The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Teacher Shortages: Is pay an issue?

The government continues to find it challenging to meet its recruitment targets for teachers – not least in shortage subjects. Meanwhile, a significant increase in the secondary school pupil population is expected over the next few years, which will create additional pressures.

Since 2010, overall teacher numbers have been static, while pupil numbers have risen by around 10 per cent. As a result, the national pupil/teacher ratio has risen from 15.5 in 2010 to around 17.0 in 2018.

Applications to teacher training were down by about 5% in 2018, and training targets are being persistently missed in maths and some sciences.

Teacher exit rates from the profession are also rising, and exit rates are particularly high early in teachers’ careers, with only 60% of teachers working in state funded schools in England five years after they started training. Indeed, the 5 year retention rate is even lower – 50% in subjects such as maths and physics.

Part of the difficulty of recruiting and retaining teachers could relate to longer working hours compared with teachers in many other countries. But pay is almost certainly also an issue. Teacher pay has declined in real terms since 2010, and as private sector pay picked up after the recession, public sector pay became relatively less attractive. There has also been an issue about pay levels for newly employed teachers – this is where pay has looked less impressive in comparison with other countries and with competing graduate employment. As a consequence, the government proposes to raise pay significantly for early career teachers.

There is also the issue of pay variation by subject and by school type. If pay incentives were being used to tackle shortages, we might expect to see higher pay to attract graduates into shortage subjects and into more challenging schools.

Graduate pay varies significantly by subject of study, but EPI has found that teacher pay varies little by subject taught. This may be a significant cause of why recruitment and retention differs by subject. Average salary levels for maths graduates are about £4,000 above the level for teachers in their late 20s, whilst average earnings for graduates in English, history and biology are actually £4,000-£5,000 below that for teachers in their late 20s. This is why it makes sense for the government to look at the possible role of pay supplements in dealing with subject shortages.

We also find significant differences between schools in the likelihood of them having teachers who are subject qualified in the areas in which they teach. With the notable exception of London, schools with a more disadvantaged intake of pupils generally have much lower access to subject qualified teachers. At Key Stage Four, in disadvantaged schools outside London, only 17% of physics teachers, 37% of maths teachers, and 45% of chemistry teachers, have a relevant degree in the subject they are teaching. In more advantaged schools outside London, these percentages are higher by 35%, 14%, and 23% respectively.

Early next year, EPI will publish a further report on the teacher labour market, in which we will look at pay differentials between teachers in advantaged and disadvantaged schools. Given that disadvantaged schools tend to have higher funding than in the advantaged schools (for example, through the Pupil Premium), we might expect these schools to be using higher pay to attract the best qualified and most able teachers. It will be interesting to see if this is the case.

The government continues to find it challenging to meet its recruitment targets for teachers – not least in shortage subjects. Meanwhile, a significant increase in the secondary school pupil population is expected over the next few years, which will create additional pressures.

David Laws

Of course, pay differentials by subject and by type of school might be controversial with some – and teachers often claim that their decisions aren’t motivated by money. But international evidence – for example from North Carolina and Florida – shows that salary supplements in maths and science can reduce teacher exits. A consistent finding seems to be that incentives worth about 5% of gross salary can reduce teacher exits by about 10-20 per cent.

Given the importance of teacher recruitment and retention, and the current challenges around these issues, it is worth the government looking more closely not just at the overall level of teachers pay, and at pay for early career teachers. Pay supplements in shortage subjects and in disadvantaged schools may have an important part to play, and such targeting could be more effective than some policy alternatives.