In the midst of a global pandemic, with so many immediate issues to address in education, it seems odd to return to pre-covid-19 concerns about teacher retention. However, the Department for Education’s latest statistics on the state of the school workforce offer a glimmer of hope that the worst of the profession’s recruitment and retention difficulties may be behind us.
That is not to say they paint a rosy picture – new entrants to the profession are down this year, and pupil-teacher ratios in secondary schools continue to rise – but there are signs that the department’s efforts to improve recruitment and retention are beginning to pay off.
The main evidence of improvement is in the retention statistics. These show the proportion of teachers who remain in the profession each year and, as the chart below shows, that proportion has been falling for the past decade, and falling for teachers of all levels of experience. On the whole, it paints a glum picture of the attractiveness of the profession and clearly illustrates why retention has been such a focus for the government in recent years.
However, in the most recent data – gathered in November 2019, before covid-19 struck – there is an indication that teachers in the first couple of years of their careers are more likely to remain in state-funded schools. In 2018-19, the retention rate for that group flattened out and, now that cohort is in their second year, they are slightly more likely than their predecessors to remain in teaching. Their successors as first-year teachers are more likely again to remain in the profession.
We should be cautious about over-interpreting two years of data, particularly when the numbers for nearly all other cohorts of teachers still show falling retention. However, it seems possible that the government’s efforts to improve the offering for early-career teachers are beginning to pay off for the most recent graduates. What we don’t yet know is whether the improved retention is seen across all phases of education, which is critical for dealing with the surge in secondary pupil numbers.
There is further good news in the latest recruitment statistics for initial teacher training, released last week by UCAS. We wrote earlier in the month about the increased recruitment numbers in May and it now appears that June has also seen record numbers applying to become teachers. If the reaction to the pandemic follows the pattern of the 2008 financial crisis, applications are likely to be higher again next year.
The concern for recruitment now is where to place both trainees and new teachers. Covid-19 has largely shut down the market for teachers moving schools, which has left many training providers unable to find placements for their students and NQTs. Finding ways to accommodate additional trainees isn’t a problem that the department is used to having, but it is one that they must address rapidly if these enthusiastic young graduates are to be retained in the profession.
Retention is crucial because the wider context is that pupil numbers are surging in secondary schools and teacher numbers are simply not keeping up. Each year, the department projects how many teachers are required to maintain the current pupil-teacher ratios with the expected number of pupils. As the chart below illustrates, each year that projection shows that the number of teachers needs to rise and, each year until 2019, the number of secondary teachers has fallen.
Not only are the projections being missed each year, but they also shift down each year and set a more achievable target. That happens largely because the expected pupil-teacher ratio is revised upwards annually, to reflect the changing reality. The implication is that achieving the projection would still only maintain the current class sizes, which have grown from under 15 pupils per teacher in 2011 to 16.6 this year.
The rise in numbers this year is a welcome sign of progress but it still fails to match even last November’s projection of need, which is based on a pupil-teacher ratio of 16.6. The government might now be on the right track with retention numbers starting to turn and covid-19 boosting recruitment, but there is still a very long way to go.