An uptick in teacher recruit shouldn’t mean we take our eye off retention. Co-founder and Director at Now Teach, Katie Waldegrave, responds to recent research on the impact of Covid-19 on teacher supply, and implications for the longer-term

Things are looking up?

This week the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) released a report which generated some rare cheerful newscopy. Covid-19 has a ‘silver lining’ claimed the headlines: it may solve the recruitment and retention crisis which has plagued the teaching profession for the last decade.

And indeed, as Jack Worth and Dawson McLean’s report highlights, applications to teacher training have gone up – in secondary the 2020 offer numbers are 20% higher than they were this time last year. Given the government has missed its recruitment targets for the last seven years, this does indeed sound like cause for celebration.

Or are they?

The section of Worth and McClean’s superbly thoughtful report which has been less widely commented on, is the section urging caution: ‘this is a fair wind that promises to ease supply concerns in the short-term’.

Now Teach, an organisation set up in 2016 to recruit and support experienced career changers into teaching has been part of a multi-faceted strategy to bring more people into teaching and help to keep them there. It would be a disaster if the government were to scale back its efforts to improve recruitment and retention in the teaching profession.

The first reason is the straightforward point of uncertainty around the impact of the pandemic.

We don’t know the shape of the current recession and we don’t know the impact it will have on schools and the wider economy. We must not make a knee-jerk reaction to the figures reported by the NFER, not least because there is an inevitable time lag to measuring teacher recruitment and retention; we will not know for at least another year what the 2020/21 figures are actually looking like.

Recruitment uptick doesn’t solve retention 

The recruitment crisis has always been as much a crisis of retention as recruitment. The current recession will likely affect both, but we can’t yet know quite how.

The best-case scenario in the NFER report, posits that recruitment targets will be met, for many subjects, in the 20/21 cycle. These forecasts are predicated upon an assumption that retention improves by 25%. The figure was calculated based on rational human behaviour in an economic downturn and supported by the fact that half as many teachers reported an intention to leave the profession in July 2020 compared with June 2019.

The question is - will they consider it now?

It could be that the financial stability of teaching compared to the instability of the rest of the economy means people will stay who might otherwise have left. That would be financially rational. But I fear that in December’s long dark days, while struggling with year 9 classes, those people who wanted to leave won’t feel as rational as they did in the summer. We know that of those leaving teaching over the past twenty years, the vast majority were going on to do jobs which were less well paid.

The challenge ahead 

When we look to other public sector roles, nursing, for example, reliable pensions and job security are clearly not enough to retain people, even in this recession. The Kings Fund recently published a report showing that 36% of nurses are thinking of leaving the profession compared to 28% before the pandemic. Like teaching,  stress, working hours and staff wellbeing are all cited as causes. The NHS’s Covid-frontline work hit earlier than education’s and should sound a further note of caution to those inclined to declare the teacher crisis over.

These are going to be difficult years in schools. Everyone seems to agree that SLT and heads are going to leave in higher numbers than normal. Even if this means there are still ‘enough’ classroom teachers, schools will be unstable and likely less well run. This won’t help retention.

Added to all this trainee teachers starting now – autumn 2020 – will not have spent much time, if any, in a school getting experience. Logic would suggest that this won’t be good for retention. The bursaries may have encouraged graduates with fewer options than normal in, but if the training environment is tougher than normal will they stay? And as Worth and McLean point out this is all happening at the same time as the extension of the Early Career Framework (the professional development available to teachers at the start of their careers) – in itself the ECF is, of course, a good thing. But we are going to need more resource and crucially mentors at a time when schools are under huge pressure.

Finding a long-term fix 

As a determined optimist I want to believe that this recession will be short and snappy, but of course if it is, that won’t be good for recruitment. And even the recession of 2008 only ‘solved’ the recruitment crisis for a few years. A study from America urges only cautious optimism: those teachers drawn to teaching during the recession, were the first to leave when recession ended. 

Meanwhile there is something deeply flawed about this notion of a downturn in the economy solving the problems. It might mask; but it doesn’t solve. We must continue to improve the issues we know need solving: working cultures, flexible work, funding and so on.

The second reason we need to be cautious about the recruitment in the next few years is, as ever, the effect it will have on the children who most need the best teachers. These are the children who have had the hardest time during lockdown and it is their schools, who – as Worth and McLean say – will struggle the most if we are not careful. It is those schools who are finding it hardest to offer ITT placements on top of everything else they must do.

The need to diversify 

The final reason I think it is critically important that the focus not move away from initiatives which are underway to improve retention and recruitment is the simple issue of diversity. We must not allow a potential increase in recruits to shift our focus away from making sure that the people in our classrooms are representative of all walks of life. We need more black teachers, more women in leadership, more men in primary, more disabled people and more older people. It is our duty to make sure that the next generation is taught by people with the widest possible range of backgrounds and experiences.

Katie Waldegrave