At the end of November, amid a landslide of other reports and information, the DfE released the results of its 2017/18 Initial Teacher Training (ITT) Census. This shows how many potential new teachers were recruited to postgraduate ITT courses this year and, crucially, how this compares to the DfE’s own estimate of how many new entrants were needed.

The ITT Census contained some good news, particularly in the primary sector. According to the DfE’s Teacher Supply Model (TSM) 12,121 new postgraduate trainees were required in 2017/18, and 12,905 were recruited.

This means 106% of the primary school target was met, and means that in four of the last five years, recruitment targets for primary teachers were either nearly met (98%+) or exceeded. Despite the difficulties facing primary teachers, recruitment has broadly held up thus far.

Now for the bad news

Be warned, there’s quite a lot of it.

Recruitment for secondary schools missed its target by a long way. In fact, only 80% of the required number of secondary trainees were recruited, the worst performance since comparable records began seven years ago. The total number of new secondary ITT entrants declined by almost 500 from last year, at a time when DfE estimated that an increase of over 1,000 trainees was necessary.

In almost every single secondary school subject, targets were missed. Only in history and PE, historically the subjects with fewest recruitment problems, were enough trainees recruited. In core subjects like computing and physics, targets were missed by over 30%. In design & technology, the subject with the biggest recruitment problem, just 33% of the required number of trainees were recruited.

Additionally, as the chart below shows, every single subject apart from PE is in a worse position than last year, relative to recruitment targets.

Last year, recruitment of geography and biology trainees exceeded targets by 15% and 13% respectively. This year, targets were missed by 20% and 14%. The target across the combined sciences was missed by just 3% last year, this year it was missed by 20%. English targets were missed by 10% this year, compared to 4% last year. Even history, oversubscribed by 50% four years ago and 10% last year, exceeded its ITT recruitment target by just 2% this year.

So why are targets being missed so badly in secondary classroom subjects?

The answer comes down to supply and demand – the number of postgraduates recruited into ITT, versus the number that the DfE estimates is required.

Looking at supply, the numbers of new secondary teacher trainees have fallen overall, by almost 500 since 2016/17. Years of real-terms pay cuts, increases to teacher workload driven by accountability measures, and confusion over routes into teaching have combined to make teaching a less attractive career option to new graduates.

Over the same period, demand for new secondary trainees has risen by over 1,000 according to the target provided by the DfE’s supply model. This itself may well underestimate the need for new teachers, as the National Audit Office points out that it “does not aim to resolve pre-existing teacher shortages, including those caused by previously missed recruitment targets”.

A lot of data feeds into the supply model and explains the rising secondary training targets, but much of it boils down to pupil and teacher numbers.

Firstly, the number of secondary pupils is increasing. In 2016/17 there were almost 40,000 more pupils in state-funded English secondary schools than the previous year. By 2019/20, there will be a further 249,000, and by 2023/24 there will be over half a million more secondary pupils than today.

At the same time, teachers are leaving the profession in increasing numbers. Some 11% of secondary teachers left the English state sector in the year to November 2016, up steadily from 9.9% in 2013. Only 48% of secondary classroom teachers in England have more than 10 years’ experience, compared to an international average of 64%.

The chart below shows that overall secondary teacher numbers fell as pupil numbers declined, but they have failed to respond to the recent rise. As secondary pupil numbers are set to soar in coming years, many more teachers will be required.

These rising pupil numbers and recent reductions in secondary teacher numbers mean targets for overall secondary recruitment have risen. The DfE aimed to recruit 18,726 secondary teachers in 2017/18, up from 13,340 four years ago.

All this means that even recruiting the same number of secondary trainees each year would leave recruitment levels far below the DfE’s own estimated need. In fact, as we have seen, the numbers recruited this year fell.

Behind the overall figures, though, we can see the results of Government meddling with the GCSE curriculum.

The effect of EBacc

Since the time of Michael Gove, the DfE has been pushing pupils towards taking the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), a list of Government-approved ‘core’ subjects which forms a major strand of the Government’s accountability measures. As a result, schools have been pushed into offering more hours in these subjects, at the expense of other, non-EBacc subjects.

This difference clearly shows through in the ITT census results. Postgraduate trainee recruitment for secondary EBacc subjects met 84% of the required level, non-EBacc subjects just 69%. Both figures were down from 16/17, when EBacc ITT recruitment was 93% of target, non-EBacc was 74%. But these declines were for different reasons.

More students are being pushed into taking EBacc subjects, creating higher demand. This caused recruitment targets in EBacc subjects to rise 10% from last year, meaning 1,280 more trainees were required. In fact, 40 fewer trainees began postgraduate training across all EBacc subjects.

In English, for example, 173 more trainees were needed than last year, but only 10 more applied. In geography, the DfE decided it needed 1,531 trainees this year, almost double the number in 2016/17. Despite an extra 330 people beginning postgraduate teacher training in the subject, it still moved from a significant oversupply to a serious shortfall. In some other subjects, where targets were held steady, recruitment fell.

For non-EBacc subjects, the Government’s decision to marginalise these areas means demand for new teachers has been hit. As a result, targets were reduced, despite the rising overall pupil numbers. The DfE’s target number of trainees fell by 242 (5%), from 2016/17, or a staggering 1,617 (25%) from 2015/16.

Despite these reduced targets, the number of people entering postgraduate training in non-EBacc subjects fell even further, with 415 fewer entrants to postgraduate ITT in non-EBacc subjects than last year. In art and design, the target fell by 56 trainees, but new entrants fell by 85. In music, the target fell by 6 but new entrants fell by 60.

The chart below shows this trend over the past three years, with demand for teacher trainees in EBacc subjects rising but the number of new trainees unable to keep up. Meanwhile, the number of trainees in non-EBacc subjects has fallen significantly, and remains below even the DfE’s greatly-reduced targets.

To put it bluntly, by promoting EBacc so strongly, the Government needs more and more teachers for these subjects, but is unable to recruit them, due in part to its failure to address workload pressures and its policies of real-terms pay cuts for teachers and funding cuts for schools.

It has marginalised other subjects to push its agenda, meaning that even though it needs fewer non-EBacc teachers, it cannot even meet these reduced targets. It has devalued the teaching profession as a whole, but teachers outside its EBacc “core” in particular. How many potential teachers will want to train to teach a subject that the Government is actively discouraging pupils from taking?

Is there any positive news on the horizon for secondary recruitment?

In short, not much.

Data on qualified teacher status (QTS) awards made to overseas teachers is one year older, but shows the number of awards fell by 420 (6%) from 2015/16 to 2016/17. Given the perception that the country is becoming less welcoming to migrants, it seems unlikely that this trend will be reversed. We cannot rely on overseas help.

The most recent workforce data (as opposed to training figures) shows that recruitment of newly-qualified teachers into jobs in all English state-funded schools fell by 5% from 2015/16 to 2016/17. Recruitment of already-qualified teachers into the English state system fell by 4% year-on-year. And although returners to the state sector rose by 1% (2% as a full-time equivalent), this was not enough to offset the declines in other areas.

Possibly worst of all, the picture for recruitment next year may be even bleaker.

Last week it emerged that the number of people applying for postgraduate teacher training for 2018/19 is down by a staggering 33% since last year. According to UCAS data, by mid December 12,820 people had applied to start teacher training in the next academic year, compared to 19,330 applicants around the same time last year.

Applications to training for secondary teaching are down by 31% from the same time last year. It may be that that candidates are simply waiting longer this year to submit applications, but anything remotely approaching this level of decline in the final numbers would be a disaster for teacher recruitment.

"The DfE [would] have to take some action or risk the most serious crisis in applications since the turn of the century. With the return of teacher recruitment in-house there is nowhere for Ministers to hide if the numbers don’t pick up.”

- Professor John Howson, an expert on the teaching labour market, on the previous month’s data on secondary applications

Can anything be done?

In secondary schools, rising pupil numbers are an inescapable fact. The DfE expects the pupil-teacher ratio to rise as a result, but even this rise is based on a model that involves recruiting more teachers, not fewer. Reversing the drive to push all students into taking EBacc subjects would spread the burden and ease some pressure on teacher recruitment, while simplifying the various training routes could also boost applications.

Ultimately, though, the recruitment crisis can only be solved by restoring the value of the profession, encouraging more would-be teachers to apply, and retaining more of the teachers we have. NEU has consistently argued that this must be addressed through immediate steps to reverse real terms pay cuts and tackle rising workload.

And for new Education Secretary Damian Hinds, a first step down this road will be to acknowledge that a crisis is a crisis.

Written by Jon Taylor, policy researcher at the National Education Union