Extra central government funding should be targeted at keeping more maths and physics teachersby Luke Sibieta / May 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
The teaching profession in England is in trouble. Applications to teacher training this year are down by around 30 per cent compared with this time last year. Exit rates have also been creeping up over time and only 60 per cent of teacher trainees are actually in post five years after starting. Overall teacher numbers are currently holding steady. However, with pupil numbers expected to grow by 4 per cent in primary schools and 20 per cent in secondary schools over the next decade, teacher numbers are going to need to rise if class sizes are not to increase. The problem also appears worse in some particular subjects, such as maths, physics, chemistry and languages, where training targets have been persistently missed over time and more teachers leave early in their career. As a result, pupils are less likely to be taught by a teacher with a degree in that subject—for example, in 2016, 45 per cent of maths teachers and 51 per cent of physics teachers had a relevant degree, compared with two thirds of history and English teachers. These figures are particularly concerning for a government that wants more pupils to take these subjects and to increase the depth of subject knowledge at GCSE. Such instability in the teacher labour market—recently analysed by the Education Policy Institute—probably has many causes, such as workload and public perceptions of the profession. However, it hardly seems a coincidence that the last time we saw such difficulties was in the late 1990s—the last time public sector pay was significantly squeezed—and that the problems are worse in subjects where graduates have much better outside earning options, like maths and physics. The challenge of recruiting sufficient numbers of maths and science teachers is nothing new. The problems were actually first recognised in the Devonshire Report in 1875 and then again and again in a series of reports up to present day—with the Dainton Report of 1968, for instance, pointing to an acute shortage of graduate scientists in schools. “Applications to teacher training are down by 30 per cent compared with this time last year” The solutions that have been proposed have also been seen before. Bursaries for physics teachers were first introduced in the early 1980s and then abandoned in the 1990s on the grounds they represented poor value for money. In 2012, the Coalition supercharged bursaries for shortage subjects like maths and physics, but, in a repeat of history, the National Audit Office has now begun to question whether they actually represent value for money. Policymakers are trialling a student loan payment reimbursement scheme for early career teachers in shortage subjects. However, this will be of little benefit to most new teachers who mostly earn below the new £25,000 repayment threshold anyway. Given the problems seem likely to result from the better earning options for graduates in some subjects, the most obvious solution would be to pay teachers differently depending on which subject they teach. Again, this is not a new policy prescription. Schools have also had the freedom to pay science and maths teachers more for quite a long time. However, they have either been unwilling to do so, or have been unable, due to the overall squeeze on funding. Implementing differentiated salaries for shortage subjects would probably therefore require intervention and additional funding from central government. Giving a pay rise to teachers in only some subjects only is likely to run into political difficulties too. Doing so might therefore require lifting the current pay cap to some degree for all teachers, which might itself be justified given the state of the teacher labour market. However, the potential benefits of differentiated salaries are likely to be high and the potential costs quite low. Work for the Gatsby Foundation has found that salary supplements of around 5 per cent for physics and maths teachers in their first five years of teaching would have eliminated the shortage of physics teachers had such a policy been implemented in 2010, and would only cost around £37m per year. The latest cycle of teacher labour market pressures is acute, and needs addressing quickly. Additional pay, targeted at those teaching in subjects which see higher earnings outside of the classroom, might therefore offer a solution.