An evaluation of a trial which forgives student loan repayments for teachers in shortage subjects and supply cold spots has found no “strong evidence” that it aids retention.
The report by CFE Research into the teacher student loan reimbursement scheme found its influence on teachers’ career choices was “subtle”, and that its impact was “limited” for staff who had concerns over workload and their work-life balance.
Proposals to forgive teachers’ student loan repayments were first promised in the Conservatives’ 2017 general election manifesto. A pilot in 26 areas was announced later that year.
Teachers who qualified between 2013 and 2021 and spend at least half of their time teaching languages, biology, chemistry, computing or physics are eligible to claim back repayments for up to 11 financial years into their teaching careers.
But a statistical analysis conducted by the DfE “did not find strong evidence of any
effect of receiving [loan forgiveness] on teacher retention”.
There was a “small difference in year-on-year leaver rates” between those whose loans were forgiven and those whose loans were not.
But the “size and variability of the pilot, with additional variability caused by the Covid pandemic, meant that the analysis was not sufficient to determine whether this was due to a real effect of the pilot, or random variation”.
The evaluation looked at impact on teacher recruitment and retention, and relied on a survey of teachers and interviews with teachers and heads alongside the statistical analysis.
Only a third of those surveyed said financial incentives motivated them to continue in teaching, and 17 per cent were “very motivated” by them.
Cash boost can’t counteract workload woes
However, the influence of loan reimbursement also increased with the amount.
Thirty-two per cent of survey respondents said an annual forgiveness of £1,656, or £138 per month, would be “very influential” on their decision to remain a teacher, compared to 6 per cent who said the same for a £312 annual, or £26 monthly reimbursement.
Respondents who said teaching did not offer a good work-life balance and that workload was unmanageable were less likely to say they would remain in the profession, with these factors “statistically related to the likelihood to leave teaching within five years”.
“Therefore, [loan forgiveness] appears limited in how it counteracts these factors in these specific circumstances.”
Forgiveness had “some influence on retaining teachers who thought their workload was manageable and amongst those more concerned about their student debt”.
The evaluation found individuals entered teaching for “many reasons”, with financial incentives just “one factor amongst many”.
In 2019, just 7 per cent of trainees said loan forgiveness would “strongly influence” which subject they would teach. The evaluation “consistently found altruistic motivations had a stronger influence on teacher recruitment”.
Bursaries best cash incentive, but teachers have other motivations
At every stage of the evaluation, teachers said they were “motivated to teach because they loved their subject and wanted to make a difference to children’s lives”.
Bursaries, which pay more money at the beginning of teachers’ careers, were noted as the “most influential financial incentive for teachers entering the profession”.
In 2019, 24 per cent of teachers interested in loan forgiveness said they would consider moving to an eligible school if they could commute. Fourteen per cent said they would move to an eligible area if it was like their current home.
The scheme “exerted influence alongside other teaching and lifestyle factors when making choices about next steps”.
The survey found 33 per cent of eligible teachers in pilot areas who did not claim were not aware of the scheme.
Many headteachers also reported “little knowledge” of the programme apart from the general concept. This meant they “could not alert prospective teachers to benefits like TSLR as part of recruitment”.
Headteachers also “often said they promote targeted financial incentives discretely”, because “most thought that such incentives can be divisive within the school”.
“They explained that teachers who are not eligible for these incentives work just as hard as those who are eligible, which can cause issues amongst staff. On balance, interviewed headteachers did not see [loan forgiveness] as a primary recruitment or retention tool.”