Recruitment crisis: We need a radical change to accountability

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary, National Education Union
So true. I was an outstanding teacher who retired early at 58 two years ago through ‘burn out’. My ...

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If we are to end the recruitment and retention crisis we must radically alter the accountability system – it is that simple, says Dr Mary Bousted

There can no longer be any doubt that there is a crisis in teaching.

Teacher training applications are down a third on last year’s numbers, a catastrophic decline, compounding a five-year failure by the Department for Education to reach its teacher recruitment targets (UCAS, December 2017).

The government’s response has gone from complacent (there are more teachers in schools than ever before), to anxious (let’s unleash lots of small initiatives and hope that does the trick – it hasn’t and they won’t), to very worried indeed.

The problem with teacher supply has been long in the making. It is a result of a toxic mix of government policies which have undermined and demoralised teachers and school leaders.

Teacher stress and ill-health caused by excessive workloads is a major driver of teachers leaving the profession, and knowing about these issues is now a major deterrent to graduates applying for teacher training places.

Figures recently obtained by the Liberal Democrats show that the number of teachers signed off on long-term sick leave because of the pressure of work, anxiety and mental illness in 2016/17, is up five percentage points on the previous year.

The stark truth is that fewer than half of England’s secondary teachers remain in the classroom for more than 10 years – as they are driven out by exhaustion and demoralisation because the job has become just too hard, too punishing, too all encompassing, leaving no time for life outside the classroom (Education Policy Institute, October 2016).

And then there is the problem of teachers’ pay. After years of a public sector pay cap imposing one and two per cent rises on the profession, teachers’ salaries were worth 16 per cent less in 2017 than they were in 2005. There are increasing reports of teachers living in poverty, scraping to make ends meet; rising numbers of teachers applying to charities – struggling to keep their heads above water while inflation rises.

No education system can exceed the quality of its teachers – but a recent National Audit Office report (September 2017) concluded that headteachers are likely to be forced to appoint higher numbers of unqualified and inexperienced teachers as the supply of teachers dries up. And the effect does not end there. Just as teachers gain the experience to take on middle management roles, too many of them leave – something which can have a very negative effect on new teachers who are being required to take on curriculum and management responsibilities for which they have neither the experience nor the training.

There is, apparently, a belief in government that the teacher supply crisis is the result of bad publicity, particularly about school funding, and an idea that if only the pesky unions would stop talking the profession down, things would be a lot better.

I think that this is wishful thinking at its worst. Ministers must surely know that teachers are active users of social media, and are certainly not afraid to tell it how it is regarding their work on websites and forums.

More than half a million people are in teaching. Teachers have family and social networks – and pupils in schools well know just how hard teachers work and how relentless the job is.

Government advertising, creating a rosy glow about teaching, will have little or no effect when the lived reality of the job is so well known by so many.

So, what to do? While government initiatives which focus on school workload pressures (excessive lesson planning; dialogic marking, etc), are welcome and are supported by the unions, the time for radical thinking which tackles the cause of the workload problem, and not just its effects, is now.

So, my modest proposal is this: the accountability system needs radical change. Fundamental questions must be asked about the whole panoply of accountability measures and mechanisms which serve, in the end, to exhaust teachers and school leaders and to drive them from the profession.

This will require fundamental changes to the established agencies, such as Ofsted and the Regional School Commissioners, and to school performance measures. Plus, there must be a significant pay increase for all school teachers as a step towards making the profession feel more valued.

Anything less simply will not do. The government can no longer fiddle around while the supply of teachers dwindles.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. Visit

Further information

  • UCAS Teacher Training applicants at Monday 18 December 2017:
  • 3,750 teachers in England on long-term stress leave, Liberal Democrats, January 2018:
  • Teacher Workload and Professional Development in England’s Secondary Schools: Insights from TALIS, Education Policy Institute, October 2016:
  • Retaining and Developing the Teaching Workforce, National Audit Office, September 2017:

So true. I was an outstanding teacher who retired early at 58 two years ago through ‘burn out’. My daughter, a doctor, told me retire or you will die early. My mother and her brother were teachers and there were several in my siblings and cousins but out of 15 grandchildrenof my late parents, all graduates, non are teachers. It would be, sadly, a job they would never entertain. I loved teaching but my job nearly killed me.
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