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Teacher training: Putting the past behind us

Whatever training route is chosen, it needs trainees. A lack of graduates willing to become teachers has posed a threat to children’s education over the past few years and has become an important issue for the school sector. John Howson looks at teacher training, supply and retention in a post-Covid world.*

By John Howson, chair of TeachVac and County Councillor in Oxfordshire. *This blog was written before the DfE’s announcement on 2nd January 2021 of a new Institute of Teaching.

2020 didn’t prove to be a happy 150th anniversary for state education in England. Hopefully, we will be able to look back on 2021 with better memories. One clear outcome from 2020 was the need to review methods of teaching and learning as pupils were forced to interact with their teachers remotely.

Teacher preparation

The oversight of the school system might have been better managed had there been a strong middle-tier between schools and policymakers.

For many years, too much of the preparation and professional development of teachers has been focused on looking backwards at the past rather than at understanding the possibilities offered by a very different future. The Covid-19 pandemic changed that approach overnight. Parents discovered the reality of teaching and school leaders had to invent new patterns of dialogue between their staff and pupils; often with little help from the government.

Indeed, the planning and oversight of the school system, fractured as it is between local authorities, stand-alone academies and Multi Academy Trusts, might have been better managed had there been a strong middle-tier in operation between schools and policymakers at Westminster.

The role of schools in teaching training

In the course of the past fifty years, the labour market for teachers has oscillated between periods of shortage and times of oversupply.

For many years, I have been an observer of the workings of the labour market for teachers. In the course of the past 50 years that I have been involved with schools in England, the labour market for teachers has oscillated between periods of shortage – occasionally of severe shortages of teachers – and other times where there has been an oversupply.

Under the coalition government, and especially under the stewardship of Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Education, schools were encouraged to be at the forefront of teacher supply. Traditional higher education routes of teacher preparation were out of favour, and narrowly missed disappearing altogether when faced with recruitment controls.

At its zenith, the ambitious School Direct salaried route into teaching accounted for 12% of postgraduate entrants into teacher training.

The ambitious School Direct salaried route into teaching reached its zenith in 2016/17 when such trainees accounted for 12% of postgraduate entrants into teacher training. By the government’s 2020/21 training year census, the same route only accounted for five per cent of trainees, despite a larger number of trainee places being available. 

During the same period, Teach First, the other scheme where trainees are paid a salary, witnessed a reduction in the share of the trainee market from some five per cent to four per cent.

Higher education or salaried training?

Although both the other school-focused teacher preparation routes – the School Direct tuition fee route and the SCITT (School Centred Initial Teacher Training) route – both prospered, in many instances they have characteristics closer to the traditional higher education approach than to the salaried training routes. To date, the new graduate apprenticeship route into teaching has not recruited many would-be teachers.

What training route will be best suited to preparing teachers for the new world post-Covid?

At present, with the disappearance a few years ago of a government body accountable for teacher training and development, policy going forward is unclear. What training route will be best suited to preparing teachers for the new world post-Covid? Will it be school-led, higher education-led or even perhaps employer-driven?

Teacher supply

Whatever training route is chosen, it needs trainees to fill the places, and a lack of willing graduates has posed a threat to children’s education over the past few years. Indeed, the government’s levelling-up agenda must seem hollow to those tasked with ensuring enough teachers to allow all pupils to learn a subject.

Only with the recent surge in redundancies and a collapse in demand from schools has a labour market no longer short of teachers become a possibility for the first time since 2014. Whether the introduction of a pay freeze will deter would-be teachers, only time will tell.

If public sector pensions continue to avoid a freeze, there is a risk headteachers may decide to quit this summer.

The pay freeze, coming after a year of intense stress for school leaders, may actually have more effect on the leadership market for headteachers than the market for classroom teachers. Indeed, if public sector pensions continue to avoid a freeze, there is a risk headteachers may decide to quit this summer. Finding replacements for those that take that route may not be an easy task.

Teacher retention

Even more concerning for the next few years will be the consequences of the years of under-recruitment of classroom teachers. In some subjects made worse by the early departure of those that did enter the profession. Whether to teach overseas, for a different career, or to take a break, this lack of teachers with several years of experience will put a strain on recruitment to middle leadership positions, such as heads of department.

Of 409 trainees preparing to become teachers of Design and Technology across England in 2014, fewer than 200 might still be in teaching.

As an example, in 2014, there were 409 trainees preparing to become teachers of Design and Technology across England. Assuming normal conversion rates from training into employment, perhaps 370 of these will have started teaching in 2015 at the end of their courses. Allowing for departures each year, by now fewer than 200 might still be in teaching from this cohort. 

TeachVac, the vacancy service where I am Chair, recorded more than 100 vacancies for heads of department of Design and Technology posted by schools during 2020. That might require 50% of the cohort to become middle subject leaders at some point. Whether they will be willing to do so, be sufficiently prepared to do so, and be located in the same parts of the country as the vacancies, are key questions for someone to answer.

Key takeaway

Whether or not the DfE is concerned about not just the supply of classroom teachers, but also of middle and senior leaders is an important issue for the school sector.

Whether it is training teachers in approaches to new technology for learning or securing sufficient staff at all levels to create a world-class education for all, Government cannot avoid its responsibilities. To do so would be unfair on our young people already suffering from the upheaval of the past year.

Professor John Howson has conducted research into the labour market for teachers since the early 1980s and is an acknowledged expert in the field. John is a qualified teacher and teacher trainer and Chair of TeachVac, the free teacher vacancy matching service providing unique statistical data and analysis about the education vacancy marketplace.

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