a national level (Waldegrave, 2020).

Our work also highlights the need for more high-quality research in this area. Relying on evidence gleaned from less robust research is unlikely to lead to any significant improvements in the system, and could indeed yield misleading conclusions, resulting in expensive and ineffectual policies. We end on an optimistic note, though: the introduction of the Early Career Framework is an important step-change in approaches to supporting the progression of new teachers and addressing teacher shortage in England. The outcomes for teachers could be positive, and its influence on future policies, both in the UK and internationally, could be substantial if its impact is rigorously assessed.

References

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