How can we keep trainees in the school system?

Emma Hollis from the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT) takes on the teacher recruitment and retention debate

Teacher recruitment is at its lowest ebb – and it pains me to say that. As I write this article, the Commons Education Select Committee has just published contributions to its Teacher Recruitment, Training and Retention inquiry, and is hearing evidence from a panel of witnesses from school staff unions and other organisations.
It is a timely inquiry indeed. The NFER’s Teacher Labour Market in England Annual Report 2023 highlighted that the number of teacher vacancies posted by schools was 93 per cent higher in the academic year up to February this year (and almost twice pre-Covid level). And the number of new entrants to Initial Teacher Training (ITT) has fallen from 40,377 in 2020-21 to 28,991 last year, which is just 71 per cent of the government’s target.
Subsequent discussion on why this is happening has ranged from teacher pay, with private sector wages outstripping public sector wages, to the lack of flexibility compared to other graduate jobs, with solutions posed including offering a salary to all trainees and bursaries for all subjects not reaching their recruitment targets. Attempts to reduce workload and mental health support have also been brought to the table.
Teacher recruitment and retention is a complex piece, of course, but in terms of NASBTT’s unique perspective and expertise specifically on teacher training, we advocate 
the need to also understand trainees’ perspectives on issues that are causing them not to apply or withdraw which is only exacerbating the problem. 
Last November, our cost-of-living crisis survey saw 88 per cent of ITT providers report that rising costs are having an impact on trainees and the three areas that trainees are being most affected are fuel/transport, energy prices and their wellbeing. Other areas include mortgages/rent, food and clothing. At the time of the survey, 47 per cent of providers had trainees withdraw as a result of the cost-of-living crisis and almost all of providers (96 per cent) were ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ that more trainees may withdraw due to personal costs.

Decrease in applications

In April, our ITT barriers to recruitment and delivery survey found that trainee applications are down at this stage of the year, compared to last year, at 77 per cent of responding providers. Of these, the majority (28 per cent) are down by 10-20 per cent, but also 18.5 per cent by 40+ per cent, and nearly a quarter (22 per cent) felt this was down to the cost-of-living crisis. Perceptions of the profession (15 per cent) was another reason given for why they thought applications are down.
Our latest research evidenced that nine in ten ITT providers think that greater opportunities for flexible working would attract more E F applicants to the sector. Nearly a third of applicants discuss the importance of working flexibly as something that is important to them, but only half of the schools in providers’ wider ITT partnership offer flexible working opportunities for their staff. Currently 46 per cent offer flexible working opportunities for trainees and a further 54 per cent are still not considering offering such opportunities for applicants.

Challenges to overcome

So, all in all, there are some challenges to overcome, beyond those which go beyond the remit of ITT and must be tackled sector-wide: revising pay structures and frameworks; reducing workload, a workload compounded 
by teachers’ dealing with pupils’ increasing  and complex personal and social problems;  and creating a more accepted culture for 
flexible working.
Whilst the government announced last October that it will increase teacher training bursaries and scholarships from 2023-24 year to attract new entrants (albeit the total funding on offer is still £70 million lower than it was in 2020), we knew this alone would not solve 
the problem.
DfE should consider hardship funding for all trainees to apply for help with costs, which could be managed through ITT providers under existing grant funding agreements. It has allocated relocation funding for overseas trainees so it feels reasonable to also earmark funding for domestic students who are struggling to pay travel costs.
Work could be undertaken to understand where providers’ greatest spends are, and considering if there are any ways in which we could work together with DfE (and others) to look at offering solutions for areas of need, for example negotiating preferred costs for particular services. There could also be some broader guidance, such as expectations around acceptable top-slicing to a MAT, to further support ITT.

Placement capacity

There is a known issue with placement capacity, which may limit the number of places that can be offered to ITT applicants. Our surveys have found that schools are unable to meet the additional requirements of mentoring and are removing offers of placements as a result. Schools/trusts must also be required to open up their doors to trainee teachers, not just when they are recruiting new teachers but in supporting their training right from the start. This currently relies purely on the willingness of individual schools to engage in ITT and if every school took the option not to engage in ITT there would be no teachers. If they do not engage, we will be faced with a teacher recruitment crisis of even greater proportion in the future.
Concerns about subject knowledge may be another reason why more teacher training applications are not successful. This year’s 
NFER Teacher Labour Market in England 
report projects that primary ITT and nine out of 17 secondary subjects – physics, computing, DT, business studies, MFL, RE, music, drama  and art and design – are expected to be 20 per cent or more below target. Other subjects such as maths, English, chemistry and geography  are also at risk of under recruiting this year, while biology, history, classics and PE are likely to be at, or slightly above, target. Teachers  have to be skilled in the subject they are applying to teach.
But our main observation here is that teaching is a unique profession. It is simply incomparable with any other sector in terms of workload (in and out of the ‘workplace’ and outside of core hours) and scrutiny (from Ofsted, governors and parents/carers). At the heart of the issue we believe is how the profession is presented (mainly negatively) in the media, through often counter-productive DfE marketing campaigns, combined with the fact that ‘everyone knows a teacher’ and perceptions often reflect that.

An attractive profession

We need to make teaching an attractive profession to both recent graduates who want to get into teaching and benefit from an intellectually stimulating and rewarding environment, and experienced professionals who have made a significant contribution in their business or industry and are looking for a new challenge. Those individuals will be seeking something different from their first career and using that experience to help young people fulfil their potential and be the best version of themselves.
Whilst there are some mandatory qualifications to get into teaching, a BA (Hons) degree and GCSEs in English and maths (plus science for primary training), we should be clearer that we are seeking candidates who want to make a positive contribution in working with children and have a commitment to pushing themselves and learning every day. Sometimes a basic lack of understanding can put prospective teachers off.
In return, we should emphasise (and evidence) that employment opportunities are extremely high for qualifying teachers. Even in a challenging economic climate you will always need teachers, so in that sense the job is ‘recession proof’, and teachers become even more important with a higher moral purpose the more difficult it gets. Also that good teachers will always find a job and rise rapidly through the system in subject, phase or pastoral leadership. 
The career is well-established, with rapid progression and most importantly job satisfaction, but DfE needs to do more to recruit people in – the providers are doing everything they can.