“What’s our biggest blind spot in education?” by Sam Twiselton @samtwiselton

A few weeks ago I was asked by someone what I think the biggest blind spot is in education. Being an academic my answer is not straightforward – though (being an academic) I still think I’m about to oversimplify a very complex problem.

My way into the blind spot I want to eventually discuss is to start with the problem that is so in our faces that it would be ridiculous to call it a blind spot.

This is the thing DfE colleagues tell us we must never ever call a crisis – the hot topic of teacher recruitment and retention. It’s obviously laughable (especially to colleagues here who have written and spoken so much about it) to call this a blind spot:

  • It takes a few seconds to google ‘teacher recruitment’ and find headlines that confirm there is a problem.
  • Initial Teacher Training (ITT) figures for 2016/17 show a decrease in the overall number of recruits compared with 2015/16, with only 93% of places being filled. The overall contribution to the secondary target was 89%, meaning nearly 2,000 places went unfilled
  • An NUT survey of leadership group members carried out in March 2016 found that nearly three quarters (73%) of school leaders were experiencing difficulties in recruiting teachers, with 61% saying that the situation had got worse (42%) or much worse (19%) over the last year. The greatest problem areas were in Maths (36% of schools leaders were struggling to recruit in this area), science (34%) and English (23%).
  • DfE figures show that in the 12 months to November 2016 (the most recent year for which statistics are available) over 50,000 qualified teachers in England left the state sector, which equates to one in ten teachers leaving the profession.. The number of teachers leaving as a proportion of the total number of teachers in service, known as the ‘wastage rate’, is 10.5 per cent. 5 The same figures reveal that more than 100,000 potential teachers have never taught, despite finishing their training.

Apart from the obvious reasons why this matters there are other crucial factors that may not be quite so familiar:

  • Teacher recruitment and high teacher turnover impacts by far the most significantly on schools with the poorest intakes. Schools with affluent intakes have double the percentage of teachers with more than ten years of experience compared to the poorest
  • Pupils in schools serving areas of higher deprivation are much more likely to have teachers without an academic degree in a relevant subject.
  • The schools serving more disadvantaged communities experience higher levels of teacher turnover and much more dependence on supply teachers, unqualified teachers, fixed term contracts and NQTs.

I could go on. These figures show that the problem is not experienced evenly across the sector. Those who are impacted most by teacher recruitment and retention problems are the schools with the most deprived intakes. Why does this need a brighter spotlight on it?

It matters for children…

  • Turnover per se is harmful to student progress – high numbers of different teachers=highly disrupted learning and relationships
  • High turnover schools need to keep recruiting novice, inexperienced teachers
  • Teachers get better in the first 10 years of their career – these schools are not benefitting from these incremental improvements
  • High turnover often signals general motivational problems at the school – we know that more and more teachers are reporting disengagement from the profession.

It matters for tax payer’s pockets…

  • Most turnover is also wastage out of the profession
  • Teacher training costs a lot more than it should as more and more teachers need to be trained to replace those that leave

This problem is doing harm to schools, harm to government budgets, but most importantly the most harm to the most deprived pupils who need the best support.


So this leads me to the REAL blind spot – one of the biggest underlying reasons for this. Why is this problem so acute? Obviously there are multiple reasons and I could write at length about workload, accountability, esteem, pay and conditions, lack of agency but instead I’m going to talk about one of the biggest problems that sits behind a lot of this. It’s something everyone knows but no one in power is really prepared to admit it in a way that something serious is done about it.

ITE is not long enough and this means too much is expected of NQTs, which is what makes so many of them leave so early in their careers.

  • This is the most significant but most underreported finding in the Carter Review. Arguably we were as bad as everyone else. It was underemphasised in the report because we knew nothing would be done about it. The truth is, the initial preparation isn’t anything like long enough and therefore it’s not good enough.  It just isn’t. If we collated all the things that all the experts and head teachers etc. we spoke to said that someone needs to know and be able to do when they start their teaching career it would probably add up to about 5 years to cover even in a fairly superficial way. There wouldn’t be single thing you’d take out and arguably there wouldn’t be a single thing that some NQT somewhere hasn’t experienced as a high priority need in that 1st
  • LKMco’s “Why Teach?” https://www.lkmco.org/why-teach/ report showed that two of the top three reasons why teachers stay in teaching are “Being good at it”, and “Being well qualified to do it” This was cited by over 90% of respondents and over half said these three factors were ‘very important’. Yet we put so little time into equipping teachers to feel this way at the beginning of their careers. Instead we set them up to feel like failures.
  • When you dig deeper into the report you find that appetite for CPD is one of the four most age sensitive factors in it: the availability of CPD would influence three-quarters of 25-34 year-old teachers’ decisions about where to work, this was the case for less than half of 55+ year-old teachers.
  • This completely confirms my message. ITE is not long enough and not enough happens with teachers in the early years of their career to address this problem. This is why early career teachers are crying out for good CPD.
  • Across Europe the minimum total duration of ITE is usually between four and six years. In Finland it takes 5, Shanghai 2-4 – the ITE consecutive model lasts seven years in Luxembourg.


I have many suggestions – none of which are to increase the length of what is currently known as the ITE phase. I don’t think I have time to go into detail other than to say what we need instead is this. Guaranteed, visible, sustained and very high quality support, development and requirements for teachers to go on developing in the first 3 years after the initial preparation phase. This is the period where it is most needed but just as importantly it’s the period where it can made most meaningful and where the most significant development can happen. We’re trying to do something about this in the Sheffield City Region – if you want to know more about it please get in touch.


Professor Samantha Twiselton is the Director of Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University and is an associate member of Heads’ Roundtable.

One thought on ““What’s our biggest blind spot in education?” by Sam Twiselton @samtwiselton

  1. Julie Summerfield December 4, 2017 at 8:49 am Reply

    Could not agree more – in our drive to ensure that the performance tables do not defeat us we are always pushing for excellent teaching and learning, we can not always get that from Newly Qualified teachers who have to get use to systems, establish themselves and cope with a workload that is heavy. We expect NQT’s to operate like highly experienced teachers and not all can cope with the demands of the post in the first instance let alone always achieve positive student outcomes. For some newly qualified teachers this is just too much and they consequently leave the profession having spent time and money training

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