How might teacher shortages be reduced? – Economics Observatory

Shortages of school teachers – caused by a long-term decline in the competitiveness of their pay as well as challenging working conditions – are a global concern. Effective policy interventions could include targeted pay supplements and encouraging more supportive leadership practices in education.
Teacher shortages are one of the main challenges faced by education systems in most developed countries, including the UK. They stem from a combination of recruitment and retention issues. Specifically, there are not enough teaching candidates and many trained teachers leave the profession.
Policy-makers can increase the attractiveness of the profession by addressing the root causes of staff shortages: low pay and challenging working conditions. These factors are even more critical today, particularly in the context of high inflation rates and pandemic-induced learning losses among school-age children.
Teacher shortage is a major issue affecting many developed countries. On average, more than a quarter of pupils across OECD countries are enrolled in schools whose leaders have reported that learning is hindered by a lack of teaching staff. In England, this figure is slightly above the OECD average, at 28.1% (OECD, 2018a).
The lack of teachers is also affecting ratios of staff to pupils. In England, pupil numbers in 2019 were more or less the same as in 2007, but teacher numbers had fallen by 7%, according to the Education Policy Institute (EPI).
This trend has emerged as a result of difficulties in both recruiting and retaining teachers. First, there are not enough teaching candidates. In England, the government regularly misses its recruitment targets, especially at secondary school level, and in sciences and languages.
Subjects that did not meet recruitment targets in 2020/21 included physics (only 45% of the target was reached), modern foreign languages (72%), design and technology (75%), chemistry (80%) and maths (84%) (Department for Education, DfE, 2022).
Second, many teachers are leaving the profession. England also suffers from high teacher attrition rates: 22% of teachers aged 50 or younger want to leave teaching within the next five years. This is above the OECD average of 15% (OECD, 2018a).
Teacher attrition in England is getting worse over time. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of teachers who qualified in 2010 were still teaching four years later. This has declined to about 70% among those who qualified in 2014.
Further, teachers are also much more likely to leave the profession in their first few years of teaching. According to the EPI, a fifth of teachers exit after their first two years, while 40% leave after five years (EPI, 2020).
Teacher attrition and turnover are particularly problematic in schools in more disadvantaged areas, which have a harder time both recruiting and retaining teachers. In England, 22% of schools in the most affluent areas report vacancies or temporarily filled positions. This increases to around 29% of schools in the most disadvantaged areas outside London and 46% in the most disadvantaged areas within London (EPI, 2020).
Similarly, the share of experienced teachers is seven percentage points lower in socio-economically disadvantaged schools than in advantaged schools. This gap is more than twice the OECD average (OECD, 2018b). The unequal exposure to experienced teaching staff contributes further to persistent educational inequalities (Gershenson, 2021).
Teacher applications in the UK increased temporarily during the pandemic. Compared with 2019, postgraduate initial teacher training applications were 17% higher in 2020 and 11% higher in 2021.
This allowed the DfE to reach its recruitment target in secondary schools for the first time since 2011/12, although recruitment targets were still missed in maths and sciences (National Foundation for Educational Research, NFER, 2022).
As a largely public sector job, teaching was relatively sheltered from the economic shock of the pandemic and therefore temporarily more attractive (Benhenda, 2020).
But the pandemic boost in teacher recruitment was short-lived and is unlikely to compensate for years of under-recruitment (House of Commons, 2021). Indeed, teacher recruitment is now below pre-pandemic levels, as the wider labour market rebounds.
Teacher applications are expected to be 15% lower in 2022 than in 2019 (Worth, 2022). This trend is likely to persist. Teachers are experiencing, on average, real terms salary cuts of 5% as the government’s proposals for teacher pay in 2022 and 2023 are likely to deliver salary rises well below expected inflation (Sibieta, 2022).
Even more worrying are the early signs of a post-pandemic rise in teacher attrition. Teachers’ intentions to leave the profession have increased because they feel that their working conditions have deteriorated considerably (EPI, 2021).
We do not have conclusive data on this trend in England yet, but evidence from the United States shows a 20% increase in attrition rates post-pandemic (Goldhaber and Theobald, 2022).
Teacher shortages will remain a major policy challenge while the root causes – the long-run decline in pay competitiveness and difficult working conditions – are not properly addressed (Garcia and Weiss, 2020).
Teacher pay
Teachers are paid less than their non-teacher university-educated counterparts. They face this pay penalty in most developed countries.
For example, in the United States, the average weekly wages of teachers are 32.9% lower than those of other college graduates. After adjusting for age, formal education level, marital status, race/ethnicity and state of residence, the teacher wage penalty is estimated to be 23.5%. This has been on a worsening trajectory since the mid-1990s when it was only 6.1% (Allegretto, 2022).
In England, the teacher pay penalty is lower but still significant. Teachers in England are paid, on average, around 10% lower than the average tertiary (university or college) educated worker (OECD, 2021).
These averages hide large differences by teaching subject. Most of the teacher wage penalty is borne by maths and science graduates as some non-science graduates – such as art graduates – benefit from a pay premium when they choose a career in teaching (Allen et al, 2018).
This is correlated with higher attrition rates among maths and science teachers. The odds of newly qualified teachers leaving the profession are 20% higher for science teachers than for non-science teachers (Allen and Sims, 2017).
The government has put in place teacher retention payments for maths and physics teachers to address this issue. In 2019 and 2020, early-career maths and physics teachers in disadvantaged areas in England received an 8% wage bonus.
Research shows that eligible teachers are 23% less likely to leave teaching in state-funded schools in years when they were eligible for this payment. A 1% increase in teacher pay reduces the risk of them leaving the profession by 3% (what is known as a pay elasticity of exit of -3).
This is similar to results from evaluations of comparable policies in the United States. It suggests that persistent shortages of maths and science teachers can be reduced through targeted pay supplement policies (Sims and Benhenda, 2022).
Teachers’ working conditions
Teachers in England report one of the lowest levels of job satisfaction among OECD countries. These levels have been declining over time. For example, in 2018, fewer lower-secondary teachers in England believed that the advantages of being a teacher outweigh the disadvantages compared with five years previously: 83% versus 72%, respectively.
Similarly, the proportion reporting that they would still choose to work as a teacher if they were to make their career choice again is also declining (80% in 2013 versus 69% in 2018) (Jerrim, 2019).
Job satisfaction among teachers hit a new low during the pandemic because of increasingly challenging working conditions (DfE, 2022). These were partly due to the impact of school closures on pupils’ learning and development, especially in disadvantaged schools (Blanden et al, 2021).
Evidence on the effects of these non-financial dimensions of teaching on retention is less developed than evidence on financial incentives.
Nevertheless, research suggests that one important influence on teachers’ decisions to leave the profession is the quality of working conditions in their school. More specifically, supportive leadership is one of the factors that is most strongly associated with teacher retention (Sims and Jerrim, 2020).
Teachers identify the quality of administrative support as a key factor in decisions to leave a school. In addition, they point to the importance of school culture and collegial relationships, time for collaboration and decision-making input. These are all areas in which head-teachers play a central role (Trickle et al, 2011).
More evidence is needed on what makes a good head-teacher and how to improve head-teacher quality, as well as selection and training policies. Further research is also needed on retention policies as England suffers from a long-term trend of head-teachers leaving the profession because of the pressures of their job (Zuccollo, 2022).
Low pay and challenging working conditions are the root causes of teacher shortages in England, as well as in many other developed countries. The pandemic and lack of public investment in education have exacerbated this problem over the last few years.
Recent evidence shows that persistent shortages can be reduced through targeted pay supplement policies, as teacher retention is very sensitive to pay. Supportive leadership is another factor strongly associated with teacher retention. More evidence is needed on what makes a good head-teacher and how to improve head-teacher quality, as well as selection and training policies.
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