John Viner

Are schools facing a recruitment crisis?

Faced with a dwindling supply of teachers and school leaders, we must accept that schools are facing severe recruitment problems.

Crisis? What crisis?

Are teacher recruitment problems myth or reality?

Ask schools minister, Nick Gibb, about the teacher recruitment crisis and he is likely to tell you there is no crisis.

Speaking on the topic recently, he said: 'Whenever I go to meet teachers this issue always comes up, and I come back here, and I challenge officials: Why am I hearing these concerns when the retention rate is very stable, as it is, and has been for a decade?'

However, ask Mark Parrett, audit manager with the National Audit Office (NAO), and he will point out that, in 2014, there were 44874 new entrants to teaching and 42700 leavers.

With an increasing school population, that sounds like a crisis to me!

What about the people on the front line? The headteachers trying to ensure that, for every group of bums on seats, there is a body available to teach them?

This is bad enough in some primary schools located in hard-to-recruit areas but it is nigh impossible for many secondary schools to find enough subject specialist teachers to cover their full range of courses.

In the capital, where the cost of housing is prohibitive, many teachers travel in from considerable distances. A regular commute from Brighton is not uncommon.

Shortages across the board

If getting teachers is difficult, in some areas recruiting leaders is tougher. In an outstanding London primary school with which I worked, we advertised for a head of school several times without once attracting a candidate of anywhere near the right calibre and, finally, created an internal job-share.

This is a school with an enviable reputation; pity the school struggling to shake off a poor inspection judgement.

Of course, it’s not just in the capital; coastal towns, which have their own unique challenges, find recruitment hard at all levels.

Meanwhile, the EBACC has generated its own problems, with teacher training places drying up for non-EBACC subjects, leaving many to be taught by non-specialists. This compounds the overall shortage of teachers across the board.

Even core subjects find it hard to recruit. The NAO reported that 28% of secondary physics lessons are taught by teachers with no more than an A-level in the subject.

The organisation, Innovators in Mathematics Education kicked off 2016 with an issue of its newsletter focusing on the ‘big issue’ of subject recruitment. So, whatever the DfE thinks, this looks as much like a crisis as it will ever do.

A mixed economy

Recruitment is a costly business. Many schools use recruitment agencies to undertake the work and this often proves to be cost-effective and time-saving.

Whilst recruitment agencies are certainly not a cheap alternative, the costs compare relatively well with the do-it-yourself model involving, as it does, much leadership time and huge effort. Provided that the recruitment agency can recruit.

'Attracting high-quality candidates should not be impossible'

As a half-way house, many headteachers prefer to try out a teacher from a supply agency. This gives the flexibility to get shot of the unsuitable without penalty and to retain the successful on payment of a (sometimes considerable) finder’s fee.

The result of this is, as professor John Howson’s annual survey of teacher supply confirms, that many schools run a mixed economy of permanent, temporary and supply staff.

Overseas trained staff are a useful source of teachers and London in particular has a significant proportion of Irish, Canadians, Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders working in school.

A duty to be diligent

While overseas staff may fill vacancies, Safer Recruitment rules still apply and schools will need to be diligent in carrying out relevant checks. Foreign nationals will not have been in the UK’s justice system but, in these days of electronic communication, most countries have systems that enable potential employers to check for any criminal backgrounds of applicants. The Home Office has detailed guidance

Where no checking system is in place, schools have a duty to find out as much as possible about the background of potential employees, through references and contact with previous employers.

For schools considering the employment of agency supply teachers, the DfE has recently updated and re-issued its 2010 guidance. This applies to all schools.

While School Teachers Pay and Conditions do not necessarily apply, under Agency Worker Regulations, after 12 weeks the supply teacher is entitled to the same pay and conditions as teachers directly employed by the school.

In the case of a supply teacher working in a series of LA schools, provided it is the same LA, the 12 week qualifying period is cumulative but, as soon as they move to another employer (for example a different LA or a school where the governors are the employers), the clock re-sets to zero.

An agency teacher can move between academies run by the same trust without stopping the clock.

Schools have a duty to provide the agency with up to date information on their terms and conditions so that they can ensure an agency worker receives correct and equal treatment as if they had been recruited directly, after 12 weeks in the same job.

They are also responsible for ensuring that, from the first day of their employment with the school, all agency teachers can access their facilities and can view job vacancies.

Teacher supply is causing schools uncertainty, costing them many thousands of pounds they cannot afford in these stringent times and negatively impacting on pupil outcomes.

'Woefully aloof'

There remains a mismatch between the evidence and the government’s continuing assertion that teacher recruitment is just fine.

The Department for Education sees school-based training as the solution, through initiatives such as Schools Direct and Teach First, yet everywhere they face criticism for the reality of a crisis in recruitment and retention.

June’s report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee makes for dire reading. Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, said that the Department ‘has repeatedly missed its target to fill training places. At the same time, it has remained woefully aloof from concerns raised by frontline staff and freely available evidence.’

Her voice is joined by former education secretary Estelle Morris, writing in The Guardian, reports from the BBC and endless critical stories in the education press. Schools Week reported teacher training places ‘half empty as term opens’.

Teacher supply is causing schools uncertainty, costing them many thousands of pounds they cannot afford in these stringent times and negatively impacting on pupil outcomes.

Sounds like a crisis to me.

Coach and keep

Looking to improve retention in your school?

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