Stemming the shortage

The shortage in STEM teachers – particularly in Physics – has reached a crisis and it threatens to undermine Engineering departments, the engineering sector and the nation’s prosperity. Crystal Nwagboso and Johnny Rich explain.


Should Engineering academics encourage their students to explore the option of teaching? Teachers, after all, are the first link in the chain of resolving the severe and well-documented shortage of engineers in the workplace.

If we increase the number of high-quality STEM teachers – particularly physics teachers – this will inspire students and raise their academic attainment. This is likely to lead to an increase in the number of Engineering students, which will in turn mean more graduates entering the workplace as engineers.

The shortage of Physics teachers is at crisis point. Last year, just 567 new Physics teachers were recruited across the whole of England. That was just 22% of the number that the Department for Education (DfE) had hoped to attract and, as a consequence, the target for this year needs to be even higher. The problems are similar in the rest of the UK. Unless something happens, the targets will continue to be missed and will have to rise each year only to be missed by ever greater margins.

The shortages may be throughout the system, but they are not evenly spread. Independent schools and those in more affluent areas tend to be best able to attract the few specialist Physics teachers. Many schools and colleges can now not even offer an A level in Physics because they don’t have anyone sufficiently qualified to teach it.

So why is this Engineering’s problem? Why not leave it to Physics to produce physics teachers? After all, as we’ve said, there’s a shortage of engineers and if you direct any more graduates into teaching, surely that will only make the skills shortage worse, in the short to medium term at least.

The answer is that it’s a numbers game. There are roughly five times as many Engineering students graduating each year as Physics graduates. A few hundred Engineering graduates giving teaching a try might make a huge difference without drastically reducing the supply of engineers whereas for Physics that would be a sizeable chunk of the whole cohort.

There is, of course, a reward for Engineering courses. If Engineering graduates are the ones teaching GCSE and A level Physics, they are likely to instil certain engineering habits of mind and perhaps an aspiration to become engineers.

As well as the carrot, there’s the stick: if the supply of Physics graduates continues to fall, the demand for Engineering courses will diminish (threatening the very existence of some departments) and the task of teaching those students that do still want to come will get harder as they may lack the prior knowledge for many degree courses.

The DfE is hoping so hard that Engineering students may be part of the answer to the STEM teacher shortage, that they are offering a raft of incentives to graduates to train including bursaries, scholarships, internships and other benefits.

So there are good reasons to want to steer students to consider a career in teaching, but to what extent is it the responsibility of engineering academics to direct the careers of their students?

Some may think it is not their right, let alone their duty, to dabble in the ambitions of their students, particularly if teaching – even with all the added incentives – may not earn them the salaries they might command in industry.

Some, on the other hand, may know from personal experience that the rewards of being an educator extend far beyond the pecuniary and may regard the role of an academic as being a help and an inspiration to their students both in their coursework and beyond.

These questions, the STEM teacher shortage and the role that Engineering academics have to play in solving it will be explored in greater depth in a free webinar that the EPC is hosting in partnership with the DfE and the Institute of Physics on Wednesday 25th January 2022 at 13:30-15:00.

Follow the link to register for ‘Why the STEM teacher shortage is our problem (and what we can do about it)‘ to carry on the conversation.

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