The Covid recession presents teacher recruitment with short-term gains but now is not the time to ease off the recruitment and retention strategy, writes Jack Worh

Before the pandemic, England’s school system was facing an increasingly severe challenge of training enough teachers to meet the demand caused by growing secondary pupil numbers and high leaving rates. While Covid-19 has brought disruption to all aspects of our lives, NFER’s new research, published today, shows that it has brought both opportunities and challenges for initial teacher training (ITT).

Labour market uncertainty due to the recession has led to a surge in interest and the number of people applying to enter teaching. Accepted offers to primary and secondary courses are up 14 and 20 per cent respectively in 2020 compared with the previous year.

Particularly welcome are substantial increases in accepted offers for shortage secondary subjects such as maths, MFL and chemistry. However, the number of accepted offers in physics is only six per cent higher than at the same time in 2019.

Our teacher survey data also highlights that teacher retention is likely to be higher in 2020/21, effectively reducing the number of new teachers schools will need in September 2021. The proportion of teachers that were considering leaving over the next year in July 2020 was substantially lower than in June 2019, by 15 percentage points for primary and secondary teachers alike.

Economic conditions have blown a fair wind for ‘recession-proof’ teaching

Accounting for increased recruitment as well as higher teacher retention, it is likely that trainee numbers in all subjects except physics and design and technology will meet the school system’s need for teachers in September 2021.

Circumstances may change further before September 2021, particularly teachers’ career plans, so this analysis should be treated as indicative of the possible outcomes. But it nonetheless demonstrates the impact of the fair wind the economic conditions have blown for ‘recession-proof’ teaching.

However, Covid-19 also brought considerable challenges for schools and ITT providers. A major issue in the face of increasing interest in teaching is schools’ capacity to take school-based training placements.

Our senior leader survey conducted in July showed that schools were planning to reduce the number of placements they were offering for trainees this year due by 20 per cent in primary schools and seven per cent in secondary schools. This creates a bottleneck in the system, squeezing ITT providers’ ability to make offers to all the additional suitable applicants they receive.

As a result of the flexibilities introduced by the DfE to ITT requirements and ITT providers’ careful approach of only making offers where school placements are arranged, the system looks likely to be able to train the increased number of trainees. In addition, some senior leaders we surveyed expressed optimism about offering placements later in the school year if they could successfully navigate the autumn term. However, risks remain that schools could withdraw from placement offers they have made, so placement capacity should be kept under close review.

School and trust leaders have risen to the challenge of continuing to deliver education during this most profound of crises. However, the long-term health of the education system depends on training the next generation of teachers. Schools and trusts should be encouraged and supported to play their part in providing placement capacity, particularly over the next few years when trainee numbers are likely to be higher.

The squeeze on placement capacity has also highlighted a vulnerability that could continue to impact the ITT sector over the next few years. Mentor capacity in schools is likely to be a key potential limiting factor, particularly as 2021 is also the year of the national roll-out of the Early Career Framework (ECF) and the second year of its early roll-out phase, requiring additional mentor capacity in the system.

Given the challenges ahead, the government also needs to decide which flexibilities to the ITT requirements will need to continue into 2021 and communicate this to ITT providers and schools so that they can plan effectively.

The 2020 recession promises to ease supply concerns in the short-term, but it is also important to recognise that fair winds will not blow forever. Government should maintain its focus on delivering the teacher recruitment and retention strategy, ensuring that the teaching profession remains attractive beyond relatively good job security.

Measures aimed at reducing teacher workload and improving retention appeared to be bearing fruit before Covid-19, and ensuring the teacher starting salary is competitive with other professions will be especially important once the labour market recovers.