Short- and long-term challenges beset teacher workforce

teacher recruitment

5 Jun 2020, 13:00

Today, the NFER publishes its latest overview of the teacher labour market in England. Eighteen months on from the launch of the government’s teacher recruitment and retention strategy, Jack Worth explores its findings

This report was written before the coronavirus outbreak, and in many ways it describes a world with very different challenges to the ones the education system currently faces. The long-term challenge of teacher supply has understandably faded from view in the past few months. School leaders have become slightly less focused on what their chances of finding a physics teacher for September are and have instead been a lot busier setting up online education systems from scratch, providing schooling for keyworker and vulnerable children and planning how to open again to more pupils in the new world of bubbles and social distancing.

However, as coronavirus has such big implications for staffing capacity, the issues affecting teacher supply also matter more than ever, both in the short term as the lockdown eases and more pupils return to school, and in the longer term as schools gradually head towards what we are still optimistically calling “normal”.

Senior leaders are having to make difficult trade-offs

The short-term impact of coronavirus on existing teaching capacity is substantial. On Monday, NFER and the Nuffield Foundation published new insights from a survey of senior leaders on schools’ preparations for more pupils to return to school, exploring the extent of the challenge the disruption poses.

The survey shows that in May schools were operating with just 75 per cent of their normal teaching capacity. In addition, school leaders report that an average of 29 per cent of the available FTE teaching capacity is only able to work from home.

At the same time the demands on teaching staff’s time have increased, due to both smaller class sizes in school and the need to continue providing for teaching pupils who are not yet returning to school. More than six in ten school leaders feel unprepared for delivering a combination of face-to-face and online lessons.

One senior leader told us that while “extra teachers will be needed to teach a smaller number of pupils, remote online learning cannot happen at the same time”. Senior leaders are having to make difficult trade-offs in deciding how staff are deployed, while also balancing teachers’ workload and wellbeing.

The impact of coronavirus on staff capacity is also likely to persist into next year and beyond. Some teachers who are shielding due to a condition that means they are clinically extremely vulnerable may not be able to return to work in school in the foreseeable future. Others are in households with someone who is shielding or have conditions that mean they are clinically vulnerable, making any return to school feel risky while there is no vaccine.

These capacity issues come at a time when teacher supply was already in a precarious state. Our 2020 teacher labour market annual report suggests that despite the significant challenges that remain to the teacher supply picture, particularly for secondary teacher recruitment and retention, some progress had been made towards easing the teacher supply challenge in 2019. Teacher retention rates had improved slightly and the average working hours of full-time teachers had fallen by around one hour per week.

However, teachers continue to work longer hours than people in other professions, and report having lower leisure time satisfaction and lower autonomy over their work. Policymakers and school leaders therefore need to continue to improve teachers’ working conditions to ensure sufficient teacher supply during the coronavirus crisis and beyond.

The recession induced by coronavirus also appears to be encouraging more teachers to stay in teaching, at least for the short-term, and more teachers to apply to teacher training. This is potential good news for the future, in spite of the short-term capacity challenges posed by the pandemic. However, making teaching an attractive and sustainable career option is essential for ensuring those teachers are supported to stay in the profession for the long term.


The NFER’s 2020 teacher labour market report can be found here

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