Amid all the challenges thrown up by the current pandemic the government may at least win a reprieve from one pre-existing condition, writes Jack Worth

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the secondary teacher labour market in England was in a precarious state. The number of secondary teacher trainees required to maintain supply was high and rising due to high leaving rates and increasing demand from rising pupil numbers and yet secondary teacher trainee numbers were below target for seven consecutive years.

The current situation is likely to have wide-ranging impacts on the teacher labour market, and new data published yesterday by UCAS suggests that it may have already had a positive effect on applications to teacher training next year.

The organisation’s monthly report of initial teacher training (ITT) applications in England and Wales for March showed that applications for the 2020/21 cycle were on a very similar trajectory to the two previous cycles, but in yesterday’s figures up to mid-April, the number of applicants has increased by more than would be expected based on previous trends.

The increase is small (3 per cent above the two previous cycles) and interpretation should be caveated. It could be a temporary blip, as this is just one month of data. And other things are also different this year that may have contributed to the shift such as large increases in starting salaries were proposed before the December election, which will apply to this cohort of trainees, as will the national rollout of the Early Career Framework.

A similar boost for teacher recruitment was seen during the last recession

However, the timing of the increase suggests that the coronavirus lockdown is likely to be the crucial factor. It could reflect students getting their applications in early because they have more time due to the lockdown. There is also a good reason from economic theory that plausibly explains why this could represent an encouraging shift in the trend in teacher recruitment and may not be a short-lived effect.

The coronavirus outbreak has increased labour market insecurity, both directly through workers being made redundant or furloughed and indirectly as recruitment activity slows due to companies protecting their short-term financial positions during the uncertainty of the crisis. However, the demand for teachers – and schools’ financial positions – will remain comparatively unchanged during this period. There will always be children to teach.

A similar boost for teacher recruitment was seen during the recession that followed the global financial crisis, the last period of great labour market uncertainty. Higher job security relative to other occupations makes teaching more attractive, as a safe haven occupation while the rest of the labour market looks much stormier.

As the government has found through its numerous policy interventions to try to increase teacher supply, external factors with a strong influence on recruitment decisions such as perceptions of relative job security are difficult to shift with policy. It may be that coronavirus has given teacher recruitment the extra boost it needed, to complement the effect of the policy measures.

The job security explanation is also likely to mean coronavirus may have a positive impact on teacher retention, as fewer teachers decide to leave teaching because the prospect of searching for another job looks increasingly risky. Combined with a possible upward trend in teacher recruitment, the coronavirus situation may therefore turn out to have an unexpected silver lining for teacher supply at a time when the challenge was beginning to look very daunting.

However, there are also potential risks that the sector needs to remain vigilant to. Ensuring teachers’ workload is manageable during school closures and as schools begin to reopen, and safeguarding their safety, health and well-being, is key to supporting current teachers through the crisis.

Teachers and school leaders across the country have shown enormous dedication to their work during the crisis, continuing to support their pupils’ educations while juggling the many challenges of working remotely, home-schooling and caring for relatives. That very visible dedication is also likely to make teaching more attractive to potential teachers in future, as the public increasingly respect the important work teachers do.