There are many things Heads don’t like receiving including parental complaints and poor examination results, but high on the list will be letters of resignation from Maths, Physics and Economics teachers. The reason is simple; the UK is running out of such teachers.
Five years ago it was recognised that 40% of all Maths graduates would need to become Maths teachers if teacher supply was going to keep up with school requirements. This was never going to happen. Maths graduates are much in demand, and the financial attractions of life as a software developer, city trader, or accountant are considerable. Even if every Maths graduate wanted to be a teacher, not all would have the personal qualities required. The old joke about a Maths Oxbridge interview opening with a poorly co-ordinated attempt to shake hands, followed by an in-depth discussion of calculus with no eye contact is not without some foundation.
If anything the teacher recruitment situation is even more desperate in Physics. Many independent schools are having to search overseas for their physicists, whilst in the state sector one of the driving forces behind the move to combined science is the distinct lack of teachers capable of teaching separate sciences to a high level. Many such teachers have degrees in non science subjects.
In Economics it is a similar tale. There is a growing demand for the subject as students turn their back on its softer cousin, Business Studies. However, Britain trains more teachers in Home Economics then Economics, and there are no teacher training courses in Economics alone.
The government has woken up to the teacher shortage problem, and bursaries of up to £20,000 are available for shortage subject graduates to train as teachers. However, it may be too little too late. Outstanding subject specialists are required to inspire school students to read a subject at university. Without such teachers, the quality and quantity of applicants to read Maths, Physics, and Economics will fall. This in turn creates a shortage of teachers in those subjects and thus a downward spiral is born.
The situation is likely to worsen in the years ahead, as changes to The Teacher’s Pension Scheme encourage a wave of retirements. Meanwhile rising levels of student debt may push graduates away from middle income professions like teaching where employees are neither too poor to avoid repayments, or so wealthy they can clear debts with lump sums.
In a tight recruitment market independent schools with deep pockets and good working conditions will secure the best candidates. This will only widen the performance gap between the state and independent sectors.