From education to employment

Use of non-specialist teachers in schools could have negative impact on learning

teacher stood in front of blackboard

New research reveals the use of non-specialist teachers is more prevalent in schools facing teacher supply challenges, and that this is likely to have a detrimental impact on pupils’ education and learning.

The data, covering schools in England, shows that among secondary schools finding teacher recruitment the most difficult, 62 per cent reported at least ‘some’ maths lessons being taught by non-specialists, 55 per cent for physics and 26 per cent for Modern Foreign Languages (MFL). This compares to 28 per cent for maths, 29 per cent for physics and 14 per cent for MFL in the schools that reported finding teacher recruitment the least difficult.

The study, conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, examines national and local level trends in teacher recruitment and retention in England.

NFER surveyed nationally representative samples of senior leaders with responsibility for staffing in autumn 2020 (reflecting on the 2019/20 academic year) and autumn 2021 (reflecting on the 2020/21 academic year) to gather information about their experience of teacher recruitment, retention and what actions, if any, they had taken to manage shortages. 

It found that many secondary schools are facing recruitment challenges. School leaders were asked to rate the extent they were ‘unable to assemble a field of quality applicants’ (1 being ‘not at all’ and 8 being ‘to a great extent’). On average, secondary school leaders said 5 and primary school leaders 3.8.

NFER School Workforce Lead and co-author of the report, Jack Worth, said:

“The growing recruitment and retention challenges in England are likely to be having negative impacts on pupils’ education and learning. Under-recruitment to initial teacher training leads to school leaders facing teacher recruitment shortages, which they can mitigate to some extent by, for example, deploying non-specialist teachers or asking school leaders to take on more teaching. But these measures make school improvement harder right across the system.

“We call on the Government to place a renewed focus on improving teacher recruitment and retention, to ensure a sufficient supply of teachers, and in turn, support the improvement of pupil outcomes in schools throughout the education system.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at The Nuffield Foundation said:

“Knowledgeable and inspiring teachers are vital for ensuring that every pupil receives a high-quality education. It is therefore of great concern that the report’s findings highlight how recruitment challenges are leading to an increased use of non-specialist teachers, particularly in schools struggling to hire teaching staff, and in particular parts of the country.”

Other findings include:

  • Quantity and quality of applicants to vacancies are particularly acute challenges for secondary schools, where recruitment of trainees to teacher training programmes has been below the target numbers required for many years.
  • Schools that reported finding teacher recruitment the most difficult were considerably more likely than other schools to report recruiting less-experienced teachers than they would otherwise like, and more likely to employ more unqualified teachers then they normally would. Recruiting inexperienced or unqualified teachers may have negative implications for teaching quality.
  • In the autumn 2020 survey, only 13 per cent of primary school leaders and 27 per cent of secondary school leaders reported that they could have afforded to recruit another teacher, regardless of whether they wanted to or not.

As part of NFER’s research into England’s growing teacher recruitment and retention challenges, it has created a data dashboard, in partnership with the Nuffield Foundation, which will launch in December. The tool provides information on the nature of the recruitment and retention challenges, and their implications for pupils and schools in terms of teacher shortages, across different dimensions, including geography, subject and school types.

Sector Response

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“These findings underscore the scale of the recruitment and retention crisis in education.

“Our own recent survey of more than 750 state-sector school and college headteachers and principals found that 95% have been struggling to recruit teachers, with 65% experiencing difficulty with teacher retention. They also reported challenges in recruiting support staff. The Department for Education has repeatedly missed its targets for recruiting secondary teachers, while nearly a third of teachers leave the profession within five years of qualifying. All this has resulted in a severe shortage of teachers and left many schools with no choice but to use non-specialists for some lessons. Schools deploy and support these staff as best they can, and the staff involved work with great commitment and professionalism, but clearly this is not an ideal situation and teacher shortages represent a clear threat to educational standards.

“Workload pressures and pay levels are the main reasons for the difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers. This is unsurprising when pay has fallen by 20% in real-terms since 2010, and school budgets have been squeezed by government underfunding leaving schools trying to do more with less. This year’s teacher pay award is significantly below the rate of inflation and yet no additional government funding was given to schools this year for them to be able to pay for it, putting even more pressure on their budgets.

“The money announced for education in last week’s Autumn Statement for the next two years is welcome, but far more needs to be done to tackle the major challenges faced by the sector and we echo calls for a renewed focus on recruitment and retention. The government must work with the sector to produce a long-term strategy, underpinned by fair pay and workload but also considering more opportunities for professional development and flexible working.”

Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:   

“The government has failed to recruit and retain sufficient teachers into the profession for many years now and it is clear that it must act quickly to restore teaching as an attractive graduate profession. Pay, professional agency, and workload problems have now built to crisis point. Parents rightly expect their child to be taught by a qualified subject teacher, but, under constant financial pressure, schools are struggling to match need to specialist staff. For the sake of educational quality and students’ life chances, the NEU is adamant that a fully-funded, above inflation pay rise for all teachers is a critical first step.” 

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“This report echoes what we hear from our own members about the recruitment and retention crisis schools are currently facing, with too many teachers and leaders leaving the profession due to a combination of crushing workloads, eroded pay, pressures caused by government policies, and a punitive accountability system.

“We know that the people we put in front of our children have the biggest impact in learner outcomes. Specialist teachers are critical to the delivery of a high-quality education for children and young people. Strong leaders and skilled teachers make all the difference and that is why they must be supported.”

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