teacher shortage - RSA

When the numbers don’t add up – understanding the teacher shortage


  • Education
  • Teaching
  • Creative Institutions and Systems

One of the significant advantages of the RSA compared to a traditional ‘think tank’ is that it works with a Family of Academies. Our work in the education arena can therefore inform, and is informed by, the direct experience of educational professionals working in schools.

When it came to discussing the theme for this year’s annual Warwick University and RSA Academies debate with the schools in our Family there was only one serious contender: the growing teacher shortage.  With the new RSA Academies Teaching School Alliance recruiting our first tranche of teacher trainees and providing a growing programme of continuing professional development to teachers within and beyond the RSA Family of Academies the event could not have been better timed.

Our panel comprised

  • Marcus Bell, the Department for Education Director responsible for Teachers and Teaching
  • Laura McInerney, Editor of Schools’ Week magazine
  • Charlotte Townsend, a recently qualified teacher at Arrow Vale RSA Academy
  • Dr Adam Boddison, Director of the Centre for Professional Education at Warwick University
  • Kaoutar Darouache, a pupil and winner of the Warwick University competition for gifted youth, IGGY 

Each was asked to give their perspective on what lies behind the current challenges with teacher recruitment and retention, and what steps we need to take to enable all schools to continue to recruit and retain bright, creative, enthusiastic teachers within the profession.

So, what did we learn?

Firstly, the picture is complicated, and the statistics are not always easy to understand.  Marcus Bell introduced the debate with an impressively comprehensive set of graphs and charts, showing that in many ways the current position follows historical patterns.  These showed the link between teacher recruitment and the economy (it gets harder to recruit teachers as the economy improves), and that retention has remained consistently high over time – over 70% of teachers remain teaching after five years, and more than 60% are still teaching ten years on.  There was some discussion about how this fitted with the oft quoted figure that half of all teachers are lost to the profession within five years of starting.  Laura McInerney was able to shed light on this, explaining that it depends when you start the clock.  A large number of trainees who start teacher training courses either do not complete them or do not go on to take up a teaching job, meaning that half of those who start teacher training are not in the classroom five years later.  If you take as your starting point the number who take up a teaching post after completing training the retention rate is much higher, up to the 70%+ figures that DFE quote.

Another important point – remarked upon again last week in Sir Michael Wilshaw’s annual report highlighting the north-south divide – is that there is also significant variation between regions, within regions, and also between schools in a single town or area.  So, whilst the overall full time vacancy rate is 0.3% for England as a whole, it varies from 0.1% in the North East and North West of England to 0.8% in the South West of England.  Variation can be significant even within a local authority area, with the proportion of vacant or temporarily filled posts in a particular school ranging from 0 to more than 10%. 

Statistics tell us so much – but what is the reality for today’s teachers? Too often the voice of the classroom teacher is absent from debates about education policy and practice. We were therefore particularly pleased to have on our panel Charlotte Townsend, a teacher at Arrow Vale RSA Academy in Redditch.  Charlotte gave us her perspective, based on both her own experience and on structured interviews with a number of colleagues at the school, on the current joys and challenges of being a classroom teacher. Charlotte’s passion and enthusiasm for her job, motivated by a commitment to giving her pupils the best possible start in life, were impossible to ignore, as was the extent to which she valued the support from colleagues and positive relationship with her pupils.  But there was no getting away from the fact that teaching is hard.  A working week of 55-60 hours was pretty much the norm for Charlotte and her colleagues, and guilt was a perennial theme – guilt at not doing enough for her students when taking an evening off, guilt at time spent away from family and friends as work takes over in the evenings and at weekends.

Pupil Kaoutar Darouache, reinforced the difference that a great teacher makes.  “I don’t want a teacher who just reads from the text books”, she said, talking instead about teachers who inspired her, and singling out her geography teacher for particular praise.

Laura McInerney returned to the issue of statistics, and the mismatch between the figures for vacancy rates, which remain generally low although are rising worryingly rapidly, and the widespread perception amongst headteachers that recruitment of good staff was difficult and getting harder.  Schools’ Week had explored this issue in depth, and their conclusion is that the answer lies in part in the concept of the ‘tired teacher’.  These teachers, who have usually been teaching for some time and often have family or other caring responsibilities, are ‘tired’ by the relentlessness of teaching.  They may be working on supply or on temporary contract either by choice, to avoid all of the extras that come with being a permanent teacher, or after being pushed out of a previous job.

So the issue isn’t necessarily one of absolute vacancies, but that the vacancies are in many cases being filled by teachers who would rather not be there, or who the schools would prefer not to have, or both.  Some of these people may leave teaching altogether – although a recent survey suggests that many who leave will take a substantial pay cut.  Finding a way to give teachers at the midpoint of their careers the training, support and flexibility they need to combine their career with parenthood or other caring responsibilities, and reinvigorate their passion for teaching is important.  The ideas in the RSA’s Licensed to Create animate and publication are very relevant.

A stint teaching overseas won’t appeal to everyone, but both Laura and Adam Boddison, Director of Warwick University’s Centre for Professional Education, highlighted the importance of considering the international dimension.  For all the angst about the English education system and our position in international league tables, it is nevertheless the case that a ‘British education’ is highly valued and sought after overseas.  Adam shared the startling statistic that there are more British schools overseas than there are maintained schools in England, whilst Laura noted that last year the number of teachers leaving to teach overseas exceeded the total number of teachers doing a University PGCE.  What we do with this information is a different question – but perhaps the opportunity to partner with some of these British schools and offer the chance to teach for a year overseas and then return might help with retention.  Certainly the opportunity for sabbaticals from teaching has appeal for some, and could be a good option to refresh some of the ‘tired teachers’. 

Having looked in some depth at issues around teacher retention, the debate moved to the issues of initial teacher education.  Given the recent debacle over the closure and more or less immediate reopening of university History PGCE courses, there was considerable discussion amongst the panel and from the floor about Ministers’ wish to increase the proportion of Initial Teacher Education that is schools-led rather than university led.  Whilst there was a consensus in the room that it was appropriate to offer both routes, there were both practical and ideological objections to the growing dominance of the schools-led route.  The practical difficulties were summed up best by Laura McInerney, who had been asked to advise a family friend about routes into teaching.  “I couldn’t”, Laura lamented, “it has just got too complicated”. 

The complexity of the system is not easily unpicked. But as Charlotte pointed out, and Kaoutar's contributions demonstrated, when it comes to the rewards of working with children and young people and helping them reach their full potential, teaching is hard to beat.


If you would like to find out more about training to teach with the RSA Family of Academies, do take a look at the RSA Academies’ Teaching School Alliance website.


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