Louise Haigh: Crisis of teacher retention is growing

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ONE of my first meetings as a newly-elected MP was with the headteacher of Newfield Secondary School in my Sheffield constituency where I was shocked to learn that after placing a national advert for a science teacher, the school had not received a single application.

I was pretty horrified but the more people I spoke to in the education system the more I realised this was a fairly common phenomenon. Determined to raise the issue further, I was successful in securing a much needed debate on teacher recruitment and retention in the House of Commons.

On the very day of the debate, the Chief Inspector of Education said that the main challenge facing the system was encouraging people to enter it. I was therefore disappointed with the complacency Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, demonstrated during the debate. Ignoring this issue is perilous to the futures of our children and deeply disruptive to their education.

Vacancies in teaching have doubled during the past year and a recent survey for Schools Weekly found that for the upcoming school year, only 83 per cent of secondary places have been filled. Yet the Minister refused to acknowledge what is undeniably a growing crisis.

Colleagues raised the fact that some schools are not even advertising for empty posts as they cannot see them being filled and the advertisement is costly.

This issue is becoming increasingly obvious in the core teaching areas that our economy so desperately needs young people to train and work in – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM subjects).

To meet the demand required to build the stable high-tech industrial economy the UK needs, we should be training one million young people. We want our young people to be well qualified and inspired to pursue these careers, yet in schools good teachers are leaving in their swathes and there is under subscription in training.

In physics and maths there is a 33 per cent under subscription. For design and technology, the figure rises to a shocking 56 per cent. Recruitment targets are now being missed year in, year out.

In terms of recruitment, the post-graduate training environment is now confused and fragmented. With 17,000 places at university set to move to Schools Direct next year, schools are reporting incredible difficulties in engaging with this scheme, causing a regional mismatch in placement demand. Other routes such as Teach First are failing to deliver the stable teaching numbers we need.

From the Government’s own figures, I have learned that 400 Teach First graduates started teaching maths and science in the last school year, but nearly 600 left the profession. The Minister triumphantly claimed that less than 50 per cent of Teach First graduates still in post was “actually staggeringly successful”.

I don’t believe that spending significant amounts of money on training teachers, over half of which leave after two years, is particularly a sign of success.

The debate allowed me to highlight another key problem facing the teaching sector – namely, the massive increase in workloads. According to the OECD workload diary, compared with an average of 38.3 hours per week, teachers are working a staggering 50 hours per week. It is becoming harder and harder to keep hold of qualified and experienced teachers and it seems obvious to everyone except the Government that this is a result of an overworked, demoralised workforce.

As pay and conditions continue to decrease and as the system fragments, the situation will only continue to get worse. Indeed, the profession is now so unattractive that for every one per cent the economy grows, applications fall by five per cent. We need to work with teachers and trade unions to look at this issue.

Finally this is not just about the failure to attract new teachers and retention, it is also about the cost. Having to train and recruit new teachers is extremely expensive and short-term solutions of supply teaching are proving to be costly.

We spend five per cent of our total education budget on agency teachers, compared to one per cent in the US who directly employ their supply teachers.

Per week, schools pay an average of £1,000 per teacher and often half of this is going to the agency. This means supply teachers are getting poor rates of pay, with only 6.7 per cent reporting being paid according to national pay rates in a survey by the National Union of Teachers. This exploitation is troubling.

Teaching is a fantastic profession but I fear it is undervalued by this Government. This has to change.

Louise Haigh is the Labour MP for Sheffield Heeley.