14 December 2023

Schools are victims of a talent heist

By Loic Menzies

As far as I know, a bank-heist style blockbuster has yet to be made about teacher training. But given the eye-watering cost of leaks in England’s pipeline of teachers, perhaps it should be.

Luckily, a quiet, evidence-based revolution in teacher training is gathering momentum and if the government holds its nerve, it could go some way towards ending this costly waste of potential.

England’s ‘leaky pipeline’ of teachers, means around a third of teachers who trained in 2017 left within five years of qualifying. This is a disaster for the public purse given that a single teacher costs between £29,000 and £53,000 to train.

In 2019 the government decided to take action, announcing an investment which sounded almost too good to be true. The Treasury’s penny-counters had agreed to fund an enhanced induction phase for all new teachers, doubling it from a paltry single year, into a two-year programme known as the Early Career Framework.

This was accompanied by a ‘curriculum’ for new teachers to be independently reviewed and signed off by the Education Endowment Fund, education’s ‘what works centre’. This had itself been set up with a sizable grant eight years earlier. Perhaps government can make coherent long-term investments in the country’s future after all.

The new approach to teacher training and development heralded by these reforms became known as ‘the golden thread’. It now includes a reformed curriculum for trainee teachers, as well as a series of evidence-based professional qualifications for more experienced teachers.

As I explain in Improvement through Empowerment, my recent report for the IPPR thinktank, there are tentative signs that this investment is starting to tackle the long-running talent-heist. One year into the roll-out of the new framework, more than four-in-five early career teachers planned to stay in teaching for at least five years. If these intentions translate into reality, three and a half thousand fewer of each cohort would leave within five years, adding up to a saving of over a hundred-million pounds a year.

On top of that, a quarter of teachers are now involved in at least one aspect of the golden thread, whether as part of a professional qualification or through the early career framework. This is an impressive proportion given how recently the courses were introduced, and given that most professional qualifications require a fifty-hour plus commitment.

Of course, the golden thread still needs considerable refining, particularly when it comes to tailoring training to different teachers’ needs and reducing repetition, however the biggest threat comes from the classic challenge of short-termism. Full funding for professional qualifications was only secured for three years, so the cohort of teachers beginning programmes in January will be the last to benefit from full funding – unless Treasury decides to keep backing these promising developments.

On top of that, funding for the mentors who support teachers in the second of their induction years is soon to be rolled into schools’ general budgets, regardless of how many new teachers a school is actually nurturing. There was also never any extra cash for mentors to work with teachers in the first year of their induction phase.

This is economically illiterate. It takes significant investment for schools to provide new teachers with the strong foundations they need. However when they do, children across the country benefit, and the whole education system becomes more productive. In effect, the current system is blind to the positive externalities schools generate when they give early career teachers the support they need.

A lack of aspiration also curtails the scale of impact. In Singapore, teachers participate in 600 hours of professional development a year. In England, only one-in-ten teachers participate in even 35 hours a year of high quality, subject specific professional development.  A recent report by Frontier Economics for the training organisation Ambition Institute claimed that improved professional development for teachers could yield economic benefits of £10 billion.

Encouragingly Labour have shown a commitment to building on recent progress with a pledge to champion teacher development as part of their ‘Opportunity Mission’. However it is the Conservatives who should be flaunting the progress achieved to date, by committing to building a world-class system on the foundations they have laid.

England’s long-running failure to invest in teachers has been a costly mistake, but in recent years there have been welcome improvements in relation to training and development. Without a steady hand on the tiller – and whisper it, a bit more gas on the throttle, a transformative opportunity risks slipping away.

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Loic Menzies is Visiting Fellow at Sheffield Institute of Education, Senior Research Associate at Jesus College IF, Cambridge and Associate Education Specialist at Cambridge University Press and Assessment.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.