Anecdotal evidence suggests that primary teaching is on the precipice of a significant crisis. The primary headteachers I meet on a regular basis (which is a large number) report a consistent picture of difficulty in recruitment with vacancies unfilled and a system propped up by a decreasing pool of supply teachers. Even those with a stable staff are worried about future appointments. Yet according to statistics, this crisis is imaginary and the minister, Nick Gibb, has announced that the problem does not exist.
The government’s approach to policy is based on the following data. For 2014-15, 118% of the projected national need for primary teachers was allocated to training providers. 21870 places were allocated to meet a demand for 20595 student teachers in order to ensure the supply of qualified teachers met school needs. According to figures released recently by the National College for Teaching and Leading, 116% of that quota were recruited. In other words 25370 primary students were recruited to meet a national need of 20595. On this basis, there should be no crisis.
There appear to me to be five reasons that may explain the gap between the national statistics and perceptions in schools. First, the original estimate of need was significantly out. This could be as a result of not factoring the birthrate properly. Secondly the number of teachers who left the profession last year increased dramatically. Thirdly, there was an insufficient proportional allocation of postgraduate (1 year) places that enable supply to be planned in short term. Fourthly, supply was not matched to regional need with too few teachers trained in the areas with most need. Lastly, the situation may not have changed significantly and headteachers may be over anxious.
There are some outstanding supply teachers but their role should be to cover short term absence not paper over the cracks when there are insufficient classroom teachers. Where schools have a number of classes without a permanent teacher, primary education is undermined because of the lack of routine and relationship.
The government have cited the 116% enrolment on courses as reason to cut the bursaries for primary students from £9000 or £4000 (depending on degree classification) to £3000. The government has also introduced a new system to encourage providers to make offers as quickly as possible. The danger is that the system loses rigour and those with the best potential (to combine subject knowledge, understanding of child development and interpersonal skills) will not be attracted nor, if they apply, recruited.
The government will make a political calculation as to how many parental votes will be lost as quality (against OfSTED criteria or indeed any measure) is undermined during a painful transition from rigorously recruited, qualified, reflective teachers interested in a long career to increasingly unqualified, quickly recruited trainees from relatively short courses who will teach for two or three years.
The evidence from a range of data and research suggests primary education in England is successful in expanding life opportunities and meeting utilitarian national need to the point where Chris Husbands can make a claim that we have the best profession in the world. The problem appears to be that the training and development of that profession is considered too high in terms of both immediate cost and pension liability. The worry is that the government’s approach, including the lack of interest in the recruitment crisis, is a gamble on a change that may undermine a very successful system for the sake of treasury targets.