Colleges in England struggle to find teachers for critical skills subjects

About three-quarters of colleges in England are unable to recruit the staff needed to teach technical and digital subjects, according to new research, threatening government efforts to plug the national skills gap.

Some 85 per cent of institutions surveyed by the Association of Colleges (AOC), the further education sector body, reported shortages in construction courses, 78 per cent in engineering and 62 per cent in IT and computing.

The data point to growing recruitment problems affecting colleges as teachers leave the profession for the offer of higher salaries in the private sector, where companies are giving bigger pay packets in an effort to plug gaps in their labour force.

The survey, commissioned by the Financial Times, assessed 87 colleges in England, representing about 37 per cent of the sector. Three-quarters of colleges said the main reason they were struggling to fill positions was because qualified candidates had been offered better pay elsewhere.

Many headteachers said they were looking to fill dozens of vacancies, while 40 per cent reported being forced to cancel courses because of a lack of staff.

Karen Spencer, principal of Harlow College in Essex, has experienced the problem first hand. She knows there is strong demand for electrical engineering courses this year but has had to cancel the engineering apprenticeship programme because of staffing problems.

Electrical engineers in the UK can earn more than £70,000 a year, with apprentices starting at £40,000, said Spencer, whereas engineering lecturers rarely earn more than £39,000. The college cannot compete with corporate salaries, she added.

“You end up in this vicious circle of competing for people, and never getting that flow-through of workers,” said Spencer. “When you know there’s demand for jobs, and well-paid jobs at that, you feel there’s something wrong when you can’t recruit. You can’t fulfil that need.”

One training provider in the north-west told the AOC: “Professional and trades people can earn a lot more money in their own specialist industry than they can earn on an FE teacher’s salary”. The offer of better holidays and a good pension are not enough to sway people, they added.

Unlike the pay scales of schoolteachers, which are set by the government, colleges decide their staff salaries. The AOC recommends paying qualified lecturers between £25,000 and £39,000, dropping to £21,000 for unqualified lecturers.

This month, 39 colleges balloted for industrial action next term over complaints around pay and conditions.

Teacher Winston Thomas teaching students about electrical circuits at Harlow college
Teacher Winston Thomas teaches students about electrical circuits at Harlow College © Charlie Bibby/FT

According to the AOC, college lecturers are paid an average £9,000 less than schoolteachers. It said wages across the education sector rose just 0.3 per cent in the year to February, compared with 2.5 per cent across the public sector and 5.4 per cent in the private sector.

Educators said long-term funding cuts to further education had left them unable to offer competitive salaries. Government funding for 16 to 18-year-olds at colleges in England fell 14 per cent in the decade from 2010, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank, while overall spending on adult education fell by more than a third in the same period.

“Colleges want to pay their staff more, and they absolutely would if they could,” said AOC chief executive David Hughes. “It’s an outrage and it’s part of the problem with recruitment and retention issues.”

As a result, the number of teaching vacancies has risen sharply, said recruiters. Gavin Beart, a managing director of job agency Reed, said the past 12 months had been the “hardest” yet for teacher recruitment, with education vacancies up 50 per cent.

“Colleges have had it really tough [and] they’re meant to be the answer to our skills problem,” he added.

Educators believe the problem needs a national approach, with more support from government. “Our job is to train enough people so that we don’t have national skills shortages,” said Jo Maher, principal of Loughborough College in Leicestershire. “We need some help — if it’s a national skills gap, it should be seen as a national challenge.”

To address the problem, the Department for Education launched an awareness campaign to encourage more skilled professionals to move from industry into teaching.

It said it had “supported over 700 industry professionals to train as further education teachers and plans to double that”.

Meanwhile, some colleges are making classes bigger and training lecturers on the job to work round the problem. John Cartwright, head of construction and built environment at Hartlepool college in the north-east of England, said: “It’s more responsibility for managers . . . there’s a lot more hand-holding. Everybody chips in and everybody covers classes.”

He noted that local bricklayers commanded about £1,400 for four-and-a-half day weeks, the equivalent to a £60,000-a-year salary, almost double the salary of the average college lecturer.

“Competing against industry is really tough at this moment in time,” he said. “We want somebody experienced, qualified to give our learners the best experience they can [but] we can’t find anybody.”

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