Make teaching attractive!

Teachers in a changing world of work

Trade unions need to capitalise on the opportunity the crisis in the education sector has created – suggests Howard Stevenson, Professor of the University of Nottingham,  co-author of a research paper on the status of the teaching profession. Many stakeholders have come to realise that action is needed to tackle teacher shortages, and a growing agreement seems to form around the factors relevant to making teaching an attractive career path.

In Europe, each country has its own education system. Is it fair to say that teacher shortages are causing problems everywhere?

Not all education systems are faced with severe teacher shortages, however most countries report problems in certain levels, subject areas, at certain types of geographical locations or, for example, in socio-culturally disadvantaged areas. There are only three countries in Europe where there is some evidence of a surplus. Also, most countries with teacher shortages report an ageing teacher population, foreshadowing an escalation of the problem as many more experienced professionals will reach retirement age within the coming decade. 

What is it that prevents schools from contracting young professionals?

Teacher training is still popular in many European countries, while in others, institutions are struggling to recruit new students. Finding new entrants for the job, however, has become increasingly difficult, as many other professions requiring similar backgrounds offer competitive working conditions and remuneration. In some countries this is experienced as a problem of recruitment, and a shortage of job applicants.  In other cases, there may be many applicants, but too many entrants leave the profession quite quickly, in other words, there is a problem of retention.  Naturally, simultaneous difficulties of both recruitment and retention suggest a considerable potential for a crisis.

Teachers have never made a lot of money, still it was perceived as a decent profession. What has changed lately?

In my view, there are three key factors to consider: remuneration, job satisfaction and working conditions. Remuneration for teachers, or pay, to put it very simply, has traditionally been inadequate.  It is below average graduate earnings in most European countries. However, in the past, we may argue this was offset by the other two factors: generally good levels of job satisfaction and working conditions that had some attractive features. In other words, people went into teaching because it was considered an intellectually challenging, creative job with a social purpose, offering high levels of intrinsic reward. It also had some attractions in terms of work-life balance. This resulted in an uneasy equilibrium in which low pay has been offset by other factors, especially for those with caring roles. In many countries women continue to dominate, with teaching as an occupational group being around 75% female. 

In our report we argue this uneasy equilibrium is no longer in balance.  Research indicates that pay remains a problem (and made worse by the cost of living crisis) but the other elements in this relationship are now also deteriorating.  Job satisfaction levels are low and declining, while working conditions are also deteriorating.  In particular, and following the pandemic, we see teaching as a job that offers little flexibility to staff.  This contrasts with many graduate opportunities that increasingly offer flexible hours, ‘working from home’ and arrangements than can be tailored around caring roles.  These are likely to be long-term trends in the future of work and mean that current teacher supply problems cannot be considered short-term.

In the report you refer to ‘work strain’. Could you explain what work strain means in a school context?

Teachers typically work long hours, and for uncompetitive salaries.  But this is only part of the problem.  ‘Work strain’ is a useful concept that combines two other factors – work intensity (how much effort is used within the working hours) and task discretion (how much control is experienced over the work itself).  Excellent data, from very large studies, show that teachers often experience both high work intensity and low task discretion.  Actually, they average twice the level of work strain experienced in other similar occupations.  Much of this is associated with the increased accountability and bureaucracy that teachers experience at work. These pressures, which are at their worst in education systems where the teaching profession enjoys little trust, drive workload up, while also driving professional autonomy down.

In your view, what can be done to reverse this process?

I believe in many countries and in the EU, education authorities and policymakers are becoming increasingly aware that the factors that helped the system function historically, are not present anymore. Current problems are not short term and will not be fixed by any quick change in economic conditions. Thus, education trade unions have a key role to play in ensuring policy makers adopt bold and radical solutions.

These need to focus on four areas:  First, there can be no avoiding the issue of pay.  As long as teachers receive below the average graduate earnings in their country, shortages will persist.  Second, teachers need the working conditions, and the intellectual space, to be able to carry out their work effectively, which will help restore job satisfaction. Third, we believe that an ambitious agenda around equality and diversity issues can make a serious impact on improving the attractiveness of the profession.  Addressing pay gaps, promoting flexible working hours and adopting policies that support those with caring roles can all make an important difference.  Finally, it is important to support teachers throughout their whole career, and recognise that experienced teachers, as well as those in the early stages of their career, have distinctive professional needs. 

The current problems of teacher supply, experienced in many countries across Europe, are likely to get worse rather than better.  We understand the problems quite well – but we do not often see the political commitment necessary to tackle the issues.  Governments must act – and education trade unions have a key role to play making sure they do.


Read the full research report by Professor Howard Stevenson, University of Nottingham and Dr Alison L. Milner, Aalborg University

Towards a Framework of Action on the Attractiveness of the Teaching Profession through Effective Social Dialogue in Education