Shortage? What Shortage?

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Is there a dearth of teachers in the UK?

Good News and Bad News:

Things aren’t looking good. Doctors are in short supply, nurses are scarcer than hen’s teeth and there’s a chronic shortage of teachers. We are officially doomed!

Whilst NHS staffing problems are undeniable, with 69% of UK trusts actively recruiting abroad for doctors or nurses, do we really have a shortage of teachers? According to the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) the answer is actually ‘no’ we don’t, in part, and “schools do not rely heavily on migrant teachers”.

In a report called ‘Partial Review of the Shortage Occupation List’, the independent committee found whilst there may be regional and localised shortages, “there is not sufficient data or evidence available to make a compelling case that teachers of nursery and primary education, secondary education or special needs education are in national shortage.”

This isn’t really what we were expecting to hear was it? So this must be good news then, yes?

Not quite; the MAC talk about ‘occupation-wide’ so as an occupational group we aren’t in short supply but there are of course lots of gaps and some huge sink holes in the teacher labour market. We definitely have shortages in some subject areas and so these make it on to an official shortage occupation list (SOL): maths and physics are long-term residents here.

Critical Level?

Now the bad news; these aren’t the only hard to fill subjects, because the MAC report found there were also shortages in computer science, Mandarin, and general science. The official list has now just got bigger, although it has been recommended that chemistry, which was also on the previous SOL, should now come off. Surprisingly, modern foreign languages didn’t pass the test for inclusion on the shortage list and there was no compelling evidence of a shortage of DT teachers either.

How is all this decided?

The MAC committee uses a rigorous methodological approach to make their assessments and decides whether it would be sensible to fill roles in shortage areas from outside Europe. Those on the SOL are jobs where it’s judged there aren’t enough resident workers to fill vacancies. The MAC concluded that:

“Our analysis shows that there are some shortages in some subjects for which it would be sensible to fill through migrants from outside the EEA.”

Immigration restrictions can be relaxed in order to fill school vacancies in critical areas but for those subject areas that are not on the official list, recruitment from outside the EEA is much tougher; applicants have to meet requirements set out in the resident labour market test and crucially employers do not have to meet the £35,000 minimum salary required for permanent settlement.

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Crisis level?

The labour market report has been heavily criticised by teaching union leaders who have said it failed to recognise the full-blown teacher recruitment crisis. The general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Dr Mary Bousted, said:

“We are deeply disappointed by the MAC’s failure to recognise the growing teacher shortage crisis, despite compelling evidence. This crisis will get worse with the bulge in pupil numbers, make it hard for schools to find a teacher for every class, and risk the quality of education for children and young people in England.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the decision by the MAC “flies in the face” of the evidence and the experiences of schools across England.

Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of ASCL, expressed his disappointment saying, “ASCL called for the shortage occupation list to be extended in order to make it easier for schools to recruit from outside the European Economic Area to help plug these shortfalls. It is a shame that schools will be denied this opportunity in many subjects.”

What Crisis?

Despite many school leaders reporting severe difficulties in recruiting staff in many subjects, the Chair of the MAC report, Professor Alan Manning, said this was not the dominant impression they got from speaking to people: “… crisis is not the word that came up. What they often talked about was localised problems and specific subjects.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “While the MAC’s report highlights that there is no shortage of teachers nationally, we recognise there are challenges. “That is why we are spending more than £1.3bn over this Parliament to help attract the brightest and best into the profession, including offering generous tax-free bursaries and scholarships in key subjects and through our teacher recruitment campaign: Your Future: Their Future.”

The reality on the ground is that recruitment is a real struggle with many schools under pressure and pupils caught in the middle. Things aren’t looking good, for some, a lot depends on what you teach and where. There are a high volume of teaching vacancies in Birmingham and Manchester – over 1/3rd of the total number of vacancies is concentrated solely around London.

Download the paper here.

John Dabell writes for Teacher Toolkit.


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