Teacher recruitment and retention

What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the next generation of teachers? Emma Hollis, executive director of the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT), finds out

It is now three months since the government first announced that schools would be closed to the majority of pupils for a prolonged period of time. Whilst media attention has inevitably, and rightly, focused on the implications for children and home-schooling, an untold story is the efforts of Initial Teacher Training (ITT) providers. They have responded to confirmation that they will be able to award Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) at the end of a programme in the normal way, based on the trainee’s trajectory at the point their programme was interrupted, ensuring a pathway for the next generation of teachers.

In only a matter of days, ITT providers had to completely change their delivery models for current trainees as well as overhauling all processes for recruitment and interviews – and they have pulled out all the stops to make things work. The crisis has meant that significant resources and energies have been diverted to support their current cohort of trainees through a very difficult time. Not only have they had to invent and deliver an entirely new, distance learning programme of ITT (quite literally overnight), but they are also managing the mental health and wellbeing of trainees, supporting schools within their partnerships, and managing their own staff and their reactions to the pandemic.

It has not been easy, and there is no doubt we have a huge amount of uncertainty in front of us. In my mind, it is like we have long path ahead which is completely in darkness – and a tiny flashlight on the back our phones meaning we can only see a couple of metres but no further. We can therefore only see, and plan for, the next few steps. There is going to have to be some acceptance, which is incredibly difficult for a sector that is known to be forward-thinking and planning all the time, that there will be lots of unknowns. However, what we do know is that trainees are putting so much trust in us by applying to us now, in such an uncertain world.

This is where there is good news. Latest figures show there has been unprecedented increases in the number of applicants accepted for places on postgraduate ITT courses in the month between mid-April and mid-May: 30,600 compared with nearly 29,400 in May 2019, and also marking some 4,000 new applicants since mid-April. As soon as lockdown occurred applications for primary went up by 15,000 in a month, taking us back to roughly where we were in 2016-17 after a number of years when the application rate was declining. However, we did not see anything like the same increase in applications for secondary, and I wonder if this may be down to some applicants thinking that primary school teachers only deal with one class most of the time, and therefore a smaller group of children; whereas secondary teachers deal with a much wider cohort and have been taking on board what the Office for National Statistics has been saying about risk profile of teaching.

We are certainly expecting to see more people looking at teaching as a potential career because if there is a spike in unemployment, graduates and others will see this as one area where there are secure jobs in the public sector. For this reason, it is important to overcome some of the hurdles that threaten the opportunity to address the much-publicised teacher shortages. To this end, we have routinely gathered intelligence from ITT providers to unpick the challenges they are facing and recommend solutions.

Guaranteed jobs

Nearly half of ITT providers we surveyed in May reported that fewer trainees have secured employment compared to the same time last year. Of 82 responses, 45% of School-Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) providers and School Direct Lead Schools (SDLS) cited the drop – whilst 32% of ITT providers stated that the number of confirmed jobs for trainees remains approximately the same as in April-May 2019, and just 5% said secured employment for September 2020 has proportionally increased.

Whilst the headline figures are not where we would like them to be, respondents have reported that fewer vacancies are being advertised; possibly due to less movement (or ‘churn’) of existing staff, possibly due to concerns over recruiting remotely, and possibly due to schools focusing on issues around Covid-19 and delaying dealing with recruitment until a later date. ITT providers are calling for announcements to be made about the support that will be put in place for NQTs from September. They feel this will help to reassure schools and encourage them to employ NQTs, and help to reassure trainees who are feeling unprepared and are lacking in confidence about starting new posts.

Some respondents also reported that heads are unwilling to employ NQTs because they feel they have not had enough experience in schools. We appeal to school leaders to do everything they can to support recruitment at all levels.

Teacher training placements

From 247 responses to a survey which closed on 1st June, 124 SCITTs, SDLSs and university ITT providers reported that school partners had informed them they are unable to participate in training programmes in 2020-21. Furthermore, 81 per cent of ITT providers are more concerned about securing sufficient school placements next year compared to previous years and 45 per cent of providers have closed, or are considering closing, programmes as a result of placements. ITT providers have told us that schools are not offering placements primarily due to concerns over the post Covid-19 transition, including worries about having additional people in school, the reluctance to allow trainee teachers to teach given the amount of time children have been away from school, the need to focus on other priorities, and uncertainty resulting from the pandemic. Additionally, capacity in schools, concerns over the amount of support NQTs will need and therefore not being able to also support ITTs, and general anxiety over school finances have all been given as reasons for the decision.

The number of schools who appear to be withdrawing placements is worryingly high, especially at a time when we are seeing increasing applications to teaching. We would like to see supportive communications to schools, including clear guidance and encouragement to take ITTs and NQTs in the next academic year; but if needed, a requirement for schools to engage in ITT, as well as funding and incentivising.

Updated Covid-19 ITT guidance

As I write this article, we are digesting new guidance to help ITT providers reduce the impact of coronavirus on their ITT provision, which includes confirmation that trainees who are not on track to achieve QTS by the end of this academic year can resume their training in Autumn 2020. Also that funding will be made available both to trainee teachers who need additional time to achieve QTS, and for providers who will be supporting them to do so. This is something that we have been calling for since ITT programmes were disrupted at the beginning of the pandemic and it is testament to ongoing engagement between ITT providers and government that the needs of the sector have been heard.

Never have we needed teachers more than now and never has the hard work and dedication of ITT providers been more vital in protecting the flow of entrants to the profession. None of us can know what the world, and our schools, may look like over the coming weeks and months but what I can confidently say is the ITT sector will continue to rise to the challenge, surpassing all expectation and continuing to ensure our children have the very best teachers in front of them (or at the other end of a computer!).

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