Labour analysis of government figures finds outlay has risen by £300m in two years as headteachers struggle to recruit
Headteachers can spend up to £10,000 on agency fees to fill one teacher vacancy, while thousands leave the profession. Photograph: David Davies/PA
Cash-strapped schools are spending a record £1.3bn on supply staff as a result of a chronic shortage of teachers in the nation’s classrooms caused by the failure of the government’s recruitment policies, according to Labour.
At a time when schools are struggling with diminishing budgets and rising costs, the Labour party says spending on supply teachers has gone up by more than a quarter over two years as headteachers struggle to plug staffing gaps.
Labour analysis of new official government figures published last week shows spending on supply teachers – who are called in to cover in the absence of a member of staff – has gone up by almost £300m over two years, with the average amount spent by academies and free schools rising by 42% in a single year.
The figures come days after the scale of the teacher recruitment crisis was laid bare for MPs on the education select committee, who heard that schools were being forced to spend vast sums of money on recruitment agencies to help them fill vacancies.
Where schools would once have placed advertisements in the trade press, which would normally have attracted a selection of strong candidates, headteachers are spending up to £10,000 on agency fees to fill a single vacancy. Others are making expensive trips abroad to recruit.
Lucy Powell, the shadow education secretary, blamed the government’s failure to recruit enough trainee teachers, saying ministers had missed their target for teacher recruitment for the fourth year running.
“With chronic shortages of teachers in our schools, this government is risking the education of the next generation. Ministers have mishandled teacher training, putting applicants off and constantly talked down the profession, causing thousands of teachers to quit.
“As a result, half of all schools had unfilled positions at the start of this year and are being forced to turn to unqualified staff, temporary supply teachers, non-specialists and larger class sizes to try to plug the gaps.
“Nothing is more important for raising standards and improving social mobility than ensuring there are excellent teachers in every school. The government urgently needs to get a grip on this problem, which is affecting the education of our children, and start to take it seriously.”
A Conservative party spokesman accused Labour of scaremongering. “Lucy Powell has not had one positive thing to say about England’s schools and teaching profession since she became shadow education secretary,” the spokesman said.
“Despite many opportunities to laud the achievements of teachers and schools across England, which has seen 1.4 million more pupils in good or outstanding schools since 2010, Labour continue to scaremonger. Rather than recognise that the number and quality of teachers in our schools is at a record high, they talk down the teaching profession.”
Labour says the crisis is being worsened by record numbers of teachers leaving the profession, with 50,000 quitting this year alone – more than those who joined – and worse may be to come. A recent YouGov survey suggested that more than half of teachers (53%) are considering giving up in the next two years. The main reasons given were “volume of workload” (61%) and “seeking a better work/life balance” (57%).
However, the government claims that the number and quality of teachers is at a record high, with 1,000 more graduates training to teach in secondary schools than a year ago, and the number of former teachers returning to the classroom up from fewer than 15,000 in 2011 to more than 17,000 in 2014. Spending on supply teachers is up, the government says, because of rising pupil numbers.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education (DfE) said: “It is completely misleading to suggest there are chronic shortages of teachers or that a record number of teachers have ‘quit’ the profession – our increased spending on supply teachers simply reflects our increased total spending in response to rising pupil numbers.
“The overall teacher vacancy rate is 0.3% and has remained under 1% for the past 15 years. The 49,120 that left the profession between November 2013 and November 2014 includes those that left through death or retirement.”
Responding to the Labour figures, Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the research echoed the NAHT recruitment survey, published last week, which showed that almost eight out of 10 school leaders are finding recruitment a problem.
“Supply teachers play a crucial role in addressing short-term gaps in teacher numbers, but an increasing number of school leaders are having to rely on them more frequently and for longer periods than in the past. These figures show an underlying problem in recruitment and retention that the government needs to address.”
There is a recognition from the government and those in the profession that as the economy picks up, competition to recruit graduates will increase. The government is offering bursaries and scholarships worth up to £30,000 tax-free, but many in the profession fear that the workload combined with pay and conditions make teaching unattractive.
The DfE spokesperson said supply teachers perform an important and valuable role. “Schools are best placed to make staffing decisions to reflect their individual needs. It is up to headteachers and governors to decide who is required for the job and this includes how best to cover absences.”
Of the just under 50,000 people who left the profession between November 2013 and November 2014, the DfE said more than 13,000 had either died or retired. “Our figures also show that the vast majority (72%) of newly qualified teachers are still in post after five years,” the spokesperson said.