Hard Evidence: is a teacher shortage looming?

Will the kids have to take over? Child at board via Vladimir Melnikov/Shutterstock

Recruitment of student teachers to begin training in 2015 is well underway, and the government hopes it will lead to well over 30,000 new teachers entering the profession in England. But data from the Department for Education shows that behind the government’s rhetoric that “there has never been a better time to be a teacher”, the number of people entering teacher training in 2014 fell short of the department’s own calculation of predicted demand – for the third year in succession.

Although the 2014-15 shortfall was only 7% (and even lower in the preceding years), over the three-year period this equates to a shortage of nearly 6,000 teachers. After next year’s general election, an incoming secretary of state for education could face an uncomfortable first party conference season. If the trend of under-recruitment continues, tough questions next year could be followed by a full-blown teacher shortage crisis by 2016.

New entrants to initial teacher training in England, 2008-2015. Department for Education, Author provided

Teacher recruitment needs to be placed in the context of a growing population, largely fuelled by a “baby boom” over the past decade. This boom is currently creating pressure on primary school capacity, and will soon roll over onto secondary schools, peaking in 2022 with around 800,000 additional pupils in the system.

New recruitment methods

Recruiting significantly more teachers may be politically more appealing than increasing class sizes, but not easy to achieve. The coalition government has introduced radical reforms of teacher education designed to improve both supply and the overall quality of new teachers.

The most significant element of these reforms has been the introduction of School Direct, in which schools rather than universities bid for teacher training places. School Direct reflects former education secretary Michael Gove’s desire to “place schools in the driving seat”, launched in his 2010 White Paper The Importance of Teaching, which called for more “on the job” training.

The allocation for graduate teaching charity Teach First has been expanded to bring more “elite” graduates to work in the most challenging schools, and Troops to Teachers aims to do fill the Teach First niche for retired military personnel.

Teacher training allocation by route: Higher Education Institutions, School Direct and School-led Teacher Training. Universities UK, Author provided

These reforms have been accompanied by increasingly elaborate attempts to fine tune supply and demand through targeting the most attractive training bursaries at candidates with good quality degrees and for hard to recruit subjects such as mathematics and physics. A physics graduate with a first or 2.1 degree will receive £25,000 to train in 2015-16.

But U-turns are always a possibility. In the 2010 white paper, the government announced that nobody with less than a 2.2 degree would be eligible to train as a teacher – but this was reversed within two years to allow candidates with third class degrees to train as physics and mathematics teachers. As the graph below shows, the risks of a teacher supply crisis are significantly greater in some subjects than others, with some subjects recruiting strongly, but others falling well short of supply needs.

New teacher entrants by subject compared to target (2014-15) Department for Education, Author provided

Why so sluggish?

Even without these efforts, recruitment might have been expected to profit from the post-2008 recession, given that such economic conditions usually see an upturn in graduates’ interest in teaching due to the lack of alternatives in the graduate job market. The government is unlikely to call too much attention to this, but had the recession not occurred, we may already have reached a teacher supply crisis point.

So how is it that with such a favourable market environment and a school-led teacher education system, recruitment is still so sluggish – and getting more so? Ironically, the reforms of the system might be actually inhibiting rather than encouraging recruitment. Many in schools as well as universities would argue that the pace of reform has led to confusion amongst prospective applicants about the different types of training and funding available.

This could explain the disparity between the relative success of “traditional” university-led provision in recruiting 90% of their allocated target of teachers in 2014-15, and School Direct falling well short at 61%. It may be that prospective students view these new routes as a risky investment of their £9,000 tuition fee (the level for virtually all programmes, including School Direct), so prefer to opt for the “tried and trusted” university provider.

Ramp up in Schools Direct

This would directly contradict the government’s view that its school-led system would be more popular that the “overly theoretical” university-based system, particularly to high-flyers and people coming to teaching to change careers.

Some anecdotal evidence suggests that schools are “risk averse”, and assess School Direct applicants as they would a newly-qualified teacher rather than on their potential to complete a training course successfully. Given School Direct’s expectation that schools offer their students a job at the end of their training, this is perhaps unsurprising, but risks losing potentially strong candidates to the system.

The government’s continuing commitment to promoting school-led provision of training has exacerbated this problem. A 2013 University UK survey found that many universities were forced to turn away well-qualified candidates in shortage subjects in 2013–14, despite more than 3,000 School Direct places remaining unfilled.

The lack of enthusiasm for School Direct may be corrected over time as it becomes more “mainstream”. But we cannot afford to wait and see. The school population is growing, and another year of under-recruitment could tip the supply situation from concern into crisis.

The government’s response appears ambivalent. The aspiration for a school-led system has been reinforced by the 2015-16 allocation of teacher training places, with School Direct places up by around 13% and “university-led” places down by 5%.

In an attempt to counter expected under-recruitment, the government has allocated many more places (+32%) than the Teacher Supply Model indicates is needed. This “over-allocation” is higher than the 18% above predicted demand in 2014-15, suggesting a desire to make up for lost ground that could be characterised as either spectacularly ambitious – or merely desperate.

The coming months will tell us one way or another, and could lead for an interesting year for whoever is secretary of state for education after May 2015.


Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.

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