In a recent article¹, the NASUWT declared that the only plan the government needs to address the teacher recruitment crisis is a change in its policies. The article highlights four areas that need to be addressed: teachers’ pay, career progression, morale and workload. This brings the scale of the problem sharply into focus and it is daunting.

The financial costs of the crisis are staggering. According to a recent report2, schools spent £800 million on supply teachers in 2015 alone. The impacts on children are well reported – rising class sizes, less personalised learning and inconsistent teaching as schools call on supply teachers to breach gaps left by teachers’ absences and the inability to fill posts with permanent recruits. Of course, one must also consider the costs to dedicated teachers forced to abandon their profession because the working conditions have become intolerable.

In the face of all this, it is clear that any changes in policy must be radical, decisive and pervasive. Undoubtedly they will also require massive increases in education funding, which is the crux of the problem. The education system is caught in a Catch-22 situation: past reluctance to increase funding by what now appears to be a relatively small amount in order to effect changes that might have helped to divert the recruitment crisis has resulted in the current need to invest massive amounts in order to reverse the system out of a blind alley.

For years there have been calls to raise teachers’ salaries. How can the profession expect to recruit talented graduates – let alone retain them – when the starting salary is £5,000 per annum lower than the average salary a recent graduate might expect to attract?3

We have witnessed the rise and fall of incentive schemes intended to lure new recruits: training bursaries and salaried training posts, “golden handshakes”, benefits – like gym membership – more often seen in private enterprise than the education sector, shortage-subject bonuses and so on. Other suggestions have included bonuses that are based not so much on the teacher’s performance as on their willingness to work in an “underperforming” school in a low-income area.

These all imply that teachers are really only in it for the money and that simply adding a few more pounds to the pay packet will blind teachers to the real issues that make the job intolerable for too many.

Another proposed remedy that will really only serve to paper over the cracks is increasing the number of teacher training places available. Like other countries including Canada, we would then have a surplus of teachers available, enabling schools to pick and choose whom they recruit. This may well work in the case of “successful” schools in attractive catchment areas, but will it really change the status quo in more deprived areas? And, of course, such a scheme doesn’t really take into account the fact that many joining the teaching profession are those changing career (rather than recent graduates just starting out), whose previous experiences in other spheres undoubtedly enrich their teaching. How many of these would still consider teaching if the odds on finding a job after retraining were suddenly drastically reduced?

Rather than attempting to draw new blood into teaching, surely it would be more productive to focus on retaining existing members of the profession? Building up a surplus of qualified teachers from which we can draw every time an experienced teacher leaves the classroom for good implies that we are happy with a system that treats individuals as little more than cannon-fodder. We cannot afford to reduce even further the value of such experienced professionals.

The solution, therefore, surely lies in drastic policy change, as the NASUWT has suggested. Such change must focus heavily on the correlated areas of workload and morale.

Reducing administrative requirements would be a good starting point, and one which is directly within government control. Other considerations might include reducing the number of contact hours required as part of a full-time contract (without a concomitant reduction in salary) and increasing the availability of part-time contracts. In tandem with this, schools should be encouraged to formalise relationships with specific supply teachers to ensure greater consistency for pupils when cover is required.

It is also imperative that the system rewards experience more readily. Greater options for career advancement not involving progression into management need to be available. Allowing teachers greater scope for specialisation is one possibility. While some teachers happily embrace a broad curriculum, it might benefit others – and their pupils – to focus closely on particular aspects of their subject or on teaching specific age-groups. Offering sabbaticals, during which teachers might update and extend their skills and reflect on their practice, or simply take a break before returning refreshed, would be a powerful indication to teachers that their skills and experience are valued.

To be truly successful, however, change must take place at an even more fundamental level. It is time for the government to define clearly the precise role in society it now expects schools to fulfil. Acknowledgement of how this has changed in recent years will then clear the way for schools and policy-makers to discuss how the system needs to be restructured in order to meet the requirements of this role and fix the teacher recruitment crisis.

In some areas, the burden of social care falls heavily upon schools, which are then criticised for not guiding their pupils to satisfactory levels of attainment in standardised tests. If social care is to be a priority within schools, judgements about a school’s level of “performance” need to be decoupled from data about test results. It should also become the norm for a school’s payroll to include experts such as social workers, counsellors and healthcare professionals, allowing teachers to focus on their own areas of expertise.

There is another area in which change is crucial: public perceptions of teachers. As these are fuelled by the tone of media reports and have a direct and powerful impact on teachers’ morale, it is critical that the loudest voices in the media convey a message that is positive about the contributions teachers make to society.

Clearly the situation has moved far beyond the scope of a quick fix. Fundamental restructuring of the education system and realignment of our expectations are required and unfortunately these will be costly. Meanwhile, the priority must be nurturing the existing workforce rather than fostering rapid turnover amongst new recruits.

Will the teacher recruitment crisis ever be fixed?

Rachel Andersson