Geopolitics and macroeconomics

Whether the world is a more dangerous place this January isn’t for me to say. However, to balance my short-term views about teacher supply problems I thought it worth thinking about what the combined effects of a downturn in China; tensions in the Middle East; falling oil prices and the possibility of rising interest rates might do to the longer-term teacher supply position.

An analysis of data over the past fifty years suggests teacher supply problems ease when the economy is subdued or in recession. Whether there is a direct link between these two facts may be arguable, but while there is a need to educate children there will be a need for teachers. Again, over the past fifty years, there have been massive strides in technology since the famous BBC programme of the late 1970s ‘The chips are down’ about the microprocessor revolution. Classrooms have adapted to make use of the new technology, but there has been no seismic shift away from traditional patterns of pupil teacher numbers. Indeed, in secondary schools over the past decade, pupil-teacher ratios have even improved, according to DfE data.

The recently reported growth in home schooling may be the first signs of a coming revolution, driven by parents no longer satisfied with the current model of schooling. Tablets, TVs and computers can provide more learning power than any school library of a couple of decades ago. What is needed is the means of instruction and the method of motivation to keep youngsters on task. How much more likely is that in a home environment than when youngsters are faced with the distractions caused by 25 or 30 other children: could learning me more focused and take less time in the home than the classroom?

No doubt, parents would still want children to socialise in order to learn team games, sing together and undertake risky science experiments under the control of a qualified person. However, that might mean only sending your child to school for a couple of days a week. Such a shift might also boost the market for tutors as parents just buy in specific skills where their offspring are facing issues with learning.

As the BBC recently highlighted, the spirit of enterprise is abroad in Britain at the present time. I am sure that there are many developers in both large companies and small start-ups eying what could be a lucrative market that has world-wide potential; some of which will be on display at BETT.

Such a shift in technology from a labour intensive to a technology driven learning process could have a profound effect on both the need for teachers and the spending by the State on education. However, in the short-term, the geopolitical and macroeconomic signals might suggest that if a downturn is coming then teaching might benefit from renewed interest as a career choice.

As I have said at several conferences recently, I am one of the only people that might see benefits from a slowdown in China, even if it only reduces the inflow to that country of UK teachers to work in the growing international school market.

However, with the allocations for 2016 entry into teacher preparation courses set and fewer places available on non-EBacc subjects than in 2015, none of this will matter before 2017 unless, as in 2009, any downturn in the world’s economy bring back greater numbers of returners into teaching: such an effect could dramatically alter the picture of teacher supply, even for 2016, were it to come about.

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