We need bold new ideas to complement pay rises and beat the retention crisis, claims Russell Hobby

There is a truth at the heart of education success that is too often lost in the controversies that attract the headlines. We control the factor with the most impact on children’s education: the quality of teaching they receive.

If we don’t ensure a steady supply of skilled, qualified, equipped and motivated teachers – and if we don’t look after them when they arrive – then we are limiting our greatest means to make a difference.

And this task is now very challenging, with powerful forces working against us. The government is correct to point out that there are more full-time teachers in England than ever before. The trouble is that there are more pupils too. And they have an inconvenient habit of growing older – the numbers that spiked in primary are about to move across into secondary school and need new classes and teachers. There will be 600,000 more across both phases by 2020.

Last year, 2,000 fewer new teachers entered the profession than three years earlier. Concerns about workload and public sector pay freezes have compounded a rebound in graduate vacancies in the private sector. There are some lucrative alternatives too: it is just about possible to earn more in your second year in the City than some long-serving primary heads, while many talented graduates can find a first job on double a teacher’s starting pay. This is an astonishing gap for the profession that makes all other professions possible.

Our needs are urgent, the pay review process is long and the gap is wide. We need radical ideas.

It is this situation that will prove the biggest concern to a government committed to social mobility, for it is also those schools serving the most disadvantaged communities who suffer the biggest problems with recruitment, and it is the most vulnerable children who most need a talented teacher; they don’t have a backup.

The situation on the ground is probably worse than official statistics claim, as vacancies are increasingly filled with interim staff, long-term supply and non-specialists.

Improvements to working conditions would undoubtedly go a long way but we mustn’t neglect pay. It is a cliché to say that people don’t become teachers for the money – and the fact that many of those who leave teaching move to jobs with lower salaries lends weight to this belief – but pay does matter. It is a symbol of the status and a simple matter of making ends meet.

It is therefore welcome that the government is looking again at restraints on public-sector pay. But our needs are urgent, the pay review process is long and the gap is wide. We need radical ideas.

One option, given the growing concern over student debt, would be student loan forgiveness. This might also be kinder to the nation’s finances. Teach First has suggested that the government offer to write off student debt based on the amount of time someone spends in the profession; a small amount after a few years, a significant amount – say 50 per cent – after five years.

It should also be targeted to teachers who work in schools serving low-income communities or in shortage subjects. This is a more focused use of resources than bursaries; loan forgiveness based on tenure rewards people for teaching rather than training.

Cash in the bank matters to young people trying to establish themselves, so to borrow a recent phrase, there would need to be “an open and generous offer” on debt to cut through into people’s daily lives. Loan forgiveness should be a complement to, not a substitute for, an uplift in pay and should come alongside further efforts to reduce unnecessary workload.

Now is the time for bold proposals to attract people to the profession and encourage them to stay. There is evidence from the US that such schemes can act as incentives. And we know that graduates are increasingly worried about debt. Forgiveness seems a fair reward for people who commit themselves to public service in the most challenging circumstances and it sends a vital message about the importance of teaching.

Russell Hobby is the CEO of Teach First