Why don’t people want to teach in London and the south east?

Alex Collinson
Alex Collinson

The Key’s State of Education report threw up some interesting findings about staffing in schools. In the survey, just over a third of primary schools said that they were facing a shortage of teachers. The situation was seemingly worse in secondary schools, with around half struggling with teacher numbers.

Interestingly, these broad figures masked some stark regional disparities. In the south east, half of schools reported a shortage of teachers. In London, it’s a majority of schools who are struggling (56%). In contrast, the north west and the south west fare better. In the south west, only around a quarter of schools reported a shortage and in the north west, it was one-fifth of schools.

Staff shortages

There were differences elsewhere too. When we asked school leaders what one thing they expected the biggest challenge to be over the next year, from a list of 14 possible options, 31% of respondents told us budget pressure and lack of funding, which put this in a clear first place. Teacher recruitment and retention came in at second place, with 19% . However, this changes when you look at responses on a regional level. In London, recruitment, not budget pressures, was the most frequent response. In the north west, only 7.5% of school leaders said recruitment was their main concern. This meant it ranked fourth on the list of challenges, behind budget, teacher workload and the quality of teaching. In the south west, it was ranked third.

So why are schools in the south east and London reporting more of a teacher shortage than those in the north west and south west?

As someone from Lancashire, I can only guess that it’s because teaching in the north west is a treat. Classrooms are choc-a-bloc with delightful children who may one day become researchers for The Key. Plus there’s such a wide array of potential school trips – Grasmere, Camelot Theme Park*, or even Dunsop Bridge to see that BT phonebox that marks the geographic centre of Great Britain. But this doesn’t explain the similarly low teacher shortage rates in south west. It’s also entirely speculative, so I thought I’d best look at some actual research.

LKMco has done some of that research. Its report ‘Why Teach?’ looks at how teachers decide where to teach. A section on what factors affect teachers’ decisions to move to a different region shows that teachers generally teach in the region they grew up in.

When teachers do decide to move to a new region, it can be for a number of reasons. The main influencing factor when moving region is the culture and ethos of a school. The second, third and fourth highest ranking reasons, however, are more difficult for a school to control:

  • Commutability
  • Quality of life
  • Cost of living

It could be argued, therefore, that the reasons that some regions may struggle is because not enough people from that region are becoming teachers and sticking around the area. This is then worsened if people are not attracted to the area due to factors such as commutability, quality of life and the cost of living.

There’s no denying that London is an expensive city to live in. The south east isn’t too cheap either. The latest Living Costs and Food Survey shows that London and the south east are the two regions with the highest average weekly household expenditure. The report notes that a “major factor” in London’s high expenditure is the cost of rent. The south east had the second highest average rent expenditure.

Expensive houses

Source: Office for National Statistics

For those wanting to buy a house, the latest house price index (February 2016) shows that the average house price in London is over £500,000. It’s just under £370,000 in the south east. Compare this to £180,000 in the north west. The cost of housing for teachers in London is an issue that has recently been raised by the National Union of Teachers, and figures reported by The Guardian show that “62% of inner London homes are unaffordable to a couple who have both been working as classroom teachers for five years. Buying on a single salary is out of the question in 96% of the area.”

While I couldn’t find specific data for teachers commuting, the TUC has analysed official figures and found that London and the south east are, by quite a distance, the two regions with the highest amount of people facing a long commute to work. Commutability also links to the cost of housing – if a teacher can’t afford to buy or rent a house in an area, why would they teach there and have to face a long commute from elsewhere?

It’s hard to imagine someone moving to London or the south east with Grapes-of-Wrath-esque aspirations of a higher quality of life, a lower cost of living, or a shorter commute. It’s therefore hard to imagine quick fixes to teacher shortages in these regions. There’s clearly a lot of factors at play here, and not all of these can be solved by schools, or even the Department for Education (DfE).

If teachers tend to teach where they were raised, the obvious solution is to get more people raised in London and the south east into teaching. But this is a long term solution, and given that the DfE is frequently falling short on its own targets to recruit trainee teachers, it could be a struggle.

It must be hard for school leaders to know what to do too. A school can create a reputably good culture and ethos, but it can’t build cheaper houses in the neighbouring area. But maybe a school can boost the amount of people raised in the region that go into teaching. One of my colleagues recently spoke to a secondary school that runs a scheme where sixth-form students who show an interest in working in education take part in activities to gain a greater understanding of teaching. The school will keep in touch with these students when they go to university and encourage them to apply to teach in the school once they graduate.

Just an idea, but maybe start encouraging a few of your pupils to consider teaching …

*While doing extensive research for this article, I found out that Camelot actually closed in 2013. Please do not actually take any school trips there, the kids will be massively disappointed.

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