Blog: addressing the STEM teacher shortage

Dr Hilary Leevers, Chief Executive of EngineeringUK, explains why the shortage of science, technology, engineering and maths teachers is a concern and how we help.

As teachers and young people head back to schools and colleges to start a new academic year, it’s timely to consider the challenges education institutions are facing, how they affect our industry, and, most importantly of all, what we can do to help.

A serious concern is the teacher recruitment and retention crisis – in particular the shortage of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) teachers in secondary schools. This is an issue across most of the UK, although the latest data below looks specifically at England. STEM teachers determine the quality of teaching impacting on young people’s interest, engagement, and enjoyment of STEM subjects. But STEM teachers are also likely to be the ones pushing for STEM engagement and careers activities in their schools – something which we know is vital for increasing young people’s awareness of and interest in engineering and technology careers.

So, how big is the problem? The 2023 Teacher Labour Market report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) finds initial teaching training recruitment was significantly below target in 2022/23, with the under-recruitment most substantial in physics, design and technology and computing - which recruited less than a third of their targets. Whilst this has been a problem for many years, the teacher recruitment and retention challenge has intensified since the pandemic – with teacher vacancies posted by schools up 93% compared to 2019. While the teacher pay deal has been accepted and the strikes are off, pay isn’t the only driver of falling recruitment and retention - so NFER is predicting that the shortages will persist. We are really in a vicious circle with the teacher recruitment target having to increase each year as more teachers leave the profession (as well as in response to changes in the school population).

The situation is similarly concerning in further education (FE). Here, teacher shortages – particularly in engineering related subjects - are affecting the delivery and availability of courses. According to a 2022 survey commissioned by The Financial Times, around three-quarters of colleges in England were unable to recruit the staff needed to teach technical and digital subjects. Some 85% of institutions reported shortages in construction courses, 78% in engineering and 62% in IT and computing. Worryingly, 40% reported being forced to cancel courses because of a lack of staff. Considering the demand for engineers and technicians is only set to grow, we cannot ignore these issues. Educators cited better pay elsewhere as the main reason they were struggling to fill positions – resulting from the 14% fall in government funding for 16- to 18-year-olds at colleges in England since 2010. What’s more, staff shortages in FE is one of the themes we’re seeing emerging from our inquiry into the decline of engineering-related apprenticeships – the findings of which are due to be published later this year.

On a more positive note, the government has a number of initiatives in place to try to address the issue, with more, such as teacher apprenticeships, under development. We have advocated for and supported the 'Engineers teach physics' programme – which aims to train engineers and material scientists to become physics teachers. Engineers can bring a unique and innovative perspective into the physics classroom. As well as having higher bursaries for their initial training, maths, physics, chemistry and computing teachers in their first 5 years can claim up to £9,000 in tax-free bonuses, if they work in schools in disadvantaged communities where staffing challenges are particularly acute.

There is also ‘Taking teaching further’ which aims to support FE providers to recruit highly-skilled professionals to retrain as FE teachers to deliver high-quality, work-relevant skills training - particularly in T Levels and apprenticeships. We encourage businesses to get involved and support where possible. In addition to funding for FE providers, a new financial incentive is being piloted, targeted at recruits for some of the most hard-to-fill subjects including: engineering and manufacturing, construction and the built environment, digital and maths.

So what can we do to help? If you have even a glimmer of interest in teaching, I’d encourage you to take a look at the teaching programmes on offer. You could continue your engineering career by getting into the classroom and using your skills and passion to inspire the next generation. If this isn’t for you, you can still show your support for teachers, recognising the fantastic job they do at educating and inspiring the next generation.

At the business level, we’d encourage HR departments to explore how they can help teachers in their local schools and colleges feel supported and valued, this could include releasing staff to support teaching, or encouraging employees seeking a career change into teaching. Businesses can also host teacher placements in industry run by organisations such as STEM Learning, the Careers & Enterprise Company, and the Education Training Foundation. As we consider how we can address the sector’s workforce challenges, we must recognise the critical role that our schools and colleges play and strive harder to support them.

Dr Hilary Leevers, Chief Executive of EngineeringUK