girl maths teacherIn December, £67 million was pledged to get 17,500 more maths and physics teachers into our classrooms, to address the chronic shortage of maths and science teachers in the UK.

On Wednesday, David Cameron and Nicky Morgan put their mouths where the money is as they announced the details of a ‘Major push to get more maths and physics teachers into our classrooms’. These professions have long been on the government’s shortage occupation list.

One of the key recommendations of the Royal Society’s Vision report, published last summer, was the importance of a ‘strong supply of science and maths teachers’. Dame Julia Higgins, Vice Chair of the Vision committee and Chair of the Royal Society’s Education Committee, responded positively to this announcement:

“We welcome these initiatives to attract, train and retain more specialist science and mathematics teachers, as well as the Government’s recognition of the importance of education – particularly in science and mathematics – to economic growth and prosperity. As the Royal Society’s Vision report emphasised last year, this country continues to experience severe shortages of science and mathematics teachers. With primary and secondary school rolls set to rise in the years ahead, eradicating these shortages must be a top priority. A range of strategies will be required to ensure we have enough suitably qualified science and mathematics teachers. Failure to do so will have significant negative consequences for young people and the UK’s economic ambitions.”

The pot of money promised in December is certainly a start and yesterday’s apparent focus on returners (attracting former teachers back into the classroom) and career changers (retraining skilled STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – professionals as teachers), is an interesting, if rather ambitious angle. Attracting and supporting ready-qualified returners is potentially an efficient approach to filling the shortage of specialist teachers, assuming teachers who have left the profession can be tempted back.

The government mentions the need for a career in teaching to ‘compete with other leading professions in science, maths and technology’. This is a tough task; graduates of STEM subjects have some of the best career prospects of all UK graduates. Indeed, the government has said themselves ‘those who go on to work in maths and science-based occupations contribute more than twice as much to the economy as the average’.

A salary of ‘up to £18,500 while training’, while welcome, may not tip the scales for STEM graduates considering teaching. The School Teachers Review Body report on teacher salary, published yesterday, did find that the salary of teachers was below that of many other graduate professions. The report recommends a ‘fuller review of the national pay framework in future, to ensure it enables schools to attract and retain high calibre graduates in an increasingly competitive labour market’.

Nicky Morgan has indicated that she intends to accept all of the key recommendations.

But salary is just one aspect of attracting bright and motivated graduates and encouraging former teachers back into the profession. Vision emphasises the importance of clearly defined career pathways and professional development for teachers, an issue not addressed by the proposals mentioned on Wednesday. However, professional recognition and strong career pathways for teachers are issues that absolutely must be addressed to find a long-term, stable and sustainable solution to maths and physics teacher shortages.

The proposed new College of Teaching explicitly aims to improve career pathways and professional recognition, as well as maintaining and solidifying the professional status of the teaching profession; undoubtedly making it a more competitive career option for STEM graduates. Under the current proposal graduates will be given £15,000 to commit to 3 years in teaching. While this may initially attract candidates, clear career progression structure and investment in continuing professional development is key to ensure that these graduates remain.

As ‘State of the Nation’ suggests, ‘creative strategies aimed at retaining science and mathematics teachers, or supporting their return to the profession, need to be devised alongside a greater understanding of the reasons why teachers decide to leave the profession’. i.e. we need to plug the holes before we fill the bucket!