Education ministers must dread the publication of National Audit Office (NAO) reports. The latest, Retaining and developing the teaching workforce, follows a long NAO tradition of casting significant doubt on government policy, and on the Department for Education’s (DfE) knowledge of what is happening in England’s education system.
This report follows last year’s report on training new teachers, in which the NAO reported that it could not conclude that the £700 million a year spent on teacher recruitment and training was money well spent. Having failed to secure an adequate supply of graduates into the profession, the NAO judges, in this latest report, that the Government is not doing enough to retain teachers in the classroom.
There can be no doubt that, as the bulge in pupil numbers moves from primary to secondary education, greater numbers of subject specialist teachers are needed. Secondary pupil-teacher ratios are rising, which means increasing class sizes or contact times for already over-worked and over-stressed teachers. Given that working conditions are going to deteriorate, and the fact that England has one of the worst teacher retention rates in the developed world, (over half of England’s teachers last less than ten years in the profession), surely teacher retention should be a top government priority?
It appears not. The NAO notes (unbelievably) that “The Department has not set out in a coherent way and shared with schools and the teaching profession how they can work together to improve the teaching workforce.”
In response to an NAO survey, 74% of primary and 85% of secondary school leaders disagreed that the DfE provides schools with sufficient support to retain teachers. An NAO survey found that schools filled only around half of their vacant posts during 2015/16 with qualified teachers with the experience and expertise required. Schools generally filled the remainder with less experienced teachers, or with teachers with different subject specialisms. As anyone who has ever taught knows, teaching a subject in which you are not qualified hugely increases workload and stress – and is more than likely to lead to an ever-higher rate of exodus from the profession.
The NAO makes the entirely reasonable point, one that is too often overlooked by government, that the success of government education policy relies on school leaders and teachers engaging with those policies. The problem for the Government is that engagement rates are low. The NAO states that teacher workload is a “significant barrier to teacher retention” but whilst 81% of school leaders are aware of the DfE guidance on workload, which focuses on planning, marking and data management, only 44% are engaged with this guidance, a remarkably low statistic when considered in conjunction with the high percentage of school leaders who say that retention is a major issue, and the DfE isn’t doing enough to deal with it.
Nor, the NAO concludes, are teachers being supported to remain in the classroom through effective CPD. At a time of huge change in the primary and secondary curriculum, new qualifications at GCSE, AS and A level, and significant changes in primary assessment, teachers are being left unsupported in their efforts to gain new subject and pedagogical knowledge. The NAO notes that “in contrast to many other professions, teaching does not set and regulate continuing professional development.” Teachers in England, as the Education Policy Institute has reported, spend, on average, just four days a year on courses, observational visits, seminars and in-service training. And a significant proportion of those, teachers tell me, are not devoted to meeting their professional needs, but are generic training which is too general to be of real use to anyone, or conversely, specific training to understand and implement the next change in government policy.
This NAO report follows the School Teachers’ Review Body (STRB) report which did not mince its words when considering the vexed issue of teacher retention. In stark and forthright language which I find unparalleled in any previous STRB report, the review body identifies three key reasons for the exodus of teachers from the classroom. These are the “pressures of high workload”, the “strict accountability” under which school leaders and teachers labour, and, adds the STRB, unattractive levels of teachers’ pay.
But the STRB goes further and issues a stark and unprecedented warning to the Government: “Our analysis of the evidence for the current pay round shows that the trends in recruitment and retention evident last year have continued – teacher retention rates continued to fall, particularly for those in the early stages of their career, and targets for ITT recruitment continue to be missed. We are deeply concerned about the cumulative effect of these trends on teacher supply. We consider that this presents a substantial risk to the functioning of an effective education system.”
And there you have it. Government ministers cannot, any longer, hide behind their wide eyed ‘crisis, what crisis?’ stance. There can be no doubt, now, that inadequate, and worsening, teacher supply is gravely threatening the effective functioning, and quality, of England’s education system.
An edited version of this blog was originally posted on TES