Schoolzone | The teacher labour market in England: shortages, subject expertise and incentives

The teacher labour market in England: shortages, subject expertise and incentives

Date: 30.08.2018

We've known for a long time that there's a shortage of physics, chemistry, maths and languages teachers – under 50% holding the relevant degree. In some areas, in maths, this falls to nearer a third. But retention figures are also shocking: only 60% last longer than five years. In maths and physics it’s only 50%.

Golden handshakes then, currently being trialled, aren’t likely to be a solution, and the forthcoming 3.5% pay increase, even if schools can afford it, only addresses the overall decline in pay from 2010 to 2018 – if that.

In this report from the EPI suggest centrally funding additional payments to teachers in shortage subjects. Academies can pay more now if they wish: some do. All schools are able (and it’s very common) to promote science and maths teachers to leadership roles to aid retention. But most schools don’t like to pay teachers who are ostensibly doing the same job regardless of subject, different amounts.

Highly numerate graduates can achieve much higher salaries in banking, insurance, accountancy etc: could schools ever compete with that? Meanwhile, fewer and fewer students are taking languages even at GCSE.

Pay is only part of the story anyway: most of us didn’t go into teaching for the cash (presumably), but because we like working with kids, love our subjects, enjoy a challenge, want to give something back etc. We also didn’t sign up so that we can enter endless numbers into spreadsheets, spend hours setting and marking assessment activities or [add own list of gripes here].

Pressure on school leaders to put pressure on teachers to put pressure on students puts pressure on recruitment and retention. Pressure on budgets puts pressure on pay… and so on.

We’ve completed all the curriculum reform we could possible stomach for the time being – now it’s time to reform the profession: pay teachers properly and trust them to do the best by their students. Just like all the other professions do.


EPI report here



The teacher labour market in England faces some significant challenges. More teachers are needed to meet the growing pupil population, but overall public sector pay levels have been squeezed since 2010. There are persistent problems in recruiting and retaining a sufficient number of maths and science teachers, where outside options for graduates in alternative careers tend to be lucrative. In this report, we make three key contributions. First, we detail the overall challenges facing the teacher labour market. Second, we look at the consequences for teacher quality by using the proportion of teachers with a relevant degree in the subject they teach as a predictor for teacher quality. We then examine socio-economic and area-level differences in the proportion of teachers with a relevant degree in the subject they teach. Third, we review the empirical evidence on the role of financial incentives to retain teachers in shortage subjects and attract them to high-poverty areas, and how such incentives could be applied in England.

Overall challenges for the teacher labour market

  • Since 2010, teacher numbers have held steady whilst pupil numbers have risen by about 10 per cent. As a result, the national pupil:teacher ratio has risen from 15.5 in 2010 to around 17 by 2018.
  • Applications to teacher training were down by about 5 per cent in 2018 as compared with the same point last year. Training targets have been persistently missed in maths and science.
  • Exit rates have also crept up over time, from 8 to 9 per cent in primary schools and from 9 to 10 per cent in secondary schools between 2011 and 2017. They rose even faster in special schools, from around 8 to 11 per
  • Exit rates are particularly high early in teachers’ careers, with only 60 per cent of teachers working in a state-funded school in England five years after starting training. This 5-year retention rate is only 50 per cent for high-priority subjects like physics and
  • The value of teacher pay scales declined by about 10 per cent in real-terms since 2010 as a result of various freezes and cap on public sector pay
  • Graduate pay varies significantly by subject of study, but teacher pay varies little by subject taugh This seems to be a major cause of why recruitment and retention differs by subject. Average salary levels for maths graduates are about £4,000 above the level for teachers in their late 20s, whilst average earning for graduates in English, history and biology are about £4,000-£5,000 below that for teachers in their late 20s.
  • The announcement of pay rises between 1.5 and 3.5 per cent for September 2018 will arrest this real-terms decline in teacher pay. The fact that pay rises will be larger for early career teachers also creates an interest in how future pay awards should be

Differences in teacher quality across subjects and areas

  • We treat whether teachers have a relevant degree in the subject they teach as a predictor of teacher quality. Empirical evidence suggests having a relevant degree is a good, though not perfect, predictor of teacher
  • The proportion of secondary school teachers with a relevant degree in the subject they teach varies by subject. The lowest average levels are in maths and science subjects where


there are significant recruitment and retention problems (e.g. 50 per cent of physics teachers and 46 per cent of maths teachers have a relevant degree) and highest in subjects where there is less pressure on recruitment and retention (e.g. 78 per cent of biology teachers have a relevant degree, as do 67 per cent of English teachers).

  • There is a significant socio-economic gradient in the proportion of teachers with a relevant degree in high-priority maths and science subjects, with these socio-economic gradients much larger outside
  • At Key Stage 4, only 37 per cent of maths teachers and 45 per cent of chemistry teachers in deprived schools outside London have a relevant degree, whilst only 17 per cent of physics teachers have a relevant degree in deprived schools outside London. These represent gaps of 14 percentage points for maths, 23 percentage points for chemistry and 35 percentage points for physics as compared with less deprived schools outside
  • Inside London, the proportion of maths and physics teachers with a relevant degree is generally higher, at 40-50 per cent and mostly above 60 per cent for chemistry. There also appears to be less evidence of variation by deprivation inside
  • Many maths and science teachers do not have a degree in maths or science subjects. We find that 46 per cent of maths teachers and one third of physics teachers at Key Stage 4 do not have a maths or science degree. These figures are lower at 20 per cent for biology and 12 per cent for
  • Access to teachers with a relevant degree is also low for languages at Key Stage 4, at around 40-50 per cent, with a small socio-economic gradient and little evidence of any London specific
  • In other subjects, the proportion of teachers with a relevant degree is generally high, at between 65 and 75 per cent for English, 60 to 70 per cent for biology and 70 to 80 per cent for history. In such subjects, there is a small socio-economic gradient, but little evidence of a London specific
  • There are larger socio-economic gradients in the proportion of geography and art teachers with a relevant degree, but the overall figures are generally high, at between about 65 and 85 per
  • The proportion of technology teachers with a relevant degree is lower, at around 50 to 60 per cent, but there are much smaller socio-economic differences and little evidence for a different picture in and outside of
  • We observe similar patterns for Key Stage 3, except that the proportion of Key Stage 3 teachers with a relevant degree is generally
  • There is a large amount of variation across local authorities too. The proportion of teachers with a relevant degree is generally high in London and the South East of England, as well as some urban areas outside London, e.g. Bath and North East Somerset, Rochdale, and Darlington.
  • The proportion of teachers with a relevant degree is generally low in South and West Yorkshire (e.g. Barnsley and Doncaster), the Welsh Borders, and the fringes of Birmingham, (such as Walsall and Dudley), East Anglia and the South Coast (Hampshire and Portsmouth in particular).


Role for financial incentives and salary supplements

  • Empirical evidence from North Carolina and Florida shows that salary supplements in maths and science subjects can reduce teacher exits. A consistent finding seems to be that incentives worth about 5 per cent of gross salary can reduce teacher exits by about 10-20 per
  • Bonus payments in the order of $20,000-$25,000 have also been used successfully in California and other US states to attract high-ability teachers to deprived and hard-to-staff areas.
  • Schools in England have the power and freedom to make such payments already. However, they would have to do so from their existing budgets, which might be challenging in the present climate due to the squeeze on school finances. Many of the US schemes have been centrally directed and funded; there is therefore a good case for any salary supplement scheme in England being funded and run by the Department for Education.
  • A recent report for the Gatbsy Foundation argued that a 5 per cent salary supplement for early career maths and physics teachers would have eliminated shortages within a few years had such a policy been introduced in 2010. It would also have an annual cost of only about £37m, which is a small fraction of the overall teacher training budget and about one quarter of the teacher training bursary budget (about £150m per year at present). These recruitment incentives have represented the government’s main policy lever for reducing shortage subjects, but there is little good evidence that they are
  • The government is already making welcome steps here. It is piloting a student loan forgiveness programme in shortage subjects, though the recent increase in the student loan repayment threshold to £25,000 will mean this is of little benefit to new
  • The government is also trialling bonus payments of £5,000 for maths teachers starting their training in 2018–19 who remain in the profession after three and five years, with extra bonuses if they are teaching in target local
  • Piloting new policy is almost always welcome, but the empirical evidence is very strong on the potential positive effects of salary supplements and incentives for maths and science subjects, and in attracting teachers to deprived areas. Given the poor state of the teacher labour market in maths and science subjects, we believe that waiting for the results of a pilot has real costs too and the government should now go further and faster on introducing salary supplements in hard-to-staff areas and subjects.
  • The government should seek advice from the School Teachers Review Body as to whether there is a case for extending these payments to other
  • The government should also review whether its scheme is targeted on an appropriate set of local authorities. We show that several local authorities with low shares of teachers with relevant degrees are missed out, and several local authorities with high shares are


Full EPI report here

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