6 ways to solve teacher shortages, according to experts

'Golden handcuffs', a retention inquiry and more staff poaching schemes could all provide solutions, MPs told

'Golden handcuffs', a retention inquiry and more staff poaching schemes could all provide solutions, MPs told

13 Sep 2023, 5:00

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The Education Committee has heard from a panel of experts on how to solve specialist teacher shortages

While analysis of government figures shows ministers are on track to miss teacher recruitment targets by 48 per cent this year, some subjects are faring even worse than others.

This morning, parliament’s Education Committee grilled subject association leads on how to fix teacher shortages in modern foreign languages, maths, religious education, design and technology and physics.

It comes as part of MP’s inquiry into the teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

All of the subjects have missed government-set recruitment targets in recent years.

The target for maths has been reduced by the Department for Education (DfE) – despite a known shortage of current teachers in the subject.

Professor Paul Glaister, former chair of the Joint Mathematical Council of the UK, told MPs that he “could not understand” what was behind the reduction.

Here is what the experts thought would help to ease shortages.

1. More data needed on teacher retention rates

Glaister, former chair of the Joint Mathematical Council of the UK, pointed out that while the department’s trainee recruitment woes are well documented, not so much is known about the reasons for early departures from the sector.

“If [the DfE] collected data on this and found out why people didn’t stay and had to publish it, then maybe you’d have a better understanding of why we have this crisis,” he told MPs.

He added that an independent inquiry into teacher workforce was needed “to really understand why we don’t retain people who are teaching maths”.

Meanwhile, he claimed that there was currently not a minister of state in the department “whose number one job is teacher recruitment and retention”.

Deborah Weston, research officer at the National Association of Teachers and Religious Education, suggested research should be conducted into how some schools were able to retain teachers in shortage subjects for longer.

“Retention rates are different…in different schools,” said Weston. “So what are they doing that makes teachers stay?

“These are things that could be learned across the piste I think if we could identify good practice.”

2. Schools need capacity for CPD

Weston emphasised that those without a degree in the subject they were teaching could become “an expert over time” with appropriate training.

But the panel of experts warned that not enough non-specialists were able to gain access to ongoing training.

Ryan Ball, director of education at the Design & Technology Association, warned that some non-specialists in the subject were using only paper, cardboard and scissors in classes.

The association trialled a three-day course for non-specialists in the summer holidays “thinking it’s not going to be taken up”, but ended up with a waiting list because they were unable to accommodate all applicants in their offices.

“This cost several hundred pounds. Some teachers were paying for that out of their own pocket because they are anxious and concerned about teaching the subject,” he told the committee.

Hari Rentala, head of learning and skills at the Institute for Physics, told MPs he wanted CPD for non-specialists – subject knowledge for physics teaching – to be “intensified”.

“We need financial incentives for both schools and teachers to make it credible they’re going to find the time and pay for the time to take part, because we know the system is stretched,” he said.

But citing free training for non-specialist maths teachers available through the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), Glaiser said workloads were getting in the way of take-up.

“There’s a lot of money going into professional development, but it’s not being accessed because although the courses are free, there’s just not the capacity in the system,” he said.

Schools Week previously revealed that NCETM met 57 per cent of its target over across two academic years for its specialist knowledge for teaching mathematics training course.

3. Golden handcuffs for teachers

While physics graduates are able to claim government-funded bursaries worth £27,000 to enter teacher training, Rentala suggested more financial incentives could be needed to keep them in the profession.

According to the Institute, “roughly” between 40 and 50 per cent of physics teachers leave within their first five years of teaching. He suggested “targeted uplifts” for early careers physics teachers “seems worth exploring”.

Glaister echoed his comments, adding that to retain more maths teachers “you might have to pay more for early career payments”.

But he added that a golden handcuff – whereby a “financial penalty” was applied to those who left the profession – “might be the answer”.

4. ECF should be more subject-specific

Issues with subject-specificity within the early career framework (ECF) have previously been raised.

A Gatsby Charitable Foundation and Teacher Tapp report earlier this year found that just 4 per cent of early career teachers (ECTs) said their self-study materials had been specialised.

“If you’re…not in command of the development of your subject in that first year, you can imagine how that could easily lead to retention issues,” said Weston.

But she added that while issues with a lack of specific resources needed addressing, so too did the availability of subject-specific mentors.

Rentala added that while the Institute of Physics would like to see the subject-specific element of the ECF “strengthened”, teachers could also benefit from coaching.

“If you’re really struggling [for] your class to get their heads around the idea of circuits…you might need someone you can reach out to for some specific coaching on how you can best teach that issue,” he said.

“That’s a little bit more than mentoring and whether or not the provision at the moment addresses that I think is a bit of a question.”

5. ‘Scale up’ schemes to get professionals into sector

Poaching professionals from other industries was also suggested as a way to boost recruitment. Rentala said a DfE scheme to recruit engineers into physics teaching was a “positive development”.

“It’s small-scale at the moment,” he added. “We think it’s got real potential, we’d like to see it scaled up.”

“There are just so many more relevant engineering graduates than there are physics graduates and it’s a pool that we should be targeting proactively.”

A separate government scheme to lure physics teachers back into the profession by offering them support from an adviser recruited just 23 staff in two years.

6. Teacher workloads need to be reduced

Rentala said while financial incentives and competitive offers from other industries were part of the picture in terms of physics retention, the main issues were “workload and teaching outside of subject area”.

Roughly 40-50 per cent of early career physics teachers leave during the first five years, which is linked to workload and teaching outside of subject area.

The Institute of Physics found that nearly half of ECTs teach less than two-thirds physics, due to being drafted in to teach biology and chemistry lessons.

Meanwhile, Weston added that similar proportions of RE teachers were also leaving within the first five years. Around half of RE teachers mainly spend their time teaching a different subject.

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  1. The education system is a total mess. I am a physics teacher of 20 years who has taught maths. Firstly, the maths course is extremely boring and irrelevant to the kids, and has been made much more difficult in recent years, hence the low percentage to get a grade 7. Make it relevant and enjoyable so the students enjoy it and behave so teachers don’t leave. Physics is much easier to teach due to the practical aspect but in many school physicists are used to teach biology, for example, which makes it difficult for the teacher to stay enthusiastic. Given that the education system is not fit for purpose anymore (i.e. learn and recall, when we have Google at our fingertips), I am not surprised that schools cannot retain teachers. I can no longer justify to my students why they need to learn all these facts and equations when they can be looked up easily. A big shake up is needed to make the curriculum more modern and relevant to the skills the children will need in the future.

  2. Why not recruit from current support staff offer a training package for free most tas want to be in a school already know the stresses but usually cant afford to leave the role to study or afford the cost of training tas salary is rubbish but we do it because we love it if someone paid my training i would jump at the chance

    • The stand out teacher trainees on my primary PGCE were TAs. They had so much more experience and understanding of primary schools than the rest of us. You are right, it is very difficult for a TA to fund this route, which is a shame. Secondary teaching requires a higher level of subject specialism, but there are plenty of graduate TAs kicking about. As well as supporting funding for the transition, the government would also need to address the cultural issues around workload and behaviour that puts off eligible teacher trainees, including TA’s, from entering training.

  3. David Watson

    I moved from engineering into teaching maths sixteen years ago. All of the above is going to achieve nothing (sorry) until wages are fair and the huge gap between state and private systems is addressed.

    • Happy Teacher

      I am a teacher of 23 years and love the job. I have, however, seen an increasing number of younger teachers enter the career and then leave.

      Recently, a maths teacher left after 2 years. Her fellow undergraduate students were earning significantly more and working far fewer hours, even after taking the school holidays into account.

      This teacher and her partner could not afford to turn their heating on for more than 1 hour a day last winter.

      Workload can be reduced to manageable levels, I do and my pupils still achieve very good exam results.

      Treat teachers as professionals, share workload reduction strategies, eventually building these into the professional standards and pay teachers fairly.

  4. Toxic cultures pervade a huge number of schools, where teachers are not treated as professionals, are belittled and driven out once they reach the higher pay scales, in order to save money. Those who wish to understand the reasons for retention issues should read the thousands of posts on groups such as ‘Life after Teaching’ to understand the enormous impact this is having on the whole education system. Teachers who can leave for professions where they are a) better paid and b) treated as adult professionals do so.

  5. Yet another set of suggestions to paper over the cracks.
    I’ve been teaching for 23 years and could not, in all honesty, recommend anyone to go into teaching at this time. Buildings literally falling down due to under investment, teachers moving to China and Saudi Arabia because the don’t earn enough to put a roof over their heads in this country and the piles of pointless paper pushing tasks that have no educational benefit.
    If those in charge seriously believe that the problems in education can be addressed with some extra CPD, then the profession is going down with the Titanic.

    • The problem is not teacher retention its poor politicians who do not take responsibility for their actions or held to account in any meaningful way. When the likes of Michael Gove made up ideas based on opinion and not facts you know we are doomed. Health and education policy needs to be evidence based and non political.

  6. Erm, no. Sort out behaviour, stop making teachers accountable for ridiculous things, like why a child with a learning difficulty hasn’t met the frankly absurd age related expectations, restructure class room support, cut the extremely unnecessary amount of senior leadership, and create a national culture of respect and appreciation for teachers rather than constantly attacking and blaming them. Oh and can the idiotic academies and return to county.
    ‘Golden handcuffs’? Seriously? They think this will HELP? We’re doomed.

  7. BilboBaggins86

    The first five points are aimed at “plugging the gap” in the short term and will not in any way shape or form improve education standards. They are also unrealistic and show a basic lack of understanding of both the job and wider educational landscape.

    Employing “engineers”…. no engineer qualified to teach physics would walk away from their 60k a year job, company car and benefits to teach a class of 35 hormonal powder kegs 4 times per day and then mark till 8pm once home for 28k per year.

    It is laughable that the answer to this is to “pay specialists more” when the government cannot afford a 6.5% wage rise and shifts the burden onto already budget stretched schools, who are now looking to “cut” 2000 teachers as a result.

    On top of this do you expect a 10+ year veteran to be galvanised to stay in the profession when a learner teacher ect is earning more than them in their first year?

    In terms of bursaries having a positive impact on recruitment what we are seeing is that people like free money…. especially after graduating from a “can of beans a day” university lifestyle. They have no real interest in the job and as such drop it as soon as the reality of the profession hits home. Its a nice make weight while they decide on their next course of action.

    In terms of solutions heres my take:

    Abusive parents/pupils need to be dealt with in a quick and effective manner. A child threatening a teacher to have her mom “batter” a female member of staff “again” (as happened to a former colleague) should be dealt with appropriately. Bye…. auf wiedersehen good luck. Dont let the door hit you or your child on the way out. You are not welcome.

    In reality… years worth of evidence has to be collected even in the most serious of circumstances (pupil actively trying to burn down a school…. drug dealing etc) with the eventual cost to the school for exclusion being around 10k. I believe in education for all but I also believe that it is not a right. If you bully, ruin others education and physically assault others. Good luck…. enjoy being broke for the rest of your life. Maybe your next generation will know better looking at what went wrong in your own life.

    We seem obsessed with helping scum and forgetting about those from an array of backgrounds who are decent human beings. This does not lead to a better society but a society that expects rewards regardless of behaviour. So much time is spent on behaviour management and not enough on helping provide a goid education.

    Next…. workload…..

    Teachers in reality earn just above minimum wage for hours they work both inside/at home.

    Marking and homework on the continent is vastly different. I.e. they dont do it as it has very little effect on pupil outcomes. They mark tests per term gauge progress. Yet….. strangely enough they have far better education and in many areas far more difficult courses.

    Leaders also need to stop listening to the next craze of expensive bulls**t (Kagan…. Flipped learning etc) that costs 1000’s and is basically a way for rich kids with political connections (both labour and cons) to make a few quid at the expense of the tax payer.

    Every teacher will tell you theres a push each year for some new methodology, that some guy, from somewhere with a very small sample size said improves results. After school training is given a few nights each month when you should be doing marking or you know having a social life….. nice. It is implemented for a year or two then quietly forgotten as its without merit and s**t.

    And then we have holidays….. the old grindstone that people say means that teachers have it easy…. well, my last year of 11 in secondaries I worked preparing schemes of work, catching up with marking, planning resources going into school to run catch up sessions which took abut 5 weeks of the holidays out from my year. Still great holiday but do I miss it? Nope….. my one ex hod is dead from a heart attack at 60 and the other had a mental breakdown. I’ll take earning more, 6 weeks off and my sanity thanks.

    Lastly we have OFSTED the cancerous money laundering bunch of c**kwombles primarily set up as a way for the government to launder money by paying exhorbitant salaries to people who walk, talk have a coffee and make a decision based on a not normal version of the school they see. In my experience the report offers no value and insight into what a parent can expect for their child in the interim between inspections and encourages educational leaders to inflate grades or…. if you’re a well connected headmaster create courses that dont exist to inflates 1-9 averages so your school is less likely to be prioritised for inspection.

    Getting rid of ofsted would and trusting teachers to do a job well that they love with constructive guidance from experienced peers would yield a far better outcome in my opinion.

    Rant over…. .

    One last thing… teachers do a remarkable job and 80% students that I taught were amazing. But I left for a reason and money wasnt it…. Work life balance and being tired of not being able to support those that deserved it enough were why I left.

    • Absolutely! The disconnect between teachers and the BS of many other “interested” parties is staggering. Honesty in our conversations is needed and we haven’t haven’t had that in at least two decades. This government takes that to new heights though.

    • Your first solution – making exclusions quicker and easier – raises interesting questions about government priorities. COVID lockdown quickly highlighted the value to society of having somewhere to put children with an adult to child ratio of 1 to 30 instead of 1 to 3 childminding which would be cripplingly expensive day after day year after year. Although we say schools are a place for education, our approach to disruptive pupils suggests that schools as a place to put children (in isolation booths, for example) takes first priority. Otherwise disruptive children would be educated in smaller classes on tailor made curricula that would not necessarily track the normal school day, given the expense involved.

  8. Punish teachers who leave the profession early with a financial penalty? Yes, I think that will definitely help get more teachers in schools! Sarcasm aside, the government need to figure this out. Maybe if wages had increased in line with the cost of living since the 80s, when teaching was considered a prestigious career and teachers could afford to support a family with a single income.

    • The comments on here sum it up perfectly. Teachers know what is wrong and know the solutions. So therefore who does the government turn to for solutions. Advisors, Ofsted, school leaders, educational theorists, and anybody who has no idea because they have no real teaching experience. Yep …anybody but teachers.

  9. After 30 years of service I was forced out of teaching Design & Technology because I became too expensive. If you are a teacher who just wants to be a subject teacher with no responsibilities, like myself, then you become a target for those responsible for school finances. A lot of good teachers take on school management roles because they realise that they need to protect themselves. This balancing of the school finances is one of the main reasons why we don’t have many experienced teachers in schools any more. Until this ridiculous system is replaced with a sustainable one then there will continue to be a massive shortage in the teaching profession.

  10. ‘Recruitment and Retention’ is an interesting pairing. On one level they sit together as ways of having enough teachers. In another sense they are in conflict. It seems to me that the government only started to take an interest in retention when the strategy of recruiting cheap new blood and throwing away expensive older teachers didn’t provide enough teachers for the workforce. Even now, it feels like recruitment is plan A and retention is plan B. Paying teachers more is expensive. Giving teachers more PPA and paying supply teachers to cover the extra PPA is equally expensive. What puzzles me is why cost neutral measures like getting rid of pointless tasks, holding school and academy leaders accountable for staff well-being and low retention rates, getting rid of high stakes, one word OFSTED gradings (as ESTYN has already done) seem equally difficult to implement.

  11. Patrick Obikwu


    Teacher morale is plummeting fast
    As we all wonder how long it will last?
    Student absence, misbehaviour and violence is rising high
    And everyone is asking why?

    Students act as if school is a game
    Yet teachers are the ones society blame.
    Teachers are denigrated, treated as slaves
    Toiling unappreciated to early graves

    Teachers are being paid such a pittance
    So new graduates are keeping their distance
    Teachers are leaving at the speed of light
    No respite, remedy or solution in sight

    Teaching once the noblest profession
    Now is being looked down on with revulsion
    Many education managers have no clear direction
    But this nobody will dare to mention

    So many education leaders do not to have a clue
    Of why, how or what to do?
    They smile and praise themselves as if all is fine
    Yet glaring and disturbing is the decline

    No one seems to know what they are doing
    So society does not know where it is going
    Those who know do not have any say
    On how best we can arrest this decay

    There appears to be so much confusion
    To what is a very simple solution?
    Teachers deserve respect, reward and appreciation
    Not assaults, insults and exploitation.

    (Education Leadership, Learning Strategist, School and Youth Development, Critical Theorist, Entrepreneur)
    MA (Ed); P.G. Cert (Dev. Ed. & Global Learning); UK QTS (Science); Adv. Cert. (Sports Sc.); BSc (Hons) Biochemistry