Fiona Millar: Situations Vacant

  • Fiona Millar: Situations Vacant

Politics is a funny old business isn’t it? A month or so ago the Department for Education was telling anyone who would listen that warnings about teacher shortages were ‘scaremongering’. Now the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan claims solving this non-problem is her number one priority.

Doesn’t inspire much confidence does it? Recruiting and training teachers is perhaps the most intractable of the current difficulties facing schools, because it takes so long to attract, train and induct a new teacher. One would hope the people in power were on top of the facts.

But therein lies the problem. Four years ago a conscious decision was taken, in the 2011 Education Act, to do away with the historic and important role of the Secretary of State to plan for and ensure there is an adequate supply of teachers in the right subjects and in the right place.

This responsibility (introduced after the second world war) was one of only three statutory powers over the education system that rested with central of government until the late 80s. The other two were the removal of wartime air-raid shelters from school playgrounds, and approval of the opening and closure of schools allied to the size of the school building programme. The majority of education decision-making and oversight rested with local authorities for most of the second half of the 20th century.

Fast-forward to today and the Secretary of State has over 2500 powers over schools – part of the gradual centralisation of our school system – but has relinquished the one role that really matters. Even more bizarrely this hasn’t been handed over to another body or individual with strategic oversight for planning teacher training, but to the market and a proliferation of different supply routes like the preferred School Direct, to which candidates apply directly; the more niche but equally acclaimed Teach First; and the now very much out of favour university route.

The bigger picture

This policy rests on the deeply flawed assumption that individual schools, some of which will be training institutions, plus applicants making personal choices about where to train, will magically work out how many teachers are needed in each subject in each region for the next decade.

And getting it right matters more than ever for two reasons. The first is that as the economy improves, the attraction of a career in teaching typically subsides. Post crash 2008 was a high point in recruitment, but now graduates are gravitating towards other jobs that presumably seem more attractive. The economy could slide back into recession but this is hardly an ideal way to resolve the problem, given the impact a downturn could also have on many children and their families.

The second pressing issue is that the ‘noughties’ baby boom means that thousands more pupils will be entering the school system in the next decade – some estimates suggest up to 900,000 more – so it won’t be just school places that are needed but teachers to put in front of many more classes and growing more head teachers for the future.

Latest figures suggest serious shortages of trainee teachers are emerging at secondary level, in particular regions and in subjects like maths, physics, geography, DT and RE and MFL. Heads also report filling vacancies from dwindling fields with poorer quality candidates than in the past. No wonder Ms Morgan is belatedly waking up to this ticking timebomb.

Higher ground

The solutions are twofold. Put bluntly we need more planning. This is not a Stalinist, statist approach but sheer common sense. Someone needs to take an overview of where the need is, and where to direct trainee teachers to qualify (and hopefully then work), with a grown up attitude to the role of universities. Higher education has been dismissed as being full of the wishy-washy progressives who made up Michael Gove’s mythical ‘blob’. But in fact universities have a crucial part to play in a sound regional teacher recruitment strategy.

But probably more importantly we need to understand why teaching isn’t as attractive a career option as it could and should be. Is this about the money? Research suggests that many people weigh up professional autonomy and personal fulfillment against financial remuneration when considering career options – and this may be relevant when it comes to retention as well as recruitment in the teaching profession. Even if we get the planning right, new recruits may not come forward in the numbers we need unless the culture around teaching and education, and the respect shown to teachers by government and others, make it a career worth pursuing. Nicky Morgan has got a lot of careful thinking to do if she really does want to solve this growing problem as her number one priority.


Fiona Millar is a columnist for Guardian Education and a co-founder of the Local Schools Network.