The State of the UK Teaching Sector: Do we have any hope of attracting physics teachers?

Emma Woods.

It is well known that there is a national shortage of physics teachers despite continued efforts to counter this. Non-specialist teachers can be seen covering physics lessons in schools often lacking confidence and the ability to dispel misconceptions about the subject. With national teacher recruitment continuously missing government targets, and record numbers of teachers leaving the profession, this article looks into the reasons behind this and how we might hope to attract and keep our nation’s teachers with a particular focus around physics teaching.

What is the current state of the profession?

For the fifth year in a row the government has failed to reach its recruitment targets for the number of training teachers. The subjects most affected by this are maths, physics, design and technology, computing and business studies which all fell 15% or more short of their targets. Despite this a spokesperson for the Department of Education (DfE) stated that “we have recruited more trainees in key subjects including physics…than we did last year”. In fact recruitment in physics was up 15% this year.[1]

However the issue does not just lie with the recruitment of trainee teachers, the retention of teachers is also a problem. According to government figures, of the teachers who began their career in 2010 nearly a third had quit the profession within five years.[2] In 2014, 11 per cent of teachers left before retirement age leaving just 48 per cent of teachers with more than 10 years’ experience.[3] The decrease in established teachers available to act as mentors to their younger counterparts adds to the stress experienced by someone starting out in the field.

Further to this, due to staff shortages there have been reports of new teachers taking up senior responsibilities, including one teacher in her second year of teaching, who became acting head of English. This meant she was now in charge not only of her own teaching workload, but had to manage exam entries and lead the assessment of the English GCSE speaking and listening component whilst managing a team of teachers.[4] In the first years of teaching, one should be more focussed on developing the teaching and assessment of pupils. Lessons take longer to prepare for as a new teacher; they do not yet have an established set of lesson plans and experiences to draw from. When a teacher has more responsibility than their current skill set allows, not only do they suffer from an increase in stress, but their pupils suffer from the inevitable decrease in the quality of the teaching.

What are the reasons for leaving the profession?

It is easy to see why many are leaving the profession when it has been reported that the average time a teacher in England works in a week is 48.2 hours with one in five teachers working more than 60 hours per week. This average is 19 per cent higher than the 36 other countries the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).[5]

The OECD recognise 14 different tasks which make up the time a teacher spends working: teaching, lesson planning, marking work, general administration, communication with parents, supervision of students outside of class, team work with colleagues, management activities, teaching more hours than contracted, student counselling, extracurricular activities, special tasks (e.g. mentoring for student teachers), class or form teacher, and participation in mentoring programmes. The first seven of these tasks are mandatory for teachers within England, with the remaining seven at the discretion of the school.[6] Often the threat of OFSTED inspections see school making all of these tasks mandatory, so that they can be seen to be doing the right thing, however it is leaving teachers stretched thin.

The OECD reports that teachers in England spend 20.4 hours a week teaching which is in line with the average across the countries involved. In a report published by The Education Policy Institute (EPI) they present the number of hours each teacher spends on each of the above tasks per week. It seems that no task is the sole contributor to the high working hours in England. However there are two clear deviations from the average; the hours teachers in England spend marking work (6.2 hours compared to 5.0 hours) and how long they spend on general administrative tasks (4.1 hours compared with 3.0 hours).[5]

These working hours are only set to get worse as more teachers leave the profession. The student teacher ratio will increase which leads to two outcomes; either class sizes increase or teachers teach more classes. The first option will put the teacher under increased pressure as larger class sizes have the potential to increase disruption. Also as pupils will get less one-to-one time, there is the increased likelihood that pupils will fall behind. Given teachers are judged on pupil attainment this, once again, has the potential to increase the stress levels of the teacher. The second option would see the number of teaching hours increase, and with it the number of planning and marking hours. Both cases are not favourable and will further deter potential teachers from the field, along with seeing more teachers leave.

In addition to this the number of hours teachers spend on the work outlined above limits the time they can allot towards continuing professional development (CPD). The average time teachers in England will spend on CPD within a year is 4 days, which ranks the country 7th lowest in the OECD where the average is 10.5 days. Matthew Hood in his research for the Institute of Public Policy Research last year, argues that the CPD teachers are receiving is of poor quality.[7] TALIS (Teaching and Learning International Survey) suggest that this lack of CPD and its failings in quality feeds back to increase the workload teachers experience and thus lead to even less time for CPD.[5]

The public perception of teachers within the UK could also be seen as a barrier to those wishing to enter the field. Whilst you might expect that, given their job is to shape the minds of the next generation and ensure their students are prepared for the problems of the future, teachers would have high status and respect within society yet this is often not the case. One often sees comments on news articles which berate the “long holidays” and “short working hours” of teachers. More needs to be done to challenge the perception that teachers only work during the 9 until 3 school hours.

A Daily Mail article from 2013 sums up the attitude towards teachers that many have. The article titled “Now teachers demand to work just 35 hours a week…and they even want to be allowed to do five of those at home” laments teachers for wanting to cut down their hours. At the National Union of Teachers’ (NUT) conference in 2013, teachers requested they only spend 20 hours a week teaching (a figure which has been realised). Along with this they asked for only five hours of planning, preparation and assessment to be done “in a time and place of the teacher’s choosing”. The article responded with “meaning at home in most cases” which shows a lack of understanding of the teaching profession on the part of the writer; teachers work at home in the evenings and weekends anyway, which many agree isn’t the luxury the tone of the article implies.[8]

What is being done to attract and retain teachers?

It is clear that more changes to the profession itself need to be broached in order to attract and retain teachers within the country.

Nottingham appears to be making headway in combating the number of hours teachers are working. Out-of-school work load has been capped in selected schools across the east Midlands to a maximum of 2 hours per night for classroom teachers and 3 hours per night for school leaders. David Anstead, from the Nottingham Education Improvement Board, presented the idea to MPs in October 2016 stating that the “desire to be doing the right thing” lead to teachers dealing with “60 books into the evening”. He warned that the time teachers spend on tasks such as lesson planning, marking and data entry in their own time had “grown massively”. Anstead pointed out how this would work saying “[It] would mean, in practice, if you finished in school at 4pm or 5pm, classroom teachers would still do another two hours. If you had a meeting that, say, went to 5pm or 6pm, you would still do another two hours”.[9]

Whilst this seems to be a step in the right direction, some remain unconvinced. School governor and former teacher, Mike Cameron, tweeted “Embedding the idea that a teacher should do a full days [sic] work at school and then go home and do another two hours a night. This is under the guise of ‘capping’ workload. Actually what it does is to create an expectation. An expectation that teachers should work at home every night. Here’s what the expectation should be – the workload of a teacher should be able to be achieved in a working day. If it can’t then the workload has to be reduced.”[10]

When it comes to attracting teachers it appears there might be some confusion with how to apply. There are now more routes into teaching than ever before including school-centred initial teacher training, school direct, teach first, troops to teachers in addition to the traditional university centred route.[11] Now, to combat the physics teacher shortage, the government plans to create undergraduate physics degrees where the student will graduate with their BSc and Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).[12] With so many routes into teaching, and no longer the one central body to apply through, there might be a negative effect on the number of applications. To combat this the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) produced a route map so that aspiring teachers would not be put off by the complexity of entry.[11]

As previously discussed, CPD is a barrier to effective teaching within England. Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the OECD, said “I think countries need to worry more about making teaching intellectually attractive rather than just financially attractive”. He then went on to state that in Finland they have more opportunities for professional growth and career differentiation and thus teaching is the second most prestigious occupation despite their salaries being comparable to their English counterparts. General secretary of the ATL teaching union, Mary Bousted, suggested that teachers should have a lighter timetable to enable more time for reflection.[12] Peter Sellen’s report from October 2016 [5] which highlights the deficiencies in CPD in England, should generate a move to improve CPD which will hopefully increase teacher retention and applications.

Why is there a lack of physics teachers?

A survey by the ASCL published in March 2016 found that 28 per cent of physics lessons were taught by non-specialist teachers.[14] Despite the fact that attracting and retaining teachers is a problem across most subjects, this statistic has seen a major push by the government to recruit more trainee physics teachers.[15]

Whilst there was a 15 per cent increase in trainee physics teacher recruitment this year, only 71 per cent of physics teacher training places were filled.[16]  Along with this, statistics show that 29 per cent of those who start training to become physics teachers were not working in the classroom six months after their expected course finish date.[17]

With the government pushing to recruit more teachers through glittery schemes such as offering £30k bursaries to train to teach [18], there are factors they appear to be forgetting. To put it simply, physics graduates have plenty of other options available and often these are more lucrative and in some cases with fewer working hours. Not only do physicists have access to over 16 different sectors for employment, but many go on to further study after completion of their degrees.[19]

Financial incentives should be considered, however with the £30k training bursary on offer comes a pay cut to £22k salary once qualified. Teacher salaries are 9-16 per cent lower than other graduate jobs according to the OECD.[20] Further to this, with performance related pay, introduced in September 2014, many worry that teacher progression will be stunted by unrealistic demands. In a Guardian article surrounding teacher pay, user ‘HiDeHi’ expressed their concern that “schools [could] doctor the progression [of teachers] by setting impossible targets”. This could very well be a reality with the increasingly low budgets schools have to hand.[20] The inability for the public school sector to compete with the levels of pay in the private sector will, for many, decrease the attractiveness of teaching as a career.

Are these efforts misplaced?

With science based industry expected to employ over 7 million people in the UK by 2030, it is clearly important that we have good STEM teachers so that young people can compete for these jobs in the future. Yet there is some disparity between whether or not one must have a physics degree in order to effectively teach the subject.[21]

The ability to engage and impart knowledge is different to being able to store and understand that knowledge yourself. As such a report by the Education Datalab found no clear relationship between GCSE Science attainment and whether there was a specialist physics teacher at KS4 in the school. The report reminds us that teacher quality is not linked to academic credentials and so our efforts to attract physics graduates may be misplaced.[22]

Given the above findings, perhaps attention should focus on creating quality physics teachers from the pool of teachers available. Paul Haigh, Senior Lecturer in Science Education at Sheffield Hallam University, says that “As a science teacher [he] found that studying at a higher level was valuable in [his] development, but most of my chemistry degree was irrelevant to what I taught”. He continues to suggest that the teacher should only need to know the subject to one level above what they teach.[23]

It would seem that the government agree with Haigh since part of their plans to see more physics teachers in the classroom is to upskill teachers already in the profession. £24 million is being invested into this pursuit so that every secondary school in England will be able to upskill at least one member of staff a year.[12]

What next?

Although there is a shortage of physics teachers there is an argument that this will not affect the learning of pupils provided non-specialist teachers are adequately trained. Issues arise with the profession as a whole given the number of teachers leaving due to ever increasing workloads with little room for professional development. Along with this, public perception surrounding teaching is likely to put off potential teachers. There are many things that need to change if the country is to have a healthy teaching workforce, however these changes are slow coming.




[1] Mason, R. (2016). Labour warns of teacher training crisis after targets missed again. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[2] Weale, S. (2016). Almost a third of teachers quit state sector within five years of qualifying. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[3] Worth, J., Bamford, S. and Durbin, B. (2015). Should I Stay or Should I Go? NFER Analysis of Teachers Joining and Leaving the Profession. [online] Berkshire: National Foundation for Educational Research. Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[4] Bousted, M. (2016). ‘I keep hearing of new teachers being used as cannon fodder – it has to stop’. [online] TES. Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[5] Sellen, P. (2016). Teacher workload and professional development in England’s secondary schools: insights from TALIS. [online] Education Policy Institute. Available at: [Accessed 2 Jan. 2017].

[6] OECD (2016), Education at a Glance 2016: OECD Indicators, OECD Publishing, Paris. [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017]

[7] Hood M (2016) Beyond the plateau: The case for an Institute for Advanced Teaching, IPPR [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017]

[8] Chorley, M. (2013). Now teachers demand to work just 35 hours a week… and they even want to be allowed to do five of those at home. [online] Mail Online. Available at:–want-allowed-home.html [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[9] Whittaker, F. (2016). Could a daily 2-hour cap on overtime solve the teacher supply crisis?. [online] Schools Week. Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[10] Cameron, Mike (mikercameron). “What I’m hearing from the #edselctte about Nottingham is astonishing. Embedding the idea that a teacher should do a full days work at…” 19 Oct 2016, 2:10am [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017]

[11] (2015). Applicants confused by routes into teaching | Croner-i. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[12] (2015). New plans to attract and train maths and physics teachers – News stories – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[13] Ward, H. (2016). Cut teaching hours to ease the recruitment crisis, Pisa chief advises. [online] TES. Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[14] (2016). House of Commons – Training new teachers – Committee of Public Accounts. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[15] Cameron, D. and Morgon, N. (2015). Major push to get more maths and physics teachers into our classrooms – Press releases – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[16] National Audit Office, (2016). Training new teachers. London: The Comptroller and Auditor Genera.

[17] Department for Education, (2016). Initial teacher training performance profiles for the academic year 2014 to 2015 England. London.

[18] (2017). Training to teach physics | Get Into Teaching. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[19] Montgomery, J. (2016). Science Overview. What do graduates do?. [online] Manchester. Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[20] Young-Powell, A. (2016). Are England’s teachers being paid enough?. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[21] Hardman, I. (2017). Do we really need more physics teachers?. [Blog] The Spectator. Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[22] Education Datalab, (2016). Seven things you might not know about our schools. [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

[23] Haigh, P. (2016). Why massive government bursaries don’t help in the hunt for good science teachers. [online] The Conversation. Available at: [Accessed 12 Jan. 2017].

The State of the UK Teaching Sector: Do we have any hope of attracting physics teachers?

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