I have spent much of the last two weeks trying to get to grips with the extent of the current teacher shortages for an article in the Guardian, which appeared yesterday here. Many heads, governors and professional organisations like the NAHT and ASCL are expressing concern about teacher recruitment, but the government accuses them of "scaremongering" , says that teacher numbers and vacancies remain stable and that the numbers leaving the profession prematurely are not very different to previous years.
Technically both side are right. Overall numbers applying to ITT (initial teacher training) are higher than in previous years and vacancies in schools around the same. However it is important to look at these figures more closely to compare the numbers entering ITT in particular subjects with the "teacher supply" figure fixed by the government, in other words the number of teachers they think they need to recruit. There are definitely problems emerging for secondary schools, in some subjects and in some parts of the the country - vacancies in London for example are much higher than in other regions
It is also worth reading the evidence from heads and others to the Education Select Committee, which makes it clear that by the time the government does its census of teacher vacancies in November, many heads have had no alternative but to fill vacancies rather than leave a class teacher-less. However this may mean they are taking unqualified or non specialist candidates, often recruited from a much smaller field, with growing concerns about the quality of teaching in those subjects. Here are some of the key statistics from this year:
However the killer fact for the government is that 800,000 extra pupils will be entering the school system in the next ten years. So whichever way you cut it, and however stable current figures are, we are storing up huge problems for the future, given that it takes a couple of years to train, induct and retain a new teacher .
Why has this happened?
The most obvious reason is the economic cycle. Earier teacher shortages were successfully addressed by government interventions such as effective advertising and enhanced pay progression. It is revealing that the first government teacher recruitment campaign in five years has just started. But the real boom years for teacher supply came after 2008 when the economy crashed and graduates were looking at other more stable professions. As the economy has improved teacher recruitment has suffered, one reason by the NAHT and ASCL want to address this through pay incentives.
However money isn't everything and according to one of the heads in my piece, Stephen Tierney, also known as the blogger Leading Learner, we can't just resolve this problem through recruitment alone. We also need to look at retention, workload, morale, school culture and the impact of accountability measures like Ofsted and performance tables.
And steps need to be taken to tackle the failure of the Gove diversification of teacher training routes. In the 2011 Education Act Michael Gove specifically gave up the long-standing statury responsibility of government to determine teacher supply. Instead he championed a market led approach with a diversification of teacher training routes. In this brave new world universities were to have a limited role, following the Govein view that they are populated by members of his "blob", and schemes such as School Direct, the more highly favoured employment based training route to which candidates apply directly, would be boosted by other smaller niche supply routes like Teach First.
With hindsight this looks reckless and Professor Chris Husbands, formerly of the Institute of Education, now vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, told me:" The government has no clear idea of how many teachers it needs becuase it has by and large abandoned planning. It assumes that schools can predict their supply needs but they can't"
Things seems to have gone particularly badly this year and, most embarrassingly for the edu-traditionalist and Gove supporters, almost led to the highly-rated knowledge based History PGCE course at Cambridge University folding before it has recruited any students. Universities only get a small allocation of teacher training students and the history places had filled up more quickly with other providers. Elsewhere PGCE courses like PE were halted overnight after some universities had offered places, which they are now legally required to honour even though they won't get funded for them and may even be fined.
At the Education Select Committee, Michael Gove's former adviser Sam Freedman, now at Teach First, admitted that some changes needed to be made, possibly using a more centralised approach to recruiting through School Direct. However from all the evidence it would seem that a much broader package of measures is needed, which would start with the current Secretary of State Nicky Morgan admitting there is a problem, taking responsibiility for resolving it, building in a proper role for universities and ensuring that teachers going down the School Direct route are distributed fairly around the county with extra incentives for shortage subjects, possibly writing off student loans.
But above all we have to make teaching a career that more people want to pursue and make it worth their while to say once they do start work. If not the inevitable consequence will be larger classes, subjects being cut, poorer quality teaching and increasing numbers of supply teachers, which as we all know is one thing parents hate almost more than anything else. This could start to become electorally very unpopular. Lets hope it doesn't take that state of affairs to prompt a re-think.