It’s no secret that teacher recruitment is an urgent, severe and worsening problem in the UK. Last year the government missed its target for new secondary school teachers by over 40 percent, the ninth time in ten years it has failed to do so. One-third of those who qualified to teach in the past decade have left the profession, and a survey by the NEU suggests 44 per cent of teaching staff plan to leave in the next five years.
To make matters worse, Teach First, one of the largest graduate employers in the UK, is now also struggling. Last year it recruited the lowest number of trainees in four years, missing its target by one-fifth. Meanwhile, a recent Times article revealed that the programme is ‘losing bright graduates to private sector pay’. Yet demand was higher than ever; the charity received 3,500 requests from schools, a 25 per cent increase on the previous record.
In the context of the recent teacher strikes, it’s easy to blame this fall on teacher pay; chief executive, Russell Hobby recently said that “it is hard to compete” with other graduate employers, “a quarter of whom are now paying over £40,000 a year starting salary”. The cost of living crisis has undoubtedly exacerbated matters, and prospective graduates will be attracted by careers with more certain and dramatic salary progression over a job that seemingly only promises real-term pay cuts.
However, fixating on pay oversimplifies matters; my experience is that working conditions, rather than salary, is what gets people through the door and keeps them there. Teaching salaries have never been competitive; when I joined Teach First in 2015 I certainly did not do so for the money. My salary was around £22,000 (including an Inner London stipend), which was far less than what my friends were earning. It went up to £28,000 once I became a Newly Qualified Teacher (tThe government plans to increase this to £30,000 nationwide this year), and if I had taken on extra responsibilities I could have been paid more.
In truth though, no amount of money could have persuaded me to stay at my Teach First school after my second year. I was emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted, and while I’m not one of the ones the Times bemoans for having moved to the private sector (I stayed in teaching, unlike most of my friends), I did move to the private schools sector. I didn’t do it for the money but for my mental health. I sold my soul, but I kept my sanity.
Teach First therefore has much bigger, more nebulous problems to worry about than money. There are many push factors in the most disadvantaged schools – the workload, the chronic underfunding, the poor behaviour, the ever-looming threat of Ofsted – but there are also important pull factors to other careers. Flexible working is now a huge attraction for many people; for example, many mothers who may have seen the appeal of school holidays may now prefer a career where they can work remotely and set their own hours more.
I also wonder how much Gen Z, with their more mindful approach to wellbeing and work/life balance than us people-pleasing millennials, will be keen to join Teach First’s churn-out, burn-out model. Before I joined Teach First, I heard plenty of horror stories about the programme, and soon realised that simply surviving it was a badge of honour in itself. It wasn’t so much a baptism of fire, but a road to hell paved with good intentions. Social media has exponentially multiplied this word-of-mouth effect; I know of at least a few people who had places on the programme but pulled out after hearing about other people’s experiences.
Teach First may be calling on the government to offer a £5,000 recruitment bonus for teachers who work in the most deprived areas, but this is misunderstanding the problems with the programme. Instead, why not offer teachers a lighter timetable, or a whole day at home dedicated to planning, marking and learning, or use the money to get experienced teachers back into the state sector? That’s where the real value lies.