The last three years have been a period of unprecedented turbulence for schools, but now school leaders are now facing an even bigger challenge: keeping hold of teachers.
A shortage of teachers as more people leave the profession and fewer people join is threatening to create a staffing crisis that would see more unqualified staff in the classroom and fewer students taught by specialists.
Pandemic lockdowns forced schools to pivot to online teaching at astonishing speed, followed by 18 months of switching between online, in-person and hybrid teaching.
But while this may have had huge long-term benefits in making better use of technology, the upheaval has taken a heavy toll on the school workforce.
After a dip in the number of teachers quitting the classroom at the start of the pandemic – when teaching seemed a relatively secure profession – the number of leavers has since surged.
More than half a million teachers in the U.S. have quit since the beginning of 2020, with a drop-out rate of 9.1%, compared with a typical 8%.
In the U.K., 7.2% of qualified teachers left the profession in 2020/21, compared to 6.2% the previous year.
These numbers are only likely to worsen, with more than four in 10 teachers in the U.K. planning to quit in the next five years, and more than half of U.S. teachers saying they aim to leave earlier than originally planned.
Even if these figures represent a exaggeration, they still represent a looming disaster for schools.
On top of this, the number of people entering the profession has taken a tumble.
After a surge in interest in teaching at the height of the pandemic – another product of teaching being seen as a relatively secure profession – numbers have since fallen dramatically.
Figures released in the U.K. this month show that applicants to teacher training courses fell by 20% in 2022/23 and is almost 30% down on the 2020/21 figure, the first impacted by the pandemic.
This represents just 71% of target recruitment based on estimated classroom needs, and in some subjects the situation is even bleaker, with applications meeting just 30% of the estimated need for computing teachers and 17% of physics teachers.
But even if recruitment targets are met, one in six will quit after just a year and a third of them will leave within six years.
The result will be not just a possibility but a likelihood of more students being taught by non-specialist teachers in key subjects.
Perhaps the only thing that can avert a full-blown crisis in schools is a full-blown recession, as teaching becomes one of the few professions where numbers are increasing.
But while it is hard for governments to influence recruitment – at least to the required extent – they can make a difference for those who are already in the classroom.
The priority now must be to keep teachers in the classroom, and that means addressing working conditions.
Workload is consistently cited as one of the main reasons for teachers leaving early, but despite promises to address it there has been little progress on the issue.
And although evidence of a link between teacher pay and retention is mixed, after a decade of stagnating pay, a substantial rise may persuade enough waverers to at least delay their departure that it could stave off the impending crisis.
For it would be ironic if after surviving the vicissitudes of the pandemic – and perhaps even coming out of it even stronger than before – schools were now plunged into disaster.