Salaries, bursaries, and fees: too few, too much, too painful?

Justine Greening’s conservative party conference speech included an announcement of a pilot student loan repayment scheme for MFL and science teachers in 25 target local authorities. Details were initially a bit sketchy but have now been clarified. How much this will be worth depends on career progression but for a teacher working FT for the full 10 years, and moving steadily up the scale and picking up a TLR at some point it could average out at getting on for £1000 per year.

This announcement follows a pledge in the Conservative election manifesto, comes along with changes to bursaries for maths teachers, and also echoes a similar but different suggestion from Rusell Hobby, new CEO of Teach First. I thought it might be time to think out loud about the issues around funding, fees and bursaries for ITT. So here is where I would start if this were my decision.

I think that the bursaries for secondary shortage subjects are too high. Paid over 10 months, with no tax or NI deductions, a fair number of my trainee teachers are taking home a fatter monthly pay packet than anyone else in the department where they are training including the HoD. Regardless of the impact of the bursaries on recruitment, that just isn’t right.

What’s worse is that we have almost no evidence on the impact. How many extra trainee teacher applications are made because of the bursaries? How many of those are of decent quality? How many more trainee teachers do we actually recruit? What is retention like for these additional teachers? How many train with only half-hearted intentions of teaching in the maintained sector (or in this country, or at all…)? How many stick out the training through concern procedures/teaching module referrals, to the detriment of children, even though they are no longer intending to teach? These questions have been asked and the DfE and NCTL have been founding wanting.

Those are the obvious questions about the impact of bursaries. The wider question is what else might make an impact on the recruitment and retention problem? There are various people and organisations chipping away at the task of bringing some decent evidence to bear on this but I think we are probably still in the realm of informed hunches. These are mine.

There has been a lot of discussion about having bursaries with strings attached as a way of increasing their impact. Singapore has this kind of system but I don’t think it is right for the UK. I think the spectre of a massive financial penalty for failing to qualify and/or take a teaching job in the maintained sector would be really off-putting to a large number of prospective applicants in shortage subjects. This is the wrong image.

I think, if we really want to improve recruitment, then ITT needs to feel equivalent to the graduate training schemes that attract large numbers of high calibre applicants to high-profile companies, and I’m sure that sort of positioning is one element of Teach First’s recruitment success. This means all teachers should just be paid a sustainable amount during their training.

Some already are paid (SD Salaried, Teach First, and tiny numbers of Troops to Teachers and Researchers in Schools) but it is difficult to just extend this because universities are not in a position to start employing their own students, and the recruitment pattern from SD clearly shows that if all ITT recruitment is done by schools, the shortage subjects will fall woefully short of national targets. However, whilst universities are probably going to have to still work with bursaries rather than salaries, there is potential for considerable re-branding.

The level of this basic salary/bursary ought to be set in relation to qualified salaries and I think the current unqualified teacher rate is probably about right (in relation to qualified salaries only – the real terms cuts to salaries since 2010 are a different issue). However, there is a clear difference in the opportunities outwith teaching for science and maths graduates compared to history, PE and primary, for example, and I think there is a place for a shortage-subject uplift, but this still ought to be in line with likely NQT salaries. These are surprisingly varied but evidence suggests the average in science is maybe £3K more than basic M1 so to me that seems like a justifiable uplift during training. Caution suggests making this change gradually and keeping a careful eye on recruitment, though.

The DfE currently spends about £170 million on bursaries. I think the additional cost of paying a basic salary to all trainee teachers with just an uplift for some would be about £200 million – wallet out! On the other hand, something over £400 million is spent on ‘wasted training’ due to failure to retain these teachers (based on IFS figures). I think the evidence from other countries suggests that the image and status of teaching as a career can have a huge impact on both the quality of the pool of recruits, and their subsequent retention. I think gimmicky bursaries are not helping this image; I think bursaries with strings attached would almost certainly damage it; I think a clear commitment to paid training might help.

Fees for ITT are the other issue. Tempted though I am by the idea of fees being paid for all trainee teachers, I don’t think we’re ready for that yet. With student loan forgiveness or repayment, I think it’s reasonable for trainee teachers on non-salaried routes to use Tuition Fee Loans to cover that cost. However, the pilot student loan repayment scheme, with its 10 year maximum extent, would probably only just about get this £9000+ debt paid off, leaving undergraduate loans untouched. That’s not very tempting compared to choosing a different career and never having the extra debt in the first place.

I assume there is a reason why the pilot is covering loan repayment costs rather than actually writing off debt – I guess it is easier to administer that way. In the long run. though, I think that writing off debt is the preferable option. Partly it just somehow feels better, and as I’ve already said, I think a lot of this is about the image. I also think covering loan repayments is regressive – it is worth £1350/year for someone on £40K, and nothing at all to someone on £23K. That could be seen as leveraging career progression and TLR payments, but it also favours those negotiating higher starting salaries (more often men), and anyone working in London or London fringe.

So I think the DfE ought to look at moving from covering loan repayment costs to writing off debt. This would allow ITT tuition fees to be written off quite quickly – perhaps over three years (although it would be worth looking more closely at the SWC data to see if there is any kink in the retention data that would suggest a particular career point that it ought to cover). Meanwhile, other student loans could be written off at the slower rate. This would maintain the attraction of undergraduate loan repayment, whilst also making the tuition fees less of a burden, provided trainee teachers go on into a teaching career.

I assume there is also a reason for targeting whole local authority areas rather than specifically schools that have particularly difficult recruitment and retention problems. Again, perhaps it is simpler, since a school is clearly either in Portsmouth, or not, whereas targeting schools above a certain FSM or other threshold might leave teachers in borderline schools dipping in and out of the scheme as random fluctuations change which side of the threshold the school sits. Perhaps more generally, a focus on FSMs might push recruitment towards large cities and leave out some coastal and rural schools with tremendous recruitment difficulties. I don’t know what’s best but it should be relatively simple to model. If the DfE haven’t already done so, that needs to happen alongside evaluation of the pilot.

My final thought relates to Teach First and a couple of tweets exchanged with @russellhobby the new CEO of Teach First. I think Teach First has brought some tremendous new ideas into ITT, has demonstrated that teaching can be an attractive career at a time when that was proving difficult, and has undoubtedly produced some very effective teachers. However, it’s important to remain aware that this route is significantly more expensive for the taxpayer than other main routes, and retention over 5 years is a fair bit lower. My concern was that any loan reduction based on FSM thresholds would immediately start benefitting all Teach First participants as soon as they started employment at the beginning of their first year, whilst university-led trainees were racking up more debt. And whilst there are obvious reasons for targeting schools on the basis of FSMs, that also neatly guarantees Teach First participants a benefit whilst leaving it only as a possibility for other routes. I may just be biased! My suggestion of accelerated write-off for PGCE loans might be unfair in the other direction. The current pilot seems equally fair to all routes and I’m cautiously hopeful that it’s a step in the right direction.



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