The General Teaching Council for Scotland

Radical actions needed to solve our teacher shortage

Chief Executive Ken Muir discusses teacher shortages in Scotland, how these impact Scottish education and the routes being pursued to resolve the issue.

Ken Muir

As teachers return to start the new academic session after the well-deserved, but always seemingly too short summer break, one of the most pressing issues will be the shortage of teachers, in some areas and subjects, and the impact this has on the demands of day-to-day working in schools. For some teachers it can mean, among other things, larger classes, loss of non-teaching time and fewer opportunities to engage in professional learning. For some headteachers and senior staff, it can mean covering classes and setting aside other duties. For pupils affected, it can mean reduced subject choice and lack of expert teaching. Sadly, it can also mean less of an ability and willingness by some headteachers and teachers to take students on placement, and, in some instances, less of an ability to offer the kind of support expected for our probationers during their induction year.

It is important to stress that we don’t have shortages everywhere and we could benefit from a more sophisticated analysis of where there are shortages and exactly how many. Although of little consolation, it is also worth stressing that the issue of attracting enough teachers into the profession is not unique to Scotland.

It is important to stress that we don’t have shortages everywhere and we could benefit from a more sophisticated analysis of where there are shortages and exactly how many

Visitors to GTC Scotland from countries as far afield as New Zealand and the USA all face the same issues of how to attract and, just as importantly, retain teachers. And the reasons they give for the lack of teachers are all too familiar – pay; workload; bureaucracy; lack of promotion opportunities; better prospects elsewhere; poor media image and the apparent reduced status of being a professional teacher in this day and age.

The OECD report Building a High-Quality Teaching Profession: Lessons from around the world offers some useful insights into the problem. It draws some interesting conclusions, noting that: “countries that have succeeded in making teaching an attractive profession have often done so not just through pay but by raising the status of teaching, offering real career prospects and giving teachers responsibility as professionals and leaders of reform. This requires teacher education that helps teachers to become innovators and researchers in education, not just deliverers of the curriculum.”

The report also points to the need for policy to be responsive at two levels. “The first concerns the nature of the teaching profession itself and teachers’ work environment. These policies seek to improve the profession’s general status and competitive position in the job market. The second involves more targeted responses to particular types of teacher shortages.”

As we begin our new academic session in Scotland with too few teachers, it may feel at times that little is being done, but nothing could be further from the truth. All countries with a teacher shortage acknowledge there is no silver bullet to fixing the problem. And, the problem is not just attracting people into the teaching profession but retaining them as well. GTC Scotland’s research last year into reasons for young teachers lapsing from our Register showed that changed family circumstances, the difficulty of securing a full-time, permanent post in Scotland (surprisingly), and the attraction of teaching overseas all contributed to a loss of experienced teachers. And the teacher shortage has been exacerbated by the recent and very significant fall in the number of EU teachers registering to work in Scotland, with potential applicants telling us that the uncertainty around Brexit is the major contributory factor. There are also immigration issues that impact on Scotland’s ability to attract and retain teachers from overseas.

GTC Scotland, in conjunction with Scotland’s universities providing Initial Teacher Education (ITE), has accredited 12 new routes into teaching

The Scottish Government’s recruitment campaign resulted in an additional 253 teachers entering the profession last year. From April 2017, career changers wishing to become teachers in priority STEM subjects have been able to apply for a £20,000 bursary. The Scottish Government has also set up a working group to look at how we might attract and increase the number of teachers from under-represented groups, and another group to consider how best to establish new career pathways. There is also the commitment which formed part of the 2017/18 pay deal that the Scottish Government will undertake a strategic review of pay and reward for teachers as part of the 2018/19 pay discussions.

GTC Scotland, in conjunction with Scotland’s universities providing Initial Teacher Education (ITE), has accredited 12 new routes into teaching which together are adding over 500 teachers to the profession. Some of these have, erroneously, been tagged as “fast track” programmes, suggesting they are of a lesser quality than traditional ITE programmes. An important role that GTC Scotland performs in the accreditation of all ITE programmes is to ensure that the high standards expected of these programmes are maintained and this has most certainly been the case in all these new routes. To help address the shortage problem, GTC Scotland has also been looking at ways in which career changers and those nearing retirement in other professions might be attracted into teaching. We have also been working with training providers, for example in computing, to look at ways in which a concurrent teaching qualification might be offered through a Scottish ITE university as part of a provider’s computer coding programme.

In Scotland, the Teacher Workforce Planning Group, which has the unenviable job of trying to predict the number of teachers needed, has consistently increased in recent years the number of student teacher places available for ITE programmes. This number reached over 4,000 in 2017/18. While this has had some success, we still find that too few students are attracted into these programmes, particularly in STEM and other secondary subjects.

All the aforementioned actions and plans are having, and will have, some impact on teacher numbers. However, what has become clear is that the longstanding, traditional route of attracting school and university students into ITE programmes has not filled the places we need in recent years. Nor are they likely to for the foreseeable future. What is needed is even more creative and innovative thinking about how we improve attraction and retention in teaching.

Suggestions have included more school-based ITE programmes, particularly in rural areas; more part-time and distance learning programmes; better support to those following the flexible route to full registration; and more opportunities for those on college programmes to gain a concurrent teaching qualification. Greg Dempster’s article on ITE in this edition of Teaching Scotland also throws up valuable insights and ideas on the matter. And how are we, as teachers and school leaders, portraying the value of teaching as a worthwhile and fulfilling career with the captive audience that is our pupil population?

Two conclusions emerge for me. Firstly, if our aspiration of empowering and enhancing teachers to improve equity and outcomes for all pupils is to become a reality, we need more positive, creative action to ensure we have sufficient highly qualified teachers entering the profession in the first place. Secondly, everyone needs to recognise that the problem of our teacher shortage is a problem we all have a role in solving.