Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced a new qualification to replace A-levels and T-levels. The planned Advanced British Standard (ABS) will also come with more teaching time for students: an extra 195 hours over two years.
But there’s a problem. More teaching hours means more teachers – and the Department for Education is already struggling to recruit new teachers and to keep current teachers in the profession.
Since 2010, experienced teachers in England have experienced a real terms reduction in salaries of up to 13%. During the same period, average earnings across all sectors in Britain have increased by 2.5% in real terms. This decline in the relative attractiveness of the teaching profession has had serious implications for teacher recruitment, retention and diversity.
With these challenges in mind, Sunak also announced a tax-free bonus of up to £30,000 over the first five years of teachers’ careers in subjects with a particular teacher shortage.
This is a welcome boost – but does not go far enough. It risks alienating experienced teachers and does not address the factors that drive teachers’ decision to leave the profession.
Undervaluing experienced teachers
One issue with Sunak’s approach is that starting salaries are already competitive. It is the growth (or lack of growth) in teachers’ pay over their careers which causes their pay to fall behind comparable professions.
My research suggests that roughly three in ten teachers would be financially better off if they left teaching for another career. The announced bonus scheme isn’t going to substantively change this, but it will contribute to more experienced teachers feeling undervalued and underappreciated.
Experienced teachers are earning less than comparable professions, but they are also now facing a related pay cut compared with newer entrants. To many teachers, this will not seem fair. After all, it could be argued that it is the teachers who have remained committed to the profession who most deserve to be rewarded, not the new entrants.
Using financial incentives to recruit maths and physics teachers intuitively makes sense – these graduates generally have high-paying alternative career options. But this year, the government has also missed targets for subjects where graduates typically don’t have as financially strong alternative employment opportunities – such as modern foreign languages, English, and art and design. This suggests the challenges with recruitment and retention are not just about the money.
Teacher recruitment target missed in England – why people don’t want to enter or stay in the profession
Given the real difference that teachers make in their pupils’ lives, it is no surprise that teachers, historically, report higher wellbeing than comparable professions. What’s more, teachers who leave the profession generally report no change, or even a decline, in their wellbeing.
However, since the pandemic, teacher wellbeing is lower than comparable professions. While the decline in pay is certainly contributing to this, other factors such as working hours, school leaders, Ofsted inspections and pupil behaviour have also played an important role.
My research exploring the reasons why teachers leave the profession, published in a working paper for the Institute for Social and Economic Research and reviewed by colleagues, finds that reducing teacher working hours and improving the quality of school leaders would be the most effective strategies.
Only teachers in Japan have higher workloads than primary teachers in England across the OECD group of countries. Over half of teachers feel their workload is unmanageable. This is one of the key reasons why people leave teaching. I found that reducing working hours by five hours per week would be as effective in improving teacher retention as a 10% pay rise.
The government’s proposal document for the ABS states that teachers’ weekly workloads have already been reduced by five hours. But this data is from a 2019 survey. It does not consider how the pandemic may have worsened teachers’ job quality, in particular compared with other professions.
In September 2023, the government announced a taskforce to reduce teacher working hours by a further five hours weekly. It remains to be seen what the measures proposed by this taskforce will be.
While any additional pay for teachers is welcome, Sunak’s approach reinforces the fact that current pay scales do not reward experience, which could create problems with the retention of more experienced teachers. In addition, the failure to address other important issues suggests this might be a short-term political gimmick, rather than a meaningful, teacher-led effort to improve the school workforce.