I am the Convenor and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group Teacher Supply Special Interest Group (SIG), and in March 2022 we issued a report on ‘Teaching as a high-status profession: improving teacher supply. Recommendations for policy makers’. The Teacher Supply SIG considered the question:
‘What action will support a high-status and sustainable teaching profession in English primary and secondary schools?’
We recognised that schools operate within a complicated environment that has to play by the social and system-level rules, such as the alignment of education to party political policies, local school cultures, and public perceptions of teaching and teachers. Our recommendations for a long-term teaching workforce focused on improving the status of teaching as a profession. The notion of teaching as a low-status career runs through Eleanor Busby’s article in The Independent (15 November 2023) ‘MPs told why people don’t want to be teachers anymore as recruitment hits crisis levels’.
We argued in our SIG report that ‘teaching as a career must be in line with the expectations of the graduates the profession is seeking to recruit’. MPs heard at the Education Select Committee how there were limited opportunities in teaching for home or flexible working. The pandemic demonstrated that home working was possible, and in many cases desirable, to professionals and teachers. Public perception, fueled by the media, was of a pandemic filled with school closures, not teachers working from home delivering lessons online. The opportunity for school leaders to be supported in offering a more flexible approach to learning and teaching after lockdown was lost.
It is clear, as Mr Nye told MPs, that ‘recruitment to ITT (initial teacher training) is at crisis levels’. The reasons for this are complex, and to be honest, nothing new in England. John Howson wrote a chapter in my edited book with Dr Rowena Passy ‘Exploring Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Contextual Challenges from International Perspectives’ (2021) which explained how the last 50 years had been a period of teacher shortages, interspersed with limited times when there had been an adequate supply of teachers in schools. He noted that a buoyant labour market for graduates, increasing pupil numbers, and the creation of an international market for teachers have all resulted in challenging periods of teacher recruitment for schools.
So what is so different now that it is causing teacher shortages to hit crisis levels?
Government planning for teacher numbers, mostly managed through numbers permitted to train as a teacher, has varied in approach over the years from detailed central planning to a more market-based approach. The present position is one of a mixed economy that incentivises trainee applications based on reactive reviews of the previous years’ shortage areas, rather than strategically planning to make sure enough teachers are in the places needed, and can teach the subjects and phases of education required. This approach doesn't consider the dwindling attractiveness of teaching to prospective students, graduates, and potential career changers.
"If the status of teaching is low, the perceptions of its value and retention will reflect this"
We were concerned in the teacher supply group that the status of teaching was at risk, and that this would reduce trainee applications. We raised attention in the report (2022:4) to the need for teaching to become once again ‘a fully qualified profession that provides intellectual stimulation, professional autonomy and tangible opportunities for agency and decision-making’. If the status of teaching is low, the perceptions of its value, job satisfaction, and retention will reflect this. The Education White Paper (2022) provided the perfect opportunity to consider changes to enhance teacher status and support the re-establishing of teaching as a profession of choice.
Simple policy changes, such as re-regulation to require all teachers using the title ‘teacher’ to hold Qualified Teacher Status, would be a start. In my article 'A status-based crisis of teacher shortages?' (2022: 36) I argued that ‘the agencies that control teacher recruitment and oversee teacher retention have not realised the importance of ‘status’ in establishing a set of circumstances that contribute to declining trainee teacher numbers and increasing teacher attrition’. These circumstances include many objective and subjective contexts, both social and individual, but key is the perception of teaching as a low status profession. ‘Status is used in relation to teaching as an occupation, and teachers as individuals, and means respectively the level of regard and entitlements objectively given to the occupation by the public and other professions, and the subjective level of esteem given to the occupation by an individual’ (Ovenden-Hope, 2022: 38).
"78% of school teachers in the UK reported feeling stressed."
The perception of teaching as a low status profession is reinforced for the public, and for teachers, by the Government's control of supply, pay, conditions, curriculum delivery, and quality of provision – the profession appears not to be valued or trusted in determining how it operates. Unlike other professions, teaching visibly lacks any control over its own destiny. Add into this that you do not, by law, have to be a qualified teacher to works as a teacher in a multi academy trust, free school, or studio school, then the odds that teaching appears low status to graduates considering it as a career, are high. Teachers themselves have also vocalised the challenges of being a teacher, from high workloads to stressful classroom practice. In the recent Education Support Teacher Wellbeing Index 2023, 89% of senior school leaders and 78% of school teachers in the UK reported feeling stressed.
So how can teaching become the graduate career of choice? Without consideration of, and steps to improve the status of teaching and teachers, it never will. Steps need to be taken to develop a common understanding of teaching as a high status career similar to other high status professions. This common understanding will need to be built on government policy created through liaison with teaching professional bodies; media representations that recognise and promote the role of school leaders in securing learning through qualified, well paid, autonomous, happy teachers that are clearly valued by society.
Professor Tanya Ovenden-Hope
Professor of Education, Plymouth Marjon University
Dean of Marjon University Cornwall
Director of the Context Agency Place and Education (CAPE) Research and Knowledge Exchange Group