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Use of non-specialist teachers in schools struggling with recruitment could have negative impact on learning

New research reveals the use of non-specialist teachers is more prevalent in schools facing teacher supply challenges, and that this is likely to have a detrimental impact on pupils’ education and learning.

The data, covering schools in England, shows that among secondary schools finding teacher recruitment the most difficult, 62 per cent reported at least ‘some’ maths lessons being taught by non-specialists, 55 per cent for physics and 26 per cent for Modern Foreign Languages (MFL). This compares to 28 per cent for maths, 29 per cent for physics and 14 per cent for MFL in the schools that reported finding teacher recruitment the least difficult.

The study, conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, examines national and local level trends in teacher recruitment and retention in England.

NFER surveyed nationally representative samples of senior leaders with responsibility for staffing in autumn 2020 (reflecting on the 2019/20 academic year) and autumn 2021 (reflecting on the 2020/21 academic year) to gather information about their experience of teacher recruitment, retention and what actions, if any, they had taken to manage shortages. 

It found that many secondary schools are facing recruitment challenges. School leaders were asked to rate the extent they were ‘unable to assemble a field of quality applicants’ (1 being ‘not at all’ and 8 being ‘to a great extent’). On average, secondary school leaders said 5 and primary school leaders 3.8.

NFER School Workforce Lead and co-author of the report, Jack Worth, said:

“The growing recruitment and retention challenges in England are likely to be having negative impacts on pupils’ education and learning. Under-recruitment to initial teacher training leads to school leaders facing teacher recruitment shortages, which they can mitigate to some extent by, for example, deploying non-specialist teachers or asking school leaders to take on more teaching. But these measures make school improvement harder right across the system.

“We call on the Government to place a renewed focus on improving teacher recruitment and retention, to ensure a sufficient supply of teachers, and in turn, support the improvement of pupil outcomes in schools throughout the education system.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at The Nuffield Foundation said: 

“Knowledgeable and inspiring teachers are vital for ensuring that every pupil receives a high-quality education. It is therefore of great concern that the report’s findings highlight how recruitment challenges are leading to an increased use of non-specialist teachers, particularly in schools struggling to hire teaching staff, and in particular parts of the country.”

Other findings include:

Quantity and quality of applicants to vacancies are particularly acute challenges for secondary schools, where recruitment of trainees to teacher training programmes has been below the target numbers required for many years.
Schools that reported finding teacher recruitment the most difficult were considerably more likely than other schools to report recruiting less-experienced teachers than they would otherwise like, and more likely to employ more unqualified teachers then they normally would. Recruiting inexperienced or unqualified teachers may have negative implications for teaching quality.
In the autumn 2020 survey, only 13 per cent of primary school leaders and 27 per cent of secondary school leaders reported that they could have afforded to recruit another teacher, regardless of whether they wanted to or not.

As part of NFER’s research into England’s growing teacher recruitment and retention challenges, it has created a data dashboard, in partnership with the Nuffield Foundation, which will launch in December. The tool provides information on the nature of the recruitment and retention challenges, and their implications for pupils and schools in terms of teacher shortages, across different dimensions, including geography, subject and school types.

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