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Can the Labour government save the teaching profession?

In 2018, Becky Allen and I (Sam) wrote a book about the severe shortage of teachers in England. It had a simple central message: we need to make teaching a career worth having (again).

In the six years since however, shortages have only got worse. Outside of the pandemic years, targets for new teacher recruitment have been missed by a growing margin each year. The problem is getting worse not better.

Now that we have had a change of government, can we expect things to change? Ian Mansfield recently wrote in Schools Week that Labour’s manifesto does not contain the necessary solutions. If he is right, we may now be looking at a profession in terminal decline.

So, let’s take a closer look at what Labour is promising. Their manifesto pledged to spend £450 million extra per year on recruiting new teachers and £270 million extra per year on professional development for teachers and leaders. This will be paid for by adding VAT to private school fees.

Is this ambitious enough? Mansfield thinks not, dismissing the revenue from the VAT rise as “a gimmick in budgetary terms”. Is it?

The DfE currently spends £450 million per year on the ‘teaching workforce’, including a broad range of teacher retention incentives. This includes the generous and sustained incentives available for new maths teachers, which have taken the subject from having among the largest shortages to having among the smallest.

Labour’s £450 million pledge amounts to at least doubling the money available for such incentives, which is hardly a gimmick.

Existing research suggests that a one per cent increase in pay reduces the number of teachers quitting the profession by two to three per cent per year. This implies that, if sustained, Labour’s £450 million a year extra could almost eliminate the teacher shortage (as it stood in 2023) by the end of the parliament.

Are we really looking at a profession in terminal decline?

Mansfield also makes the point that reviving the teaching profession is about more than just pay. And he is surely right.

Research from Harvard University has shown that early-career teachers tend to leave the profession if they fail to achieve “a sense of success” in the classroom. By contrast, those who felt they were getting better at teaching and helping their students learn tended to stay.

This is backed up by research in England showing that science teachers were more likely to stay in the profession when their departments participated in high-quality professional development.

Labour’s pledge on professional development is therefore also important. The government previously made NPQs entirely free for three years using £184 million of Covid catch-up funding. Labour are planning to spend £270 million per year over and above the current baseline on professional development. Again, this is hardly a gimmick.

Of course, whether these policies make teaching a career worth having again depends on how they are implemented.  There are many ways to design retention incentives, and not all professional development is effective.

When it comes to pay, the new government needs to focus the extra retention payments on the subjects with the worst shortages. Spreading the funding too thinly will undermine its impact.

As regards professional development, the new government needs to make changes almost immediately if it is to deliver on its ambitions. Full funding for free NPQs is due to end this summer, which threatens to make many local programmes unviable. This is despite many of them being over-subscribed for next year.

The new secretary of state should immediately announce that NPQs will remain free for all teachers after September. This will allow additional participants to be admitted for the next cohort, thereby saving the network of local providers. This will be critical for Labour’s wider reforms around introducing a Teacher Training Entitlement for all teachers.

Taken together, these policies of investing in teachers and their professional expertise would go some way towards making teaching, once again, a career worth having. It all comes down to implementation.

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