With the vital role of schools and teachers at the forefront of public debate during the COVID-19 pandemic what will be the impact on teacher recruitment and retention in the future? 

Will we see people who have been made redundant from other sectors entering the teaching profession? Or will many parents who have experienced the difficulties of homeschooling their children decide that a career in the classroom is not for them!

There was already an existing crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. The Department for Education (DfE) published its teacher recruitment and retention strategy and announced that salaries for new teachers were set to rise to £30,000 by 2022-23, to go some way in alleviating the situation.

We also knew there was going to be a squeeze with a growing number of pupils at secondary age with the DfE explaining it needed to recruit 9,000 more teachers by 2025 to cope with an increase of 15% in pupils at secondary level.

What is the teacher recruitment and retention situation at the moment?

At the beginning of April 2020, Schools Week reported that teacher recruitment was down 50% to 60%. According to a joint paper with the Gatsby Foundation and Teacher Tapp, this year’s recruiting season has been “dramatically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting school closures.”

There are obviously logistical issues of holding interviews and schools trying to forecast staffing numbers where social distancing will need to be applied.

A corresponding survey by Teacher Tapp shows that half of secondary leaders said they had paused recruitment while they decided how to run an online interview system. Others cited a lack of time, uncertainty about staffing needs and a belief that teachers would not apply for roles in the current climate.

It makes sense that with the current uncertainty that recruitment is down while retention most likely improves short-term as teachers in state schools have job security for the near future. 

What does history tell us about recessions and teacher recruitment?

Education is one of the top recession-proof careers in the UK over the past decade, according to an analysis of ONS and professional industry data carried out by Randstad Education.

As people who are made redundant in other sectors will the allure of teaching seem tempting?

Professor Merryn Hutchings has previously published a literature review on the wider economic situation on teachers’ career decisions, and specifically on their decision to remain in or leave teaching during recession and recovery from recession.

It explains there is a strong and significant negative correlation between number of applications to teacher training and GDP growth over the last fifteen years. When GDP falls, the number of applicants rises. Thus the number of people applying to enter PGCE course rose by record numbers during the first quarter of 2009.

So in theory, with GDP growth contracting as a result of COVID-19 we will see a rise in the number of applicants to teacher training routes.

Will it be different this time round because of the health risks and how existing teachers have been treated?

It is difficult to predict whether we will see the same historical trends on this occasion. The following factors might actually have an adverse effect in terms of recruitment and retention:

  • The very real and perceived health risks associated with physically working in schools over the next 12-18 months. Will people be willing to put themselves and loved ones at risk working in environments where social distancing is difficult to manage? In addition, the demands on the teaching profession to step up and cover loss learning, an increase in workload and all the other community needs which schools will have to support 
  • How current teachers have been treated since the pandemic started. There are a number of stories on social media of teachers who are unhappy with how their schools have carried out official observations of them during online lessons and requiring unreasonable amounts of planning in advance. We could see a significant number of teachers leaving the profession because of the demands which have been placed on them since the pandemic
  • The amount of alternative jobs available in comparable sectors. There will definitely be fewer opportunities and it will be more competitive with more candidates applying for fewer roles. Will teaching be seen as a relatively safe and secure source of income compared to other sectors with higher risks of redundancy?
  • Economic aspirations over the next 24 months. One of the effects of lockdown is that people could be happy to downsize their salary for less stress and better working conditions. With no foreign holidays on the horizon any time and less opportunities to spend on restaurant visits, nights out and hotels some people might look at other options if there is no desire to spend

The Gatsby Foundation explains:

“The longer-term dynamics of the teacher recruitment market is likely to be determined by whether teachers decide to actively seek new roles for the next academic year. Economic uncertainty often causes employees to decide to stay put, rather than seek promotions or careers in other sectors. 

In a typical year, many state school teachers would seek work in UK private schools or international schools, but both these sectors are likely to be experiencing considerable economic shock at present.” 

A silver-lining for pupils?

There will definitely be a significant impact in terms of pupil progress for the current cohort of pupils, especially pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, if we see a shift in the teacher labour market over the next 5 years we could see more positive results.

According to a US study reported by the BBC, teachers hired during recessions get better results. Teachers who entered the profession during recessions are significantly more effective than teachers who entered the profession during non-recessionary periods, concluded the study.

During a recession, other careers could seem more insecure, offered fewer opportunities or could have reduced pay, which would push a higher number of “able individuals” towards teaching.

The study adds:

“Recessions do seem to provide a window of opportunity for the government to hire teachers who would otherwise have not chosen this career path.”

Overall, it is difficult to predict to see if the patterns of previous recessions will mirror what we might see over the next 18 months. Teachers are highly-skilled professionals who as a society we all rely on so we need to ensure we provide favourable conditions over the coming years.

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