Last week we published a report with data that suggests non-physics graduates can teach physics to GCSE standard just as well as physics graduates. Does mean that the Government’s battery of programmes to get physics and maths specialists into teaching is unnecessary? Probably not, for two reasons:
1. We appear to be hurtling into a teacher supply crisis
Pupil rolls are rising fast in secondary schools, the graduate labour market is recovering giving attractive alternatives to teaching for young people and the lifting of the recession should allow disaffected teachers to leave the profession. Using geography teachers with an A level in maths to teach maths only works if those teachers are not needed elsewhere in the school. In our sample of schools, about 40% appear to be teaching the GCSE science curriculum without a teacher who has a physics or engineering degree.
2. Our analysis only tells part of the story
We show there is no relationship between the number of physics graduates on the Key Stage 4 teaching team and physics GCSE results, which is a relief for the large number of schools who have no option but to deliver the curriculum this way. And we argue this is entirely consistent with the bulk of the international literature that shows your own talents in the subject bear little relation to your ability to engage and impart knowledge to others. However, we haven’t yet looked at whether being taught by non-specialists is important for particular sub-groups of pupils, whether it lowers progression to A level or indeed whether specialists are critical for A-level teaching itself.
Alternatives to just paying teachers more
If we need more teachers, the conventional way to deal with this is to make the profession more attractive. Simply paying teachers more would be one option. But the Government is a monopsony employer, controlling wages in the entire market (yes, most private schools peg wages to DfE pay scales). This means it is hard to attract the marginal new teacher by paying them a higher wage than those who are willing to do the job at current wage rates. This is why Governments dream up complex schemes to induce people into the profession such as scholarships, loan write-offs, golden hellos, bursaries, etc…
Locking 18 year olds into a commitment to teach
The Government’s announcement today of a new bursary scheme to give 2,500 18 year olds up to £15,000 in exchange for taking a maths or physics degree and completing 3 years in the classroom on graduation is particularly interesting. It has nice elements, such as requiring them to teach in schools with a demonstrated shortage or those that are particularly deprived (note – grammar schools have no problem recruiting subject specialists). It probably has little deadweight loss since relatively few of these individuals would have taught anyway, regardless of the financial incentive. Including teaching placements during an undergraduate degree is a great idea. These bursary students will have enough money to avoid part-time jobs, so they’ll have plenty of time on their hands. The scheme may even encourage some to take an undergraduate degree in maths or physics who wouldn’t have otherwise.
However, we have a teacher shortage in physics and maths now. This gives us some teachers in 4 years’ time. Why not pay an upfront bursary to 21 year old maths and physics graduates to teach straightaway, for example? The Government’s judgement must be 18 year olds have high credit constraints (thanks to insufficient maintenance loans) and very high discount rates. So it works out cheaper to give an 18 year old £15,000 for this lock-in, compared to, say, £30,000 you would need to give a 21 year old.
For the young people taking these bursaries it appears to be a good deal. Even if they don’t want to teach forever, teaching develops a set of skills that are enormously useful for being successful in other fields (e.g. getting up on time, being reliable, considerate of others, working hard, presenting ideas). The major downside is that it will restrict their choice of university since only ten plan to participate in the scheme. So their undergraduate course may not be a good match for their interests.
I am less certain that this scheme will recruit a set of graduates who are well-suited to teaching. In the event of scheme popularity, who decides who is given a place? Surely the university maths and physics departments will want academic record to override other considerations? Who will interview these individuals to assess whether they have to social and inter-personal skills to enter the classroom? As mentioned above, academic credentials alone are a poor indicator of teaching talent. Teach First has learnt over the past decade that ‘soft’ individual attributes such as resilience are critical to survival in the profession. They have a tough job identifying this through their costly recruitment process; under the bursary scheme we’d have to identify whether 18 year olds are likely to grow into the kinds of 21 year olds who can cope with (and hopefully enjoy) teaching.