Teacher vacancies in England have virtually doubled since before Covid, with school leaders increasingly forced to use non-specialist teachers, which threatens to drive down pupil attainment, according to research.
A report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) found that teacher vacancies posted by schools were 93% higher in the academic year up to February 2023 than at the same point in the year before the start of the pandemic.
The findings indicate staff turnover is still rising, with vacancies in schools in England up 37% compared with 2021/22. “This likely indicates that teachers who may have put off the decision to leave teaching during the pandemic are leaving now that the labour market is recovering,” the report said.
The NFER, which describes itself as the leading independent provider of education research, calls on the government to agree a long-term strategy on teacher pay to try to halt the growing school workforce crisis.
The NFER’s annual report on the teacher labour market in England was published on Thursday, after a series of damaging teacher strikes by members of the National Education Union. They are demanding a fully funded, above-inflation pay rise, which they say will help make the profession more appealing to graduates. The government is currently in talks with unions to try to reach a settlement.
“Schools are being forced to stumble from budget to budget and strike to strike without the help of a clear strategy designed to address a worsening recruitment and retention crisis,” said Jack Worth, NFER school workforce lead and co-author of the report. “School leaders are increasingly resorting to the use of non-specialist teachers to plug gaps which will ultimately affect pupil attainment outcomes.”
As well as the crisis in retaining teachers, the study highlights recruitment problems into the profession, with initial teacher training numbers for 2023/4 significantly below target.
Even initial teacher training recruitment to primary schools, which historically has been more secure than secondary, is expected to be 20% or more below target. The same shortfall applies to nine out of 17 secondary subjects, including physics, modern foreign languages, computing, design and technology, business studies and religious education. English, maths, chemistry and geography are also at risk of under-recruiting this year.
The NFER says falling retention and “historically low” recruitment figures are linked to a lack of competitiveness in the teaching profession, compared with other occupations. On salaries, median teacher pay in 2021/2 was 12% lower in real terms than a decade earlier as a result of below-inflation pay awards and the 2021 pay freeze. Crucially, the report says teacher pay is 11 percentage points lower than for similar graduates, a gap that has widened since the pandemic.
While teachers’ working hours and workload have decreased in recent years, the report says they are still higher than for similar graduates. Another possible deterrent, the report says, is the lack of opportunity to work from home as a teacher, while other professions are accommodating remote or hybrid ways of working since the pandemic.
Niamh Sweeney, NEU deputy general secretary, said: “The latest NFER report shows what many of us in the education sector have long feared about the state of teacher recruitment and retention: this crisis is entrenched, and it cuts deep and hard. Expecting teachers to teach subjects for which they are not qualified also adds to teacher and leader stress.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “Teacher shortages have been a problem for many years, but the situation has sunk to a new low in the wake of the pandemic. It seems some existing teachers took stock of their careers and decided on jobs that were better paid, less pressured, and offered hybrid working, while graduates are less attracted to teaching for the same reasons.”
The Department for Education has been approached for comment.