Retention problems not over despite teacher training surge

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The Covid-related spike in applications to teacher training must not fool us into thinking that retention issues in schools are a thing of the past.

The warning comes as analysis of the teacher labour market in England reveals that initial teacher training (ITT) applications were up 20 per cent in 2020 as Covid hit the wider economy.

And the trend has continued into 2021, with ITT applications up 26 per cent so far this year.

However, the Teacher Labour Market in England Annual Report, which has been published by the NFER (Worth & Faulkner-Ellis, 2021), also warns that teacher wellbeing has been hit hard by the pandemic.

The lack of capacity in schools due to self-isolation requirements has also put a strain on those teachers remaining in schools, the report says.

The research confirms that during the first lockdown teachers reported lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction and a rise in anxiety.

It adds that working hours, which had fallen during the first lockdown, are now rising again. During the autumn term, teachers reported working hours of 46 hours a week – which compared to 41 hours in other similar professions.

However, at the same time, the report says that the pandemic “is likely to have led to lower teacher turnover and higher retention”. This, coupled with the surge in ITT applications has led to a short-term easing of historic teacher supply problems.

The report confirms: “The overall recruitment numbers represented 130 per cent of the target for primary teachers and 106 per cent for secondary teachers. While the numbers of enrolments increased for almost all subjects, not all met their recruitment targets. These subjects included perennial shortage subjects, such as physics, maths, chemistry and modern foreign languages.”

However, both the report’s authors and school leaders have been quick to warn against thinking that retention concerns are at an end.

The National Association of Head Teachers said this week that the “apparent good news story should not be allowed to distract from the worrying longer-term implications of the experiences reported by school staff over the last year”.

General secretary Paul Whiteman warned that school leaders are “frustrated at government and exhausted by Covid”.

He continued: “There is a real risk that we will lose more experienced teachers and school leaders post-Covid than can possibly be replaced by new recruits.

“The findings of this report chime exactly with what we are hearing from our members. Before the crisis hit, it was widely acknowledged that teachers and school leaders’ working hours had reached unsustainable levels. During the pandemic, their working week has got longer still.

“Over the last 12 months, school leaders have re-engineered schooling from the ground up, many times over, and expertly navigated the constant last-minute emergencies and major business planning challenges that the pandemic has brought. And all this while facing another real-terms pay cut. The current situation is unsustainable.”

The NAHT’s own survey work during the autumn term found that nearly half of school leaders surveyed were considering leaving the profession sooner than originally planned as a result of the pandemic.

The NFER report, meanwhile, contends that the teacher pay freeze from 2021/22 is “unlikely to be sustainable in the medium term” as the wider labour market recovers.

It adds: “While the immediate threat of a teacher supply crisis appears to have declined due to the Covid-19 impact of increased recruitment and retention, this is likely to be short-lived. Important factors such as pay will return to prominence in the medium term.

“A prolonged period of teacher pay freezes beyond 2021/22 would likely lead to teacher pay becoming increasingly uncompetitive compared to other professions. This could risk prompting another teacher supply challenge once the labour market starts to recover.”

The National Education Union (NEU) echoed the sentiment. Joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “The NFER is right to note that any improvement in teacher supply due to the pandemic will be short-lived. They are certainly not enough to compensate for the long period of missed recruitment targets and the increasing problems with teacher retention. Attacks on teacher pay contributed to those problems and the planned pay freeze will create new problems.

“The NFER is also right to highlight the adverse impact of the government's planned pay freeze for teachers. The impact of the pay freeze is not just a ‘medium term problem’ as described in the NFER report. The pay freeze will hit teachers hard in September 2021, when they will see their pay cut yet again in real terms.”

The NFER report is calling for the autumn 2021 Government Spending Review to account for a measured three-year package of teacher pay increases to ensure pay remains competitive.

It also calls for the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) to be given a permanent remit to make recommendations on teacher pay. It currently does not do so when teacher pay is frozen.

Jack Worth, NFER school workforce lead and co-author of the report, said: “Although the impact of the pandemic has eased the teacher supply challenge in the short term, there remains a real need to continue to improve teachers’ pay and working conditions to make it a rewarding graduate career choice even when the wider labour market recovers.”

The report has been published with funding from the Nuffield Foundation.

  • Worth & Faulkner-Ellis: Teacher Labour Market in England Annual Report 2021, NFER, March 2021:

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