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Collaborative teacher recruitment: cutting through complexity and competition

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In common with many other parts of the world, England is facing increasing challenge in attracting new teachers to the profession. According to the government’s own data (DfE, 2014, 2019), targets have been missed each year for the past seven. There are myriad factors influencing this situation, but the growing shortfall in England and its persistence coincide with a period of unprecedented marketisation of initial teacher training (ITT). Trainee teachers report that it is complex and confusing navigating their way through to application and enrolment on training programmes, that they are subject to pressure to accept places offered (and reject others) and that, once they have begun to train, they frequently encounter low morale and negative views of the profession expressed by their teaching colleagues in schools.

These factors of complexity, competition and culture act as barriers to, not enablers of, recruitment and retention. We argue that the professional behaviours that create these experiences for applicants and trainees, whether evident in a recruitment, staffroom or classroom context, are a function of the cultural context in which they exist. What if the overriding contexts in which potential teachers navigate their way to the profession were dominated by an enabling and collaborative culture, in which professional colleagues work together to facilitate access to our profession?

In this article, we explore these factors and the ways in which organisational cultures influence behaviours and professional relationships, going on to report on a deliberate attempt, via a DfE-funded innovation project, to subvert the prevailing fragmentation of the ITT sector and work collaboratively to provide an enabling approach to the recruitment of new teachers. In so doing, we reflect on our collective responsibility to change the ways in which we talk about teaching, in order to present the profession in a more positive light.

The complexity of the ITT market

On the face of it, there appear to be two routes into teaching: School Direct and the Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). The former is based mainly in school and with school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) providers, and the latter is characterised as university provision. However, this an extreme oversimplification of the situation, as analysed clearly by Whiting et al. (2016), because within these routes there are many decision points, and potential applicants must choose between funding options (salaried or unsalaried), part-time or full-time provision, phase options (Early Years, primary, 7–14 and secondary) and types of academic award. This means that in reality there are dozens of different possible routes into teaching.

We know from our own research into the barriers to application that finding and applying for initial teacher training can be confusing, which, given this level of complexity, is unsurprising. This original research was undertaken with current trainee teachers across five ITT providers to explore the barriers and enablers to successful completion of application to and enrolment in ITT. While the findings from this research are yet to be published, some emerging themes show that prospective teachers find it challenging to compare the different routes available, in particular comparing by location, funding or part-time options. We have found that the peak frustration point appears at the start of the applicant journey, when potential applicants are overwhelmed by the amount and sources of information available to them. They also show concern around the perception of teaching as being stressful.

Coinciding with the decline in applications to ITT courses over the last five years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of ITT providers by 70 per cent (DfE, 2014, 2019). While there has been a reduction in the number of higher education institutions (HEIs) offering teacher training, the number of SCITT providers has doubled. These factors have combined to create a more fragmented, competitive and challenging recruitment market for all providers. With providers competing over a shrinking pool of applicants by operating their own events and campaigns, recruitment behaviours are becoming increasingly ruthless and placing more and more pressure on applicants to accept places regardless of their individual needs.

The impact of competition on school culture

The culture of competition is also evident in different ways in schools, and there has been widespread reporting in the mainstream press and the educational media about the challenges facing UK schools. Alongside the challenges in recruiting trainees, many schools are also unable to recruit teachers and are increasingly having to accept teachers outside their subject specialism or employ unqualified teachers. The South East region is particularly affected by these challenges, with urban coastal schools having among the highest proportions of unqualified teachers.

Trainee and newly qualified teachers frequently report the negative ways in which teaching is spoken about in school staffrooms and in the wider public community. Combined with this is the persistent quality and standards discourse within policy reform and the national media, which constructs education as failing and inefficient (Ball, 2016). Both the school-based and media-based discourses are heavily influenced by prevailing cultures in education, which emphasise performance and competition over collaboration, and which seek to assign blame for perceived shortcomings. Are we able to present teaching in a positive light in this context?

Challenging the status quo – a collaborative approach

Collaborative approaches are in constant tension in a competitive environment: people are more likely to conceal information, knowledge and resources from others, in case revealing them would remove their competitive edge. Kemmis and colleagues (Kemmis and Grootenboer, 2008; Kemmis et al., 2014) propose that organisations (schools, universities and ‘sectors’) are characterised by ‘architectures of practice’, which, in turn, describe a working culture. Professional practices are evident in the actions, relationships and sayings of participants in the organisation. They, in turn, are shaped by the prevailing priorities and drivers (political, economic and social) that determine what is valued or foregrounded. Thus, in the context of ITT recruitment, the priority (shaped by policy and market conditions) is to compete with other schools or ITT providers to secure diminishing numbers of applicants to teaching. In this case, the actions, sayings and relationships experienced will reinforce and shape the cultural impression of teaching as a career.

In securing a DfE-funded innovation project, we aimed to work from the start as an organisation where actions, relationships and discourse reinforced an opposing ethos, one of collaboration. CESET (the Confederation for the Education of South-East Teachers) was established via this funding, as a group of five initial teacher training providers. Its principal aim was to increase the supply of trainee teachers to the region through collaborative approaches to recruitment and training.

Influenced by Kemmis’s theory, we consciously established a particular set of social/political arrangements. We set out deliberately to equalise power relations between partners who came to the collaboration as differently sized (a range of 24–880 trainees per year), experienced (from two to 50 years’ experience) and positioned (university, school-based), so that strategy, decision-making and goal-setting were shared.

These arrangements and ‘orders’ (Kemmis et al., 2014) were an essential precursor to establishing collaborative material/economic arrangements – a shared approach to funding, to devising materials and to gaining economic benefit from increased recruitment. It was known and understood from the start that each partner potentially risked diminishing their own recruitment by devising a shared web portal ( to direct applicants to partners, by running shared events and by sharing data about their own recruitment with partners. However, the scale of the recruitment problem in the region was deemed more of a driver to action than these risks, and the potential benefits of collaborative recruitment were deemed to outweigh those risks.

Finally, we engineered and then experienced a shift in discourse, in which competing providers began talking collaboratively and openly about data and about their own materials and approaches to training and recruitment, so as to establish new opportunities to talk to potential recruits in a different way – one in which the focus was on helping the applicant find the right route into teaching for them, regardless of provider. This discourse is also evident in text from the CESET web portal (CESET, 2019):

“Our aim is to combine our wealth of experience, knowledge and passion to provide you with the information, tools and resources to help you choose the best route to become a teacher.”

The emphasis has also been strongly on simplifying and demystifying the language used to describe options.

A collaborative discourse has also been evident in the language used at shared events such as joint mentor development programmes, which are open to mentors from all five ITT partnerships.

So far, the evidence of change is not systematic, but we aim to research the ongoing development of the architectures of practice in the partnership and their impact on the teachers and mentors who engage with them.


We aim next to extend this collaborative culture and discourse to the day-to-day encounters between beginner teachers and colleagues in schools and universities across the five ITT partnerships and the region. In particular, we will choose to emphasise the support and development that trainee teachers and, increasingly, newly qualified teachers can and should expect as they get to grips with a demanding job. We aim to focus on the way that we talk about teaching in formal and informal settings, from responding to initial enquiries, through recruitment events to interactions between beginner teachers and their fellow class teachers, mentors and senior leaders. We believe that through collaboration, we increase our potential not only to contribute solutions to some of the persistent problems faced in our region, but also to begin to change the way in which teaching is spoken about more widely. We share an individual and collective responsibility to attend to how we present our profession to its future participants.


Ball SJ (2016) Neoliberal education? Confronting the slouching beast. Policy Futures in Education 14(8): 1046–1059. DOI: 10.1177/1478210316664259.

CESET (2019) About us. Available at: (accessed 10 March 2020).

Department for Education (DfE) (2014) Initial teacher training: Trainee number census – 2013 to 2014. Available at: (accessed 10 March 2020).

Department for Education (DfE) (2019) Initial teacher training: Trainee number census – 2019 to 2020. Available at: (accessed 10 March 2020).

Kemmis S and Grootenboer P (2008) Situating praxis in practice: Practice architectures and the cultural, social and material conditions for practice. In: Kemmis S and Smith TJ (eds) Enabling Praxis: Challenges for Education. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, pp. 37–64.

Kemmis S, Heikkinen H, Fransson G et al. (2014) Mentoring of new teachers as a contested practice: Supervision, support and collaborative self-development. Teaching and Teacher Education 43: 154–164.

Whiting C, Black P, Hordern J et al. (2016) Towards a new topography of ITT: A profile of initial teacher training in England 2015-16. An occasional paper from the IFE No.1. Bath Spa University, Institute for Education, Bath. Available at: (accessed 31 March 2020).

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas