Unions take college teacher recruitment crisis to MPs

They warned 'pay erosion' could continue without significant policy changes

They warned 'pay erosion' could continue without significant policy changes

20 Jun 2023, 16:44

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The education select committee held the first session of its inquiry into the recruitment and retention of teachers this morning.

MPs heard from a range of education experts and union representatives, including the University and College Union and Association of School and Colleges Leaders who spoke about the key challenges in colleges.

Here are the highlights:

Collective bargaining could slow FE’s ‘pay erosion’

The pay gap between teachers in colleges and schools currently stands at £8,000 and this inequality is often cited as a key reason for strike action in the college sector.

Part of the reason wages in colleges have been low for so long is the lack of collective bargaining, Jenny Sherrard, national head of equality and policy at the UCU told the committee today.

In the schools sector, unions and employers submit evidence to the School Teacher Pay Review Body which then makes a recommendation on teacher pay rises to ministers. What ministers decide is then binding on schools.

There is no national framework for teacher pay in colleges. Instead, colleges are given a voluntary recommendation on pay awards annually by the Association of Colleges following discussions with unions. This year though, the AoC has so far refused to make a recommendation.

“Frankly most colleges ignore [the AoC’s recommendations]. That has contributed to this overall steep decline in FE pay,” Sherrard said.

Now that the FE sector has been reclassified into the public sector as of November last year, the next step must be to instigate collective bargaining, she said.

“Really, without a binding collective agreement on pay, we are going to continue to see pay erosion in the sector.”

That could also be helped by FE representatives having a seat as school pay is negotiated as an observer, so that the two levels of pay are seen as interlinked, she added.

The pay gap between school and college teachers also means FE institutions compete with schools for staff, the UCU’s Sherrard said.

“When we see that pay is at an even lower level than it is for schools, we have to factor in that we are also competing against another part of the education sector which is reporting its own level of challenge.”

‘Lots to support’ for T Levels but teacher recruitment ‘extremely challenging’

T Levels – the government’s flagship new qualifications labelled as the technical equivalent to A-levels – have been rolled out since 2020, with hundreds of millions of pounds pumped into them.

But wages are a big stumbling block when it comes to recruiting staff in sectors with occupational specialisms, Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders told the committee. In areas such as engineering and mathematics, after all, wages are much higher within the industries themselves.

“They are coming from industries that are much better paid,” she said.

“If you are bringing in someone to lead an engineering apprenticeship or somebody to lead an apprenticeship in technology, those people could have much more lucrative careers frankly if they stayed in the day job rather than coming into FE.”

That concern comes as the government aggressively pushes forward with the T Level rollout, with controversial plans to cut off funding for many alternative applied general qualifications like BTECs from 2025.

“There’s lots to support around T Levels alongside other high quality post-16 qualifications,” McCulloch said. “But certainly what we hear from our college members is getting the pull-in to provide the teaching and support to students in those very specialised areas is extremely challenging when they cannot afford to match anything like the pay that they could get elsewhere.”

In March, the government bumped up teacher training bursaries for the FE sector to tackle teachers shortages in some of the areas which are struggling the most. Teachers of maths, science, engineering and computing could get bursaries worth £29,000, while English teachers could get bursaries of £15,000.

“We definitely don’t know if they’ll have any impact on [staff] retention,” McCulloch said.

But Sherrard, from the UCU, said the “bigger issue” was still the low wages.

“It’s all very well having a bursary of £29,000, but then if the starting salary in FE is £26,000 that is not a particularly attractive offer for the years after your training.

“The reality is that the starting salaries are simply not attractive when it compares to other sectors.”

A ‘very serious crisis’ is on the way

More than 95 per cent of colleges report they are struggling to recruit staff, and the sector staff leaving rates are just as concerning, Sherrard said today.

Around a quarter of teaching staff at FE colleges leave after just a year in work, which rises to almost half within three years. At schools, around a quarter leave within the first three years.

Three quarters of teachers at FE colleges leave after a decade as well – all the while student numbers are booming.

As teachers drop out of the FE sector altogether, FE is also facing a “challenging age profile”, Sherrard told the committee.

“We know that 30 per cent of the workforce are over 50 and only 8 per cent are in those lower age bands coming in.”

While she accepted that workers often come into FE “slightly later” than other sectors, she said that ageing workforce has combined with the high drop out rates “at the very same time as we have this bulge in students coming through the system”.

“We are rapidly heading towards a very severe crisis if we cannot address the issues with recruitment and retainment by improving pay and addressing workload,” she said.

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