The school system in the UK is on the verge of a drastic teacher shortage that could result in a shortfall of 30,000 teachers by September 2016. There have been warnings of a teacher shortage in the UK for the past four years but despite concerns little has been done to rectify the situation. Education leaders and policy makers will need to take decisive action during the coming twelve months if they are to ensure there are sufficient numbers of teachers for the beginning of the next school year.
A Perfect Storm
This critical situation is the result of a number of circumstances which have created what Chris Waterman, chair of the Supply and Teacher Training Advisory Group, referred to as a ‘perfect storm’ – the student population is growing, the number of teachers leaving the profession is increasing and the number of new teachers joining the profession is decreasing.
The UK has had the fastest growing population in Europe for a decade and estimates expect an additional 500,000 students to enter the school system over the next five years. David Simmonds, the chairman of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Children and Young People Board, explained “Britain is in the grips of a baby boom. We’ll have the biggest population in Europe by the end of the century and clearly that’s having a lot of pressure on school places”. Immigration figures which hit record highs last year with net migration at 330,000 , are adding to the baby boom and pushing the school system to its limits. The situation is particularly acute in major cities such as London, Manchester and Bristol where many schools will need to expand and add extra classes.
The rapidly growing student population comes at the same time as teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers, statistics from the Department for Education show that 50,000 teachers left the profession in 2014. One reason for this exodus of teachers is the improving economy. Teaching, like other public sector professions, is often considered ‘recession-proof’ and during periods of economic uncertainty there is an increase in the number of individuals applying to work in the education system. Furthermore, there is some evidence that teachers are more likely to leave teaching when the economy is improving. However, this simple model portrays the teacher as little more than a wage seeker, flickering between occupations at the whims of the economy, it neglects the individual element and the reasons why many professionals became teachers in the first place – to inspire young people and make a small difference in the world. A more reasonable model for understanding teachers leaving the school system in such unprecedented numbers would include both push and pull factors. At present the improving economy appears to be the pull factor but understanding the push factors is equally important.
Rapid Change and Unreasonable Demands
According to school leaders, the most common reasons for teachers to leave education are; excessive workloads, the rapid pace of change, unreasonable demands, health issues and stress. This is supported by the Education Staff Health Survey 2014 which interviewed 2,463 people working in schools and colleges. The report’s findings highlight the problems that classroom teachers are facing, ‘A large majority of 89% blamed excessive workloads for their ill health while more than half cited rapid pace of change (54%) and unreasonable demands from managers (53%) as other key factors. Overall, 80% of teachers, lecturers and support staff said their mental health would improve if managers worked with staff to reduce workload.’
The teacher shortfall is more severe in certain areas of the school system with the shortage of science and mathematics teachers being particularly acute. A report by the National Science Learning Network, in which 1,200 science teachers were surveyed, indicated that excessive paperwork and unrealistic expectations had led to 61% of these specialist teachers seriously contemplating alternative careers.
A Dearth of New Talent
While record numbers of teachers are leaving the school system, the number of new teachers enrolling on teacher training programmes has dropped well below the levels needed to support the student population. Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) showed that applications to train as a teacher in England this year were 9% lower than in 2013. UCAS figures now indicate that the government has been unable to reach its teacher trainee targets for the past four years, further exasperating the growing teacher shortage.
Education secretary Nicky Morgan was quick to attribute the declining number of new teachers on the growing economy, as university graduates now have greater opportunities in the jobs market but once again the economy is just one part of a far more complex picture.
A World Issue
The UK is not the only country facing a teacher shortage crisis. The US is on the verge of a similarly critical situation and while politicians have been quick to link the teacher shortage to the improving economy, classroom teachers have not been shy to voice their opinions. Classroom teachers in the US have been complaining of the ‘erosion of the profession’ and highlighting concerns that many teachers from the UK can sympathize with – the pace of education reform, inadequate support, high-stakes testing, test-and-punish fixation, the erosion of tenure and the evaluation of teachers by test scores, all factors which have been ‘sucking the creativity and joy out of classrooms’. A recent poll in the US found that teacher satisfaction had declined to its lowest levels in 25 years.
The situation in the US has become so bad that even celebrated educators, such as Nancie Atwell, have advised young people against joining the profession, “If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching unless an independent school would suit you.”
Opportunity from Adversity
With the shortage of teachers receiving plenty of publicity it is hoped that policy makers and education leaders will take appropriate action to better support the hard work of classroom teachers and make teaching a desirable career option once again. Although the teacher shortage is a serious concern that demands urgent attention, the situation also opens opportunities and advantages for new teachers and teachers looking for career advancement.
A recent survey by TESS found that new teachers currently had the best prospects since 2007 with almost half of all newly qualified teachers being awarded permanent positions from the beginning of the new school year. The teacher shortage has also increased career advancement opportunities for experienced educators with an increase in demand for department leaders, middle managers and school leaders. In the long term, the growth in career advancement opportunities will continue as the baby boom and high levels of immigration keep the student population growing for years to come, possibly even rising above eight million students within a decade.
If education leaders and policymakers reflect on this looming crisis and realise that unreasonable demands on classroom teachers have a detrimental effect on teacher retention, then perhaps we will see the adoption of more realistic policies and greater institutional autonomy which will make teaching an enjoyable and rewarding profession once again.
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