A year ago, the main concerns for teacher recruitment were that there were too few jobs and placements to accommodate all those who wished to teach. Graduates were flocking to teacher training and existing teachers were staying put. The damage the pandemic did to jobs across the country seemed to be creating a rush for the security of teaching.
The Department for Education (DfE) responded by cutting back the financial incentives that were designed to encourage recruitment and support retention. It cut bursaries by up to 75 per cent in some subjects, dropped the planned retention payments for new ITT entrants, and postponed its ambition to lift starting salaries to £30,000.
One year on, we are getting a slightly better picture of how the pandemic affected the teacher labour market, and whether that was a sensible policy response.
Retention improved, as expected
Teachers at most levels of experience were much less likely to leave the profession last year. The chart below displays the data collected in November last year. Each panel shows the change in retention over time for a specific number of years of experience. For example, the first panel shows that, in 2010, 87.6 per cent of teachers remained in the profession one year after graduating but, in 2020, only 84.5 per cent remained after one year. In the second panel, it shows that 80.5 per cent of teachers are now still in the profession after two years, up from only 77.8 per cent in 2018.
As expected, it shows that, though retention has been falling for teachers of all years of experience, it ticked up in the past year. There are a few exceptions – teachers were still more likely to quit after their first and tenth years in the profession – but the overall picture is one of improving retention through the pandemic.
Last year, we looked at these same figures and saw some signs that the focus on recruitment and retention might be paying off. It appeared there might be improved retention even before the pandemic among newer teachers. At a surface level, the latest figures show further improvement; however, it may be too early to celebrate.
The first note of caution is that even the pandemic increased retention only to the levels seen a couple of years ago, far short of the retention that the profession enjoyed a decade earlier. The slight increase in retention among first-year teachers has also been reversed, despite the pandemic.
Perhaps worse still, our blog last this week indicated that many more teachers now plan to quit the profession than before Covid-19 struck, and that the most common reason is their disapproval of the government’s response to the pandemic. That suggests the increase in retention may be transitory and the DfE’s decision to cut their financial retention incentives may prove short-sighted.
Recruitment has plateaued
The surge in recruitment also appears to have abated and recruitment is returning to pre-pandemic levels. The chart below shows that 2019-20 applications increased to record levels after the pandemic struck. Recruitment remained strong in the first few months of the 2020-21 application cycle but now appears to be returning to the level of previous years.
However, it is reassuring that the forecast difficulties with placing applicants in teacher training last year due to increased demand did not eventuate. The chart below shows that, despite 17 per cent more applicants in 2020 than 2019, a greater proportion were successfully placed obtained places. In total, there were 22 per cent more people placed on teacher training courses in 2020 than in 2019.
Balance is essential
Overall, the data show a very mixed picture for the teaching profession. On the one hand, there is a welcome influx of new recruits and retention improved over the past year. However, those are likely to be fleeting blips and the longer-term trend of declining retention may not yet have been arrested.
The challenge for policy is to ensure that the focus on retention is not lost as the sector turns its attention to children’s education recovery, and as job opportunities begin to appear across other sectors. The pressure on teachers and school leaders is likely to remain high and they will need to be sufficiently supported and compensated.
Reinstating retention payments for all early-career teachers would be a good first step for the DfE. Financial incentives cannot alleviate the pressures of the job, but they can help it remain attractive in comparison to other professions.
Beyond that, it is essential that the DfE keep its commitments in the recruitment and retention strategy, even as attention turns to the task of education recovery. There is a risk that the wellbeing of teachers becomes a secondary concern as learning loss takes precedence over the coming years. That would be a grave mistake: without a motivated, skilled, and experienced teaching workforce it will be impossible to deliver the quality of education that children need to recover from the lost learning of the pandemic.