How severe is Scotland's teacher shortage?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 31 October 2017 in Inside Politics

Claims of a crisis in teacher numbers may be an exaggeration, but low morale may be taking its poll on the profession

Back in March, parents of pupils in John Swinney’s constituency received an unexpected letter, pleading for their help.

Sent by Blairgowrie High School, the letter described a “highly unusual request”, with the head teacher, facing staffing shortages, apparently compelled to request assistance from “any parents with a maths or related degree who would be interested in supporting pupils”.

The school was so short on teachers that it had been forced to turn to parents for help. As the head teacher put it, “given the current circumstances, we are looking at creative short-term measures.”


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The press seized on the story as evidence of a collapsing education system and Tory leader Ruth Davidson led on the issue at First Minister’s Questions. For Nicola Sturgeon, a FM who had invited her critics to judge her on education, the story was a troubling one. The fact it had emerged from the Education Secretary’s constituency hardly helped.

Responding to Davidson in the chamber, Sturgeon said: “As the Education Secretary has said many times in the chamber and out with it, a number of different parts of the country and specific subjects are facing challenges with teacher recruitment. That is why we have increased the intake of students to initial teacher education and why we have expanded the range of routes into teaching to make the process faster for those individuals.

“Blairgowrie High School is seeking to identify properly registered teachers to come in and teach maths; of course, the law says that teachers have to be properly registered.

“We will continue to address the challenges in our education system, as we will continue to address challenges that exist in health, education or any other area.”

A similar story then emerged months later, this time from Trinity Academy in Edinburgh. Pointing to a “national shortage” of teachers for subjects such as maths, science, technology, business and home economics, the head teacher explained that the school had taken action to share teachers between classes, before asking parents themselves for help.

Again, opposition parties leapt on the story as evidence of a crisis in teacher numbers. For critics, staff numbers need great attention, the workload is overwhelming and morale is at breaking point.

And while these sorts of stories remain very rare, concern over teacher numbers has grown.

In the last ten years, the number of teachers in Scotland is estimated to have fallen by nearly 4,000, from 52,446 school-based teachers working in 2007 to 48,746 in December last year, with around 600 vacancies currently existing in Scottish schools. Meanwhile evidence provided to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee lends weight to concerns over a growing shortage in science, technology, maths and engineering (STEM) subjects.

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education, skills and science spokesperson, says the shortage is “severe”, even if new figures will not be released until December.

He told Holyrood: “This is the consequence of many years of budgets being squeezed. We have demonstrated that if the SNP had maintained spending on schools at the level it was when they came to power in 2007, then in real terms, they would have spent £1.25 billion more over the past ten years than they have. There have been a lot of resources taken out of schools. In terms of impact on teaching, then that is becoming increasingly manifest in things like teachers’ salary and workload.

“There is a pattern in teaching which has gone on for a long time. Teacher salaries and conditions erode, there is often industrial action, then there’s a review and new salary structures are put in place. That has always, in the past, involved quite significant increases in teacher salaries. When that happens, the attractiveness of the profession is transformed, pretty much overnight, and in previous cases that has led to more people coming forward to teach.”

He added: “It seems blindingly obvious to any dispassionate observer that there is a problem here in terms of how much we pay our teachers, the degree to which we overwork them, and the challenge we set them in the size of the classes they are dealing with. That doesn’t make it an attractive profession to go into.”

Teachers have not seen any significant improvement in pay and conditions since the 2001 McCrone report, while simultaneously being expected to handle the disruption brought by the introduction of the Curriculum for Excellence.

For Scottish Green education spokesperson Ross Greer, the explanation for teacher shortages is pretty simple: finance.

He told Holyrood: “When it’s abundantly clear that ten years of budget cuts have caused the lion’s share of damage to Scottish education, the government seems adamant to look everywhere else and avoid examining the results of their own financial decisions. In a decade, we have lost 4000 teachers, over 500 specialists in Additional Support Needs, a third of school librarians and many hundreds of support staff. For the staff who are left, the workload pressures are absolutely immense. Couple that with a pay cap which has meant a year-on-year real-terms pay cut, and it’s no surprise that morale is low and the profession isn’t attractive enough to bring in new teachers.”

A report by Bath Spa University, released last month, catalogued the morale issues in Scottish schools, finding that high workload is leading to greater stress and reduced job satisfaction for teachers. More worryingly, researchers discovered that more than 40 per cent of teachers surveyed plan to leave their post within the next 18 months.

Releasing the report, co-author Dr Jermaine Ravalier said: “While it is clear that teachers and social workers find the nature of their jobs deeply fulfilling, this is no longer enough to outweigh the impact that governmental cuts are having on their jobs.

“These studies add significant academic and objective evidence to much of the anecdotal evidence we often hear about. We have clear evidence therefore that underfunding in our public services is leading to increased stress and intentions to leave.”

And while increasingly unattractive pay and conditions, relative to other sectors, could deter prospective teachers from entering the profession, high workload may be contributing to experienced teachers leaving it.

Scottish Conservative MSP Liz Smith said: “There is a significant problem in attracting teachers into specific subject areas. But there is also a problem with retention, and in some ways, that is more of a problem. There are some aspects of teacher training which teachers feel are not supportive enough.

“There were quite a lot of teachers who flagged up to us [the Education Committee] that they didn’t feel they were getting any training at all in mental health issues, in Additional Support Needs, in some of the key areas relating to wellbeing in schools. These are areas which bring pressure to the job, and they were feeling very pressurised [and] on top of everything else, were having to do [work] for Curriculum for Excellence. I think there are genuine problems in terms of the teaching profession not feeling particularly good about itself at the moment and that is putting off people from applying in the first place.”

Meanwhile it is STEM subjects where shortages are most pressing, in which the disparity in pay and conditions between teaching and industry is most pronounced.

Smith said: “If you are in a STEM subject, the difference between what you get as a teacher or what you get in industry or a growing digital commercial sector is considerable, so naturally, people with a STEM degree tend to go elsewhere rather than teaching.”

Recognising these concerns, John Swinney used his speech at the SNP conference in Glasgow to unveil plans to offer a £20,000 bursary to those interested in switching careers to become a STEM teacher. 

Speaking to SNP members, Swinney said: “These ‘career-changers’ still need to go through initial teacher education – we will never compromise on quality – but we can make it easier for them to make that career change. We understand that giving up a salary for a year while they do their teacher training is a real barrier for them.

“I can therefore announce today that from next year, we will offer bursaries of £20,000 per person to help these career changers make that change. Conference, we have faith in our teaching profession and we are backing that faith with more power and more resources.”

And while Swinney looked to boost the attractiveness of teaching for those already working in STEM, the Education Secretary has also taken steps to create new routes into teaching more generally. 

Earlier this month, efforts continued with the Scottish Government putting a new teacher training programme to tender.

The contract, worth around £300,000, stipulates: “This route should focus on attracting high-quality graduates and those with degrees considering a career change.”

It says: “The route should ensure the programme is genuinely new and distinct,” before adding, “accordingly, the programme must have outstanding and distinctive features setting it apart from other forms of initial teacher education”.

Teach First, the organisation widely expected to win the contract, operates a fast-track scheme in England, with an emphasis on on-the-job training.

But critics have expressed concern over whether such a model could be successfully applied to Scotland.

Part of the doubt stems from the fact that Teach First aims to draw teachers into deprived areas in England, while Scotland’s shortages are geographical or subject-based.

As Gray put it: “The tender for the fast track specifically says that those who go through the programme will be placed in the schools which are part of the Scottish Attainment Challenge, which are the six local authorities which received the initial funding to close the attainment gap. Those are the local authorities with the highest levels of deprivation, so the first thing that is wrong with it is using a system which has been designed to address a problem that we don’t have. The second thing is that it is more expensive than traditional teacher training. Thirdly, there is a retention problem – Teach First promotes itself as spending two years teaching before you go on into your actual career – but my view is that we clearly need teachers who are committed to the profession.”

The Scottish Greens echo these concerns, with the party highlighting recent Freedom of Information requests which they say suggests that while the traditional Scottish postgraduate model costs around £8,000 per teacher, Teach First in England costs around £38,000.

With these points in mind, Greer remains sceptical about the extent to which a fast-track scheme, or the Scottish Government’s governance review more generally, represents the solution to shortages.

“At best, they will do nothing and at worst, they will divert essential funds and simply cause more problems. Adopting ‘fast-track’ teacher recruitment schemes like Teach First is absolutely guaranteed to make the situation worse as well.

“The problem is not the quality of traditional postgraduate routes into teaching, and there is no evidence that the length of these courses is off-putting, so why focus on fast-tracking? The result will simply be unprepared individuals thrown into classrooms and expected to teach long before they are ready.

“Add to that the need for these new recruits to receive considerable mentoring from more experienced staff at the same time as those staff are expected to retire in considerable numbers and you have a recipe for disaster. There is a reason everyone from the Council of Deans of Education at our universities to the teaching unions are emphatically opposed to Teach First style approaches.”

He added: “The unavoidable reality for the government is that they must undo the mistakes they have made during their decade in office. This doesn’t need to look like an embarrassing climbdown or a U-turn. They could present it as a new approach now that new tax powers are available to them. Regardless of the talking points they use, it’s time the SNP took an evidence-led approach to Scottish education, rather than what looks uncomfortably like a reheat of late 80s Tory policies from England. We’re all well aware of how that went.”

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