Part of the solution to the teacher shortage?


What can we do about teacher recruitment? Yesterday’s National Audit Office Report has provided some useful clarity and confirmed that the Department for Education has missed its recruitment targets for four years now. A number of commentators have highlighted the shortfall of new teachers through the year, though the DfE has argued to the contrary. The range of views on the shortfall suggests the gap may be between zero and 18% (quite a range!)

A number of suggestions for policy responses have been made: pay all teachers more; pay some teachers more; review the teacher workload; reform the Ofsted process to make it less stressful. These may well be great ideas; but they are all expensive or very expensive, and slow or very slow to implement.

Here’s another idea, which could contribute to raising recruitment, though undoubtedly would not wholly solve the problem. This is more or less costless (apart from the cost of the extra teachers obviously) and easy to implement.

We have imposed a major but pointless restriction on the pool of potential teachers – we can just drop that restriction. We can, effectively, stop shooting ourselves in the foot.

The point is this: there is a general view threading through the teacher recruitment system that applicants with better degrees will make better teachers. I’ll illustrate that in a moment. But all the statistical evidence we have on teacher effectiveness says that that is not true: a teacher’s ability to raise the attainment of her pupils is unrelated to her own academic qualifications.

There are a number of explicit points in the system in which the boundary between getting a II.1 degree and a II.2 degree is crucial. I would argue that these create a mindset on appropriate qualifications for good candidates that pervades the system much more widely. For example, in terms of bursaries for teacher training, these are only available for people holding a II.1 or better in some subjects. The official ‘Get into Teaching’ website makes this clear. This is not true in all subjects: for sciences, maths and languages, the applicant’s degree class makes no difference to the bursary. So I repeat that this proposal would have only an indirect effect on those subjects.  Another example is Teach First, which requires a II.1 or better for its applicants.

So while the II.1 restriction certainly does not apply universally for all teacher recruitment, it is likely to have a much broader impact on the views of recruiters and selectors on what a good teacher looks like.

Over the last decade or so, economists have focussed a lot of research effort on teacher effectiveness. The research evidence shows clearly that teacher effectiveness is unrelated to the teacher’s own academic qualifications. Teachers who themselves got a First class or a II.1 degree are no more effective teachers than those who got II.2s. The NAO Report hints at this too.

The one study for England that measures this (our own) makes this point. The much more numerous research studies in the US show this (see my review here). Among researchers, it is an uncontroversial finding. Even researchers who set out to show that having a Master’s degree should help, end up finding it doesn’t (Ladd and Sorensen, 2015, reference in here).

So the explicit or implicit restriction of teacher recruitment to those getting at least II.1s is pointless – it does not achieve its aim of raising average effectiveness. But it is harmful, it restricts the hiring pool significantly. At the risk of repetition: this is not about a quantity – quality trade-off in hiring – by relaxing this constraint we can seek more quantity at no cost in quality.

How big a difference might this make? It’s very hard to say at a high level of generality. The NAO commented that uncoordinated data sources make this a difficult area to track.

Reaching for a very small envelope, turning it over and starting to scribble: the percentage increase in recruits is equal to the percentage increase in the hiring pool times the relative likelihood of applying from the new group times the relative likelihood of someone in the new pool being acceptable. If we assume the current hiring pool is all with a II.1 or better, and we are proposing to expand this to include people with II.2s as well, using HESA data (chart 9) that’s an increase of 35%. Of course there are other routes in as well as from the flow of new graduates, as well as people from outside the UK, so let’s call it 30%.

We know that students with II.2 degrees have lower rates of return than those with higher classes, so presumably face worse alternative job opportunities. They might therefore be more likely to apply to teaching posts. But to be cautious, and underestimate the likely effect, I assume a relative application rate of 1. For relative acceptability, I need to account for the fact that in some subjects, applicants with II.2s are already accepted. I will also assume that the marginal II.2 candidate is less acceptable than a II.1 candidate. Overall, let’s try a relative acceptability rate of 0.4.

Multiplying these numbers together (0.3 x 1.0 x 0.4) yields a potential increase in recruits of 12%. The previous paragraphs make clear how very rough an estimate that is, but you can choose your own numbers to try. So it might be that this proposal might increase recruits by around 10%, and recruits of the same expected effectiveness at teaching.

Why not remove the II.2 restriction? And work to counteract the view that teachers with II.2s will be ineffective teachers. It won’t reduce average teacher effectiveness and it will increase the applicant pool.

Just to finish, it is worth re-emphasising that while teacher numbers are important, much more important is the average effectiveness of teachers. All the evidence shows that being taught by an effective teacher relative to an ineffective teacher has a dramatic impact on attainment. To illustrate: having all effective teachers relative to all ineffective teachers for just one GCSE year wipes out half of the poverty gap in attainment. Getting more teachers into our classrooms matters, but understanding how to raise average effectiveness is the big prize.