Computing's teacher recruitment crisis threatens children, schools and heritage, warns Dawn Hewitson
This year we are about to embark on the fourth year of transition to the computing curriculum with its strong focus on computer science. With widely available continuing professional development (CPD), and Computing at School hubs throughout England to support teachers with the acquisition of subject knowledge, coupled with a generous bursary, you would think that this creates an environment for the profession to flourish.
However, applications for computer science teacher training are down by nearly 60 per cent.
This decline has been felt across both traditional Post Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) routes, and School Direct provision. Large training providers are reporting falls in applications of more than 50 per cent.
Few computer science undergraduates want to become teachers
The two largest providers of computer science training routes in the North West of England, have single figure recruitment. When visiting the largest provider of computer science undergraduate provision last week, with more than 1,000 students, only five of them expressed an interest in entering the teaching profession.
Manchester does have a vibrant computing industry, and graduates can attract starting salaries of between £20k and £22k, which is significantly lower than the bursary being offered for the teaching profession. You would think that more interest would be generated. However, despite being widely publicised in the university newsletter, only five people attended the lunchtime recruitment session.
At a meeting attended by the Computing at School Manchester team, and chaired by David Rydeheard, it was revealed that some teacher training institutions are leading single figure cohorts, particularly in the south east.
Why is a teaching career in computer science such an unattractive proposition to our graduates? Why would students, with all the new technology being introduced into the classroom to make learning more exciting, prefer the 9-5 job in an office over working with young people in the classroom? What is happening to the image of teaching in the classroom?
Despite high employment rates for teaching graduates (more than 95 per cent of trained ITT computer science graduates obtain employment as teachers), it would seem there is little interest or passion for the future of computing in the classroom and the proliferation of computer skills among graduates.
Why teaching isn't attractive for computing professionals
A straw poll over the weekend with computing professionals, came up with the following reasons why computer science teaching is not the most attractive career option:
- Increased demand and effort required to maintain acceptable standards;
- Paying too little compared to industry;
- Working conditions;
- Perception of no demand for jobs;
- Previously regarded perception of greater than average holidays now considered untrue;
- Negative press addressing each of these issues.
These myths are persistent and powerful and I want to address them because they do not do the profession justice. There is no doubt that teaching is a considered career option and is hard work. The face-to-face delivery is only the beginning in terms of workload. But increasingly there are systems in place to support teachers with both delivery and assessment in computer science and the subject networks have a vast array of materials available to teachers. Examining bodies also have repositories of useful information to support and help teachers in the classroom.
So what about pay? There is a little truth in this but it's not the whole story. A graduate salary for a computer coder in the Manchester and North West region is in the region of £20,000 to £22,000 per year. However, this initial salary can increase quickly within a two-year period to in excess of £30,000 for city-based IT staff. The school system is a staged system and, while there is some negotiation after interview, largely computer science teachers start at £25,000-plus but it is several years before they reach the £30,000-plus salary bracket.
Teachers' working conditions do require attention. They are expected to be in work before 8am and, generally, leave school after 5pm, with a period of evening marking being included in the pattern of the working day.
Performance management and school league tables have significantly impacted on the working practices of teachers. Often there is an expectation of out-of-classroom and/or after-school intervention sessions which are not included in their scheduled workload. Additionally, February half-term is often taken up with coursework intervention sessions and the Easter period is taken up with examination revision sessions. So the notion of 12 weeks’ holiday per year is no longer such an attractive prospect.
The number of teachers leaving the profession — referred to as the attrition rate — remains high, particularly for computer science. There is much need for further exploration here. Is it the removal of the proverbial 'dead wood', or are new entrants leaving? I remain in contact with many of my ex-trainees, and a significant proportion of them are still working within the profession, with a high proportion working in management roles within the school.
'No demand for jobs? A surprise to me'
The perception of no demand for jobs came as a huge surprise to me. The jobs market is particularly buoyant and I regularly receive requests for teachers in my email inbox. While there are still schools that choose to fully implement the requirements to deliver the new computer science curriculum, and continue to make use of non-specialists to deliver the curriculum, the jobs market demonstrates there is still a steady flow of vacancies for teachers in computer science.
The persistently negative media coverage of the teaching profession has eroded the previously dominant perception of better holidays for teachers. And social media has also added to this so that the previously held view of 12 weeks holidays as a 'perk' has worn thin. However, when you consider that out of the 12 weeks 6 might be taken up by administrative requirements and intervention strategies, that still leaves a full 6 weeks of holidays, still 2 more than the average of industry-based colleagues.
The negative press coverage extends to pupil behaviour. I am frequently asked how teachers cope with this. The perception is that schools are full of wildly belligerent teenagers, who refuse to comply to the will of the teacher, constantly on their phones and cyberbullying each other, or sexting.
While acknowledging that this can certainly happen, it is not commonplace within the classroom. Schools have effective measures for managing behaviour. There are extremes in all cases, and sadly these are the ones which often appear in the media. Teachers do have to deal sometimes with challenging behaviour, but most classrooms have individuals who want to learn. And at key stage 4, where pupils have chosen computing as a subject, they are generally more committed to studying.
Although these points were raised by industry professionals as anecdotal evidence, they do not wholly represent the full reasons why teaching is not considered an attractive career option. But there is clear evidence to suggest that the future of the classroom is in crisis.
Schools do play a significant role in shaping and modelling the future careers of children. Without the input of subject specialists, the skills shortage in computing and technology based industries is likely to continue. And that need for specialists and the requirement for specialist teachers is on the increase so it has to be tackled as soon as possible.
Computing's sustainability is in crisis — it's time for action
Attractive bursaries have not supplied a solution, so the problem has to be recognised as being located within the subject area, with graduates still believing the most attractive career options remain outside education. Those bursaries do go some way towards drawing some graduates and career changers into teaching, but this clearly is not happening on a sustainable scale.
One teacher training institution I am familiar with is even seriously exploring the economic viability of providing initial teacher training to computer science as a subject area. Should it drop the subject this will further restrict opportunities for graduates to enter the profession.
This, coupled with the limited budgets schools have available to access recruitment channels for School Direct programmes, does not paint a promising picture for the future of computer science in the classroom. After spending 20 years of my career teaching a wide range of young people, it saddens me to think of the future possibilities for our young people if this crisis is not addressed.
Computing is a part of the heritage of this country and do we not have a moral obligation to ensure they have the best chance possible of acquiring a good understanding of the computing curriculum? Without properly trained computing specialist teachers, fewer children will be able to enjoy the benefits and enjoyment of engaging with and understanding this curriculum, and who knows what impact this will have on a thriving industry?
Dawn Hewitson is senior lecturer in computing education and course leader in PGCE information technology and computing at Edge Hill University, Lancashire