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Boris Johnson wants to pay Stem teachers a £3,000 premium – research shows incentives don’t work

Teachers and pupils wear protective eyewear to observe an eclipse
A one-off incentive is a short-sighted fix for a long-standing problem. Mark Waugh / Alamy Stock Photo

The only policy announcement Boris Johnson made in his Conservative party conference speech, as many have pointed out, was a £3,000 “levelling-up premium” for teachers. The idea, to entice maths, physics, chemistry and computing teachers to take jobs in schools serving disadvantaged areas, sounds plausible. And being taught by specialist teachers could encourage young people to enter relevant careers. But will it work?

These new incentives are not intended to attract more people into teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects - merely to move existing specialist teachers to new areas. So the first issue to consider is whether there are enough teachers in these Stem subjects.

If there is no overall surplus nationally, then enticing teachers to some areas might leave other areas understaffed. That could result in a fairer distribution of teaching resource, but it would be an equality of insufficiency.

Staff shortages

It is hard to say how many teachers is enough. But our research shows that salary increases (within the usual ranges), bonuses and cash incentives do not attract people to teaching - however popular they might be for those already intending to become teachers.

A teacher demonstrates a rocket launch in a science class held outdoors
Boosting the numbers of teachers in challenging schools requires creativity and vision. Maurice Savage / Alamy Stock Photo

The Department for Education’s own analysis indicates that those training to teach Stem subjects are less likely to enter teaching after they qualify than newly qualified teachers in other subjects. Also, those who did were less likely to stay. Bursaries do not, generally, attract shortage-subject teachers to state-funded schools.

Offers of monetary inducements to get existing teachers to move to hard-to-staff areas are not new. They have been tried before. In fact, this premium Johnson announced in his speech is very similar to previous schemes. As recently as May 2019, the UK government announced that early career maths and physics teachers in the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber would receive a £2,000 incentive to encourage them to stay in the area.

Announcements like this one are a quick fix. They suggest that a government is doing something. The major problem, though, is that it is not clear whether they work.

Bad precedent

Our robust reviews of the international evidence suggest that financial incentives are effective only when there is a tie-in involved. In Norway, for example, teachers working in high-vacancy schools receive a wage premium while there, but they lose this once they move to a low-vacancy school.

Several studies in the US have shown that teachers might be convinced to stay in a challenging school or area, or continue to teach a shortage subject, for a specified period. But any effect disappears as soon as the incentive is removed. This suggests that a one-off payment of £3,000 may not be enough to persuade many teachers from one region of England to uproot, perhaps with their families, and move permanently to another region.

Newly qualified teachers often do not want to teach in the most challenging schools. Ideally, they want to be in a more supportive environment in the early stages of their career where they can develop their skills and confidence.

A teacher and two pupils in a biology lesson
New teachers often prefer to start out in high-performing, supportive schools. PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Monetary inducements cannot compensate for poor working conditions, or for issues with school leadership and school climate. The evidence is that financial incentives to move to a poorer area are more successful in attracting teachers to high-performing schools, and less successful for schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils.

That the government should be paying attention to teaching and addressing the shortage of specialist teachers in some areas, such as the north-east of England, is of course welcome. However, what is proposed is unlikely to work. And going by precedent, it will no doubt be forgotten.

The National Teaching Service planned to recruit 1,500 teachers to under-staffed schools, and placed only 24 before being abandoned. The Troops to Teachers Scheme, similarly, offered £40,000 bursaries (and has been taken up by only 22 ex-service personnel). And the Return to Teaching Scheme, which saw £600,000 spent on a planned 3,000 returning teachers (offering premiums of £1,500), but recruited only 63 people, of whom only 27 apparently ended up teaching national curriculum subjects in state schools. Unlike the scheme’s announcement, it was cancelled with no fanfare.

Clearly, something more radical is needed.

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