The Guardian view on teacher shortages: signs of a profession in crisis

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Do more with less. This has been the government’s expectation of every public sector employee since 2010. In education, this has led to stagnant wages and unsustainable workloads, compounded by a punitive Ofsted inspection process that heaps stress upon teachers and can condemn a school to failure in a single sentence. Many are leaving the profession: vacancies in England have almost doubled since the pandemic, according to a recent report. As a result, teachers are being forced to teach more classes outside their specialism. The risk is a creeping deprofessionalisation of the sector that will have a negative impact on learning.

This crisis has been building for years. Austerity has led to fewer support staff, leaving teachers to cope with a rising tide of mental health and social issues. Meanwhile, a succession of below-inflation pay rises over the last decade means teacher earnings have fallen by 13% in real terms since 2010. It is not just absolute pay that is forcing teachers to leave or dissuading people from applying, but the growing gap between teacher pay and salaries in other graduate professions. This is particularly acute in secondary schools, which have struggled to recruit maths and science graduates who can get better-paid jobs elsewhere.

The obvious way to make the profession more attractive, both to potential and existing teachers, is raising pay. The government has tried to square the circle by targeting incentives towards early-career teachers. It has introduced more generous bursaries for trainees and committed to raising starting salaries in England to £30,000 by next year. Though early-career funding will help with recruitment, it has no impact on the deteriorating pay of experienced teachers, for whom the Department for Education has proposed a meagre 3% increase to be taken out of the existing schools budget. A government ideologically opposed to public sector pay rises may find it easier to countenance targeted payments, but if ministers are serious about retaining teachers, higher salaries are needed across the board. They should take note of the 8% fully funded rise agreed in Wales, and provide a more generous offer in England.

A bad Ofsted inspection can make recruiting teachers even more tricky. The result is a vicious spiral: schools that have a series of below-good Ofsted grades tend to have higher teacher turnover, which in turn makes it more difficult for school leaders to turn standards around. Disadvantaged schools suffer the most, leaving the remaining teachers to take on classes outside their specialism. Only 15% of physics teachers in disadvantaged schools outside London have a physics degree, for example. Unsurprisingly, teachers live in fear of a bad Ofsted inspection. One solution would be replacing the current system of ratings with a more nuanced range of indicators, providing parents with information without penalising schools.

The recent death of the headteacher Ruth Perry, who took her own life while awaiting the results of an inspection that downgraded her school, has revealed the cruelty of this regime. In response, Michael Gove has insisted Ofsted plays a “vital role”, despite his decision in 2012 to exempt schools like Perry’s, which was previously rated “outstanding”, from routine inspections. The stress of Ofsted inspections has also been cited as a factor in the deaths of other teachers. Across the sector, burnout is widespread. Ministers should heed teachers’ warnings over the problems that Ofsted creates, and accept that unless salaries are improved, schools will continue to struggle.

• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email or In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at