Luke Sibieta: We all pay the price for low teacher salaries

Pupil numbers are rising, teacher training applications are falling and teachers are exiting the profession after only a few years. This does not make pleasant reading for pupils, parents or the government.

The school system has been put under pressure in recent years

Early on in his tenure as Education Secretary, Damian Hinds highlighted that teacher recruitment and retention are two of his foremost priorities. A new Education Policy Institute report on the teacher labour market in England reveals why this area requires such urgent attention.

Yorkshire, in particular, is one part of England seeing some especially acute teacher shortages. While pupil numbers in England have risen by 10 per cent since 2010, teacher numbers have failed to budge. Pupil-to-teacher ratios have risen from around 15 pupils to one teacher in 2010, to nearly 17 by 2018. Of further concern is that just at a time when we should be seeking to boost the number of teachers, training applications have also reduced.

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All of this makes keeping teachers in the profession a priority – but efforts to improve retention have not demonstrated much success. In fact, exit rates are on the rise, with only 60 per cent of teachers remaining in state-funded schools five years after starting. This rather gloomy five-year retention rate drops even further to just 50 per cent for priority subjects like maths and physics.

Why are we seeing teachers leaving the profession? That teachers feel over-worked and over-assessed is well-documented. But we should not overlook the fact that teachers’ pay has declined by about 10 per cent in real-terms since 2010 – though this trend will end from September 2018, after the Department for Education’s announced wage rises.

This does not and will not change the fact many teachers are often able to earn much more outside of the classroom. In maths, for example, average graduate salaries are £4,000 above those of teachers. This provides one explanation for why subjects like maths and the sciences have the lowest proportions of highly-qualified teachers.  

One of the most eyebrow-raising trends regards the stark differences in how highly-qualified teachers are represented in the most, and least deprived schools in England. In areas outside of London, just over a third of maths teachers and just under half of chemistry teachers in the poorest schools had a degree relevant to the subject they were teaching. In better-off schools outside of the capital, the proportions are far higher.

Shortages of highly-qualified teachers in these poorer schools appear to be the most severe in physics. In the worst-off schools outside of London, fewer than one in five of physics teachers have a relevant degree. In richer schools outside of London, the figure rises significantly to just over half.

There are massive disparities in teacher quality across local authorities in England. Some seem to find few problems attracting specialised teachers – yet we find many areas, including in Yorkshire, that are struggling to attract top graduates.

The proportion of teachers with a relevant degree is particularly low in South and West Yorkshire. Our report isolates areas such as Barnsley and Doncaster, where, when it comes to the subjects regarded as “high-priority” by the Government, under 40 per cent of teachers have a relevant degree. It is in these, and other similar areas, that prospective solutions should be targeted with the most urgency.

How can we alleviate these shortages, and secure a steady stream of highly qualified graduates into these parts of the country, and these priority subjects? Possible solutions include salary supplements of around five per cent. This aligns with findings from successful schemes in the US, in which teachers in maths and science subjects were offered bonuses if they remained in the profession. To be as effective as possible, this would need to be targeted at the local authorities most in need of highly-qualified teachers.

School budgets are, of course, already strained. As such, the Government should consider a centrally-funded national salary supplement scheme. Such a scheme would be inexpensive, and should help to ease growing pressures. There is no quick fix, but it’s crucial that we urgently address the incentive structures presented to teachers. The longer the Government takes to act, the steeper the mountain it has to climb.

Luke Sibieta is a Research Fellow at the Education Policy Institute