Why are science and maths teachers more likely to leave the profession?

Image of adult learners Earlier this year, the Migration Advisory Committee advised that there is a shortage of physics, maths and computing teachers, and that together with general science teachers, they should be included on the Shortage Occupation List.

There will always be a natural turnover in any profession, and in a steady state the number of people wanting to join the profession would match the number leaving. However, in teaching, joiners and leavers are not perfectly balanced. For instance, it is widely known that teacher recruitment improves during economic downturns.

As there is a well-reported shortage of people with STEM skills in the work place, it is perhaps not surprising that teacher training routes regularly report difficulty in recruiting new science, computing and maths teachers. Recruitment targets for STEM teachers have been missed for many years. By 2010, there had been under-recruitment of physics teachers for 25 years, and the Institute of Physics estimated that 1,000 physics teachers a year for the next 15 years would be required to address this.

What might be surprising, though, is the NFER’s finding that the proportion of teachers leaving the profession, or moving schools, varies across subjects. Maths and science teachers are more likely to leave teaching early in their career than other teachers. Maybe this, too, is a symptom of economic fortunes, beyond the control of education policy makers (unless there is a way to match the salary premium some STEM graduates can command). Or perhaps the shortages in these subjects do mean that teachers ‘shop around’ as the NFER suggests.

However, there could be something different about the experiences of science, mathematics and computing teachers that is causing this. It is certainly true that we have asked a lot of the teaching profession in recent years – a uniform response is that workload and accountability pressures are excessive.

Significant reforms to the computing curriculum mean that teachers who were trained just a couple of years ago for the old ICT curriculum were in no way prepared for the new, richer computing curriculum. In mathematics, the shape and demand of the curriculum in primary and secondary has also changed significantly. In science, pressures on budgets mean less support from technicians, and fewer opportunities to do the experimental science that is so integral to science education.

What is clear is that the incoming Government needs to pay as much attention to teacher retention as it does to teacher recruitment, to continue to encourage more science and mathematics teachers to return to teaching and to work with the profession to ease the considerable burden it carries. Otherwise the education system will not be able to ensure that all our young people thrive.