The government’s latest boost for new maths and physics teachers may not solve much, apart from attracting staff to good schools in the pilot areas, says Mark Boylan

The government’s latest approach to sorting out the shortage of maths and physics staff is to offer new teachers of these subjects a £4,000 boost paid in two instalments, on top of generous existing training bursaries.

A two-year trial starts this autumn for teachers in the first five years of their careers and working in the northeast, Yorkshire and the Humber, and the government’s social mobility “opportunity areas”. The result could be maths teachers receiving £39,000 early in their careers. But is this the best way to tackle the shortage long term?

Initiatives to retain maths and science teachers have been going on for years, with teams from Sheffield Hallam evaluating various schemes. Successive governments deserve praise for their efforts, but some of their ideas may not have been the best use of money. Unfortunately, this may also be true of the latest initiative.

Why? First, the money will be paid to a teacher in an area regardless of whether there are difficulties with recruitment in their school. There are plenty of schools in the areas selected for the trial that do not have a problem in attracting well-qualified applicants or in retaining them, while the scheme could have a negative impact on schools with recruitment issues that are just outside the chosen areas.

The announcement, for example, is good news for schools in Sheffield or Derby who are included, but not for schools and teachers in Chesterfield or Worksop. It could mean well-qualified teachers in schools on the edge of the preferred regions may leave struggling schools to go to attractive schools in the chosen areas. That doesn’t solve the problem, it just moves it around.

Incentives should switch to bursaries

One alternative would be to forget about regions and areas and use the money to pay early career teachers in schools with the greatest challenges, wherever they are in the country. But this type of scheme still wouldn’t fix the main problem of how to successfully increase the number of maths and physics teachers needed – a problem that is only going to get worse as pupil numbers rise.

However, it is positive that the Department for Education (DfE) is finally shifting its focus from recruitment to retention. The current bursary incentivises graduates who are marking time or don’t get the job they want at the end of their degree to try teaching, but it doesn’t encourage them to stay.

So, what might be better ways of improving the supply of maths and physics teachers? First are measures that can improve retention of all teachers: a reduction in workload, removing league table pressures, better pay.

Second, incentives should switch from bursaries in training to retention bursaries that are paid after time in the classroom, not just in some areas but for all teachers.

Third, it is right that the government wants to do something to support the recruitment challenges of schools serving disadvantaged communities, but this must be addressed separately to subject specialism as this can cause divisions in the very schools where staff most need to pull together.

How about a golden hello for any teacher joining a school that has high levels of children receiving free school meals or other similar indicators, regardless of the subject they teach?

Ultimately, what we need is a Royal Commission or public inquiry into teacher supply that would set out a 20 or 30-year vision that all political parties sign up to. It would include a plan for a teaching profession that has the same status as it does in successful education systems in Europe or Asia; countries where being a teacher is a first choice for many maths and physics graduates. Rather than more attempts at quick fixes with short-term funding, it’s time for a long-term solution.