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The Numbers Don't Lie: What Do the Schools' Workforce Stats Mean in Practice?

The recent Schools and Academies Show at ExCeL London brought together more than 3,000 school leaders across the UK to connect and hear from industry-leading experts. 

A stellar line-up of speakers shared their invaluable experience in designated theatre spaces. In the Workforce Theatre, the day kicked off with insights from a range of high-profile education professionals who considered what the schools' workforce statistics mean in practice. 

Introduction: the state of education 

Chairing the session, Hannah Stolton, chief executive officer of Governors for Schools, asked each panel member to summarise the state of the education system as they see it. 

James Noble-Rogers,executive director of the University's Council for the Education of Teachers (USET): 

"I've been in this job for 20 years and worked for the government on teacher training and teacher supply before that, but this is probably the most serious teacher supply problem that I can remember."Workload and pay have a lot to do with the problems, but, he said, the government has to bear some of the responsibility. "Last year, they recruited fewer than half the new secondary student teachers that they need to meet their targets." 

For example, the government decided to de-accredit a significant number of ITT providers as part of the market review. It also cut the number of subjects eligible for subject knowledge enhancement training and international relocation payments. Recently, it announced the ending of Now Teach, a valuable resource to support mature career changers in teaching. 

Jack Worth, lead economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER): 

"The data shows we're in a crisis of not recruiting enough teachers. We are way off target, particularly in secondary, where we've got rising pupil numbers and need more teachers across a whole range of subjects. Only three subjects met their targets last year, and not many are likely to meet their targets this year." 

Worth explained that this is due to several factors. "We're not recruiting as many teachers as we were just before the pandemic, so there is something about the attractiveness of teaching that isn't appealing to enough people." He explained this is about the perception of the profession and the financial attractiveness of teaching. "The competitiveness of teachers' pay has been falling since 2010." Retention is a significant issue due to pay, workload, and the fact that teaching doesn't offer the opportunity to work from home, explained Worth. 

Emma Hollis, CEO of the National Association of School-based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT): 

"What we need schools and government to start doing now is thinking bigger and differently. 

"We're currently asking teachers to take on additional debt of £9,250 to train to be teachers in our state school. Should we be asking people coming into the public sector profession to take on debt..?" 

Flexibility is increasingly becoming a critical decision-making factor, said Hollis, who explained: "Young people coming out of schools and universities want flexible opportunities. Could a government be brave and think differently about how school days are structured, how a school year is structured?" 

"I always fear that on a four-year election cycle, there is never the capacity or interest to think these big thoughts. Financial incentives work to a point, but we've reached the limits of where they will help us and we need to think differently." 

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Dr Robin Bevan, headteacher, Southend High School for Boys: 

"There's something very unusual about my school, which is that I'm fully staffed and that every lesson in my school is taught by a subject specialist. It shouldn't be shocking that I'm saying that, but it is. There are very, very few schools in the country in which that is now true. This throws up two issues..." 

Firstly, Bevan explained, we have an ethical problem within the system that arises around what happens when you've got insufficient supply to meet the needs of all schools; where do the teachers end up? 

Secondly, he said, the distribution of experienced teachers is creating a financial problem in those schools that have managed to retain staff. 

"I think the teacher supply issue needs a multi-generational solution… the experience of many of the children in our schools is such that the thought of becoming a teacher is not in the least bit attractive." 

What are the repercussions of the lack of staffing? 

Research shows that competence and mastery take five to ten years to secure in teaching. Bevan explained the current staffing situation in schools, "We know that inexperienced teachers are highly concentrated in certain schools, particularly in urban areas, and that subject leadership is being forced upon people within two or three years of teaching." 

In addition, a very high proportion of lessons, particularly maths and physics, are taught by non-subject specialists. "If you pass through school, having been taught by a non-subject specialist, there is a significantly greater chance you will not study that subject at university, and you will have absolutely no appetite to become a teacher of that subject." Bevan said it is a multi-generational concern. 

Emma Hollis added, "Increasingly, we're seeing people who are training in a subject being the only subject teacher of that specialism in the school where they're placed and so their mentors are mentoring them out of subjects. 

"Not having a team around you with any subject expertise to support you in developing that in the classroom becomes a kind of downward spiral of expertise in classrooms." 

Hollis believes we need to think differently about how we are training teachers and where subject expertise is built. 

But there are schools out there that are well-staffed, said Worth. However, he said, schools in disadvantaged areas find it the most difficult to recruit, so they're more likely to have unfilled vacancies, non-specialists teaching subjects, higher turnover, and higher leaving rates. "It is a national crisis that is disproportionately impacting those schools." 

Noble-Rogers also warned of the consequences of not having subject knowledge specialists in schools, saying those schools won't be able to accept student teachers on placement. "We're in danger of being caught in a vicious circle," he said. "The shortage of placements in schools is a real issue." In addition, if schools are part of a teacher education partnership, they could be subject to additional Ofsted inspections, which will deter some from accepting student placements, he explained.  

Teaching is recognised as difficult, so what's causing that perception? 

Hollis spoke of her daughter, who is currently completing her GCSEs. "Not one of her cohort has ambitions to be a teacher, not one." Young people are perceptive; they see what is happening in schools, the constant changes to the curriculum, and the churn of teachers, she said. It has stopped being an attractive profession to young people. 

Bevan explained how his school tracks pupils through university, stays in touch, and entices them back with various arrangements, including apprenticeship roles and cover supervisors, before converting them into teaching roles. 

He said the perception problem is not just pay and status but also autonomy. Teachers are not only working longer hours, but the intensification of those hours has also increased. And "they feel as though they have less control over what they choose to do as professionals." 

The pressure on new teachers is immense, and Bevan sadly argues that "the government has a vested interest in teachers not staying because the system is cheaper". 

Noble-Rogers agreed, saying, "We need to re-emphasise the professional status of teachers. One of the hallmarks of being a professional is that you can exercise autonomy.” Teachers are highly qualified people. He said if they cannot exercise professional autonomy, they will leave. 

How did we get here? 

Worth argued that many of the underlying workforce issues have been problematic for a long time, contributing to teachers' leaving. The competitiveness of teachers' pay has contributed to the financial attractiveness of teaching and, by association, status. Flexibility is also an issue, he said. Working from home, which exploded during the pandemic, has been a disaster for the competitiveness of teaching.  

Bevan highlighted a couple of growing problems. Our secondary schools now have the largest average class sizes in Western Europe. We also have the highest contact ratio (the number of hours a teacher has to teach) and one of the most intensely regulated education systems in the world, he said.  

The accountability regime has had a considerable impact on the working lives of senior leaders, middle leaders, and classroom teachers, many of whom live their daily lives in fear that an inspection is coming soon, he explained. 

Are there things that schools can put in place that will help with retaining the teachers? 

Worth said flexibility is critical. Introducing small flexibilities, like teachers working their PPA time from home or having different kinds of drop-offs, late starts, or early finishes on some days, means a lot to the teachers receiving them. 

Bevan said that in his school, teachers are able to take their non-teaching time off-site. We also make sure workload expectations are planned well in advance so there aren't ridiculous weeks where teachers do a full teaching week and parents' evenings and write reports. 

Bevan argued that the biggest thing that schools can do is to ensure that "the vision and purpose of your school align with the values of your teaching workforce" and that teachers "are not being motivated and driven by what Ofsted says, but instead by giving awesome life chances to the young people in front of them."  

Bevan also said behaviour policies are important but ones that "promote and encourage high-quality decision making from young people, not behaviour policies that impose compliance on them so that they never have any idea how to make good choices." 

Noble-Rogers would like to see more bursaries, which he said can notably impact recruitment in teacher education programmes. We are facing a shortage of primary school teachers, so don't wait for the shortage, he said, introduce bursaries now. He would also like to see the recent funding reductions reversed (for example, for Now Teach and SKE). 

Worth agreed that funding needs to be taken seriously. "There's been too much focus on how can we find a solution that doesn't cost us anything?" He said big challenges, like pay and capacity to support teachers with workload, cost money. "Solving the teacher supply crisis will inevitably cost something." 

Hollis argued there should be funding for teacher training. "If you're working in a state school in this country, you shouldn't be taking on debt in order to do that." 

Bevan wrapped up the discussion by saying that the most important thing that all of us can and should do is make sure that schools and education are discussed publicly in the run-up to the general election, whether that's about recruitment and retention, the role of schools in society, or funding challenges. 

"We need a vision for our schools that is as compelling as it was in 1944. We need something as substantial and significant as that. Because if we don't have it, then not one of the problems we just discussed will get any better anytime soon." 

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