Short-term tinkering after a decade of disruption will not reverse dwindling numbers, warns David Spendlove. The government needs to think hard about why the profession is becoming less appealing

The recently published School Workforce in England data for 2017 showed a continuation in the downward trend, with 5,300 (1.2 per cent) fewer teachers than the previous year. Moreover, the Teaching Supply Model targets for recruitment are almost certain to be missed once again this year.

Taking into account five consecutive years of missed recruitment targets, increased retention difficulties and the 19 per cent forecasted growth of secondary students by 2026, we see there are huge problems ahead; not only for the government but for everyone committed to ensuring all children have a capable and qualified teacher in front of them.

These figures mask a deeper problem

These figures also mask a deeper problem. Those providing initial teacher education have had to work harder to recruit, with diminishing returns – and all this despite a series of desperate and unprecedented steps taken by the Department for Education to make the figures look respectable.

These include:
• Over-recruiting in some subjects, while others repeatedly fall short of their targets.
• Ofsted changing its inspection framework to inspect providers on “maximising” recruitment.
• Changes to NCTL ITT criteria that discourage providers from making prior school experience an entry requirement.
• Letters to vice-chancellors of Russell Group universities encouraging them to run Subject Knowledge Enhancement courses.
• Queries from the DfE to providers over “high rejection rates” of applicants and the closing of recruitment for courses that are full.
• The extension for a further year of a “no allocation” system, maintaining a shift away from an allocation model based upon region and notional quality of provision.

To be fair to the DfE, it has taken a pragmatic response to the unfolding calamity – much of which is self-made. However, its piecemeal approach – based on a “marginal gains” principle of making the highest conversion of applicants to acceptance – will not address underlying recruitment issues.

Ultimately a marginal gains approach is insufficient to improve the quality and quantity of applicants. When civil servants’ next think-tank exercise takes place, instead of considering how to fish a small number of applicants from a diminishing pool, they should ask the fundamental question: Why is teaching becoming less appealing?

Almost certainly there needs to be a cultural shift within the DfE and a rethink of policy and practice. The marketisation and fragmentation of initial teacher education has been a significant policy failure, and we have gone from an aspirational approach of raising the entry bar to unprecedented leverage to fill places on initial teacher education programmes.

We need to move away from policy based on knee-jerk short-termism and towards the establishment of an independent agency charged with instituting a long-term strategy for supplying and valuing high quality teachers. This will not be straightforward, as the challenge to recruit and retain the best teachers is now a global one, and enticing opportunities for new graduates are on the rise.

Sustainable solutions do not lie in tinkering

However, if teaching does not remain at the forefront of desirable careers, the negative implications are serious indeed. Sustainable solutions do not lie in tinkering, gimmicks, short-term incentives or marginal gains approaches; instead, we need a long-term government commitment to valuing and nurturing the profession built on ensuring that high quality teacher preparation programmes, with sufficient national coverage for all subjects, are sustained and valued.

Commitments to teacher preparation and retention will only succeed if they are accompanied by a significant shift in culture to one that values all teachers and attracts those with the moral and intellectual appetite for making a difference. Professional agency must be restored, with teachers allowed to thrive and be innovative, free from a stifling, punitive, risk-averse culture.

The past decade has shown how to fragment, unravel and disrupt a teacher supply and preparation system that was successful and coherent, if far from perfect. Current warning signs show that the need to reimagine an ambitious and sustainable teacher recruitment, retention and development ecosystem has never been greater.