Disadvantaged students hit hardest by maths teacher shortages

19 June 2018

Secondary school pupils in the most disadvantaged schools are being hit hardest by England’s maths teacher shortages, according to new evidence from the Nuffield Foundation.

There is a shortage of maths teachers in England, as a result of departments losing 40% of teachers during their first six years in the profession, moves to increase participation in maths for 16-18 year olds, and higher private sector wages for maths graduates. The Nuffield Foundation commissioned researchers from FFT Education Datalab to examine how secondary schools have responded to this shortage of maths teachers, and the impact it has on students.

Using data from England’s School Workforce Census, Professor Rebecca Allen and Dr Sam Sims found that schools are deploying their most experienced and well-qualified maths teachers for year groups where the external stakes are high: GCSE, A-level and GCSE retakes. This is partly because, in addition to low retention rates only 44% of practising maths teachers have a degree in maths (compared to 65% of English teachers with an English degree).

This means teachers who are inexperienced or do not have a degree in maths are much more likely to be allocated to Key Stage 3 than Key Stages 4 and 5, particularly in schools with higher proportions of disadvantaged pupils. Indeed, 19% of Key Stage 3 maths teachers are inexperienced compared to 7% at Key Stage 5. This carries a risk of switching pupils off maths, at an age when they are forming attitudes to subjects and future choices.

In the most disadvantaged schools, students across all year groups are much more likely to be taught by an inexperienced teacher. Key Stage 5 maths students in the most disadvantaged schools are almost twice as likely to have an inexperienced teacher as in the least disadvantaged schools (9.5% versus 5.3%).

To better understand how schools are responding to shortages further research is required. We need more detailed evidence, such as vacancy and applications data and head teacher perceptions of the quality of applicants, possibly collected through surveys that could complement theSchool Workforce Census.

Initiatives to increase participation in post-16 maths are to be welcomed, but make it increasingly important that government also takes action to address maths teacher shortfalls. Otherwise there is a risk of simply putting more pressure on well-qualified and experienced maths teachers at Key Stages 4 and 5.

Sam Sims, Research Fellow at FFT Education Datalab said: “Ofsted have questioned whether the first half of secondary school are ‘wasted years’ for pupils. Our research shows that teacher shortages mean schools are increasingly saving their experienced, appropriately-qualified maths teachers for the crucial GCSE years. This leaves pupils in Year 7, 8 and 9 to be taught by whoever is left. The problem is particularly stark in disadvantaged areas.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation said: “This research shows that many schools are struggling to allocate specialist or experienced maths teachers to younger pupils, particularly in disadvantaged areas, which could have an adverse effect on their progression in the subject and their attitudes to it. This is a systemic problem and not one that can be solved by individual schools where they are trying to increase the amount of maths teaching in a time of a critical shortage of maths teachers. The Nuffield Foundation welcomes new financial incentives to both schools and trainee teachers, but the government should also consider other aspects of teacher recruitment and retention, such as workload, working hours, and the lack of options for flexible and part-time working.”