Latest figures published by UCAS show that the number of people who had applied to initial teacher training up to 18th December (12,829) had fallen by around a third, compared to the same point in the previous year (19,330).
This is clearly worrying, for several reasons. The Department for Education’s Teacher Supply Model, used to set teacher training targets, forecasts a required increase in postgraduate Initial Teacher Training (ITT) places of almost 1,400 in 2018/19 compared to 2017/18 – so it is not the case that the system needs fewer new teachers. The secondary school pupil population is also set to rise by over 11% between 2017 and 2021, whilst primary numbers will plateau.
Schools will still be dealing with the shortfalls in the number of teachers that have occurred over the last 5 years (according to the Initial Teacher Training census for 2017/18, only recruitment to PE, history and primary met their targets). For secondary subjects overall, only 80% of the government target was met.
If we fail to secure enough trainees through the initial recruitment stage, there is little opportunity for the employment market to adjust for this later on, without compromising on standards: for postgraduate trainees in 2015/16, 91% were awarded QTS, and 95% of those gaining QTS were employed as teachers 6 months later.
Observers have already pointed to problems of workload and wider working conditions as potential causes of some of these trends. Education Policy Institute research has previously highlighted how teachers’ long working hours may undermine the attractiveness of the profession, while recent reports by the Migration Advisory Committee and the School Teachers’ Review Body have pointed to stagnant pay as a problem for recruitment.
However, none of that evidence suggests that these issues have emerged overnight – and it is unlikely that these factors alone can explain such a substantial fall over one year. There does not seem to be a lack of demand from providers. This year, the Department has allowed ITT providers substantial flexibility to recruit, at will, for most secondary subjects, and the number of places allocated (on the request of providers) for secondary subjects was around 43,000 in 2018/19, compared with 35,600 in 2017/18.
The Department for Education might hope that what we are seeing is the result of prospective recruits taking longer to choose among the expanding options for training available to them, with these shortfalls being made up later in the cycle.
Recently announced recruitment schemes, including the student loan forgiveness pilot, may cause prospective candidates to think further about where, when, what and how to go about getting qualified. The Department may well be pinning its hopes on these interventions, and wider efforts to attract returning teachers to shortage subjects, to produce a turnaround of these unwelcome recruitment trends.
Peter Sellen is Chief Economist at the Education Policy Institute