Arts recruitment and retention

20 February 2023

The 1st of February saw the largest teacher strikes in a generation. 300,000 members of the National Education Union (NEU) exchanged the classroom for picket lines and demonstrations across England.

The Department for Education estimates that the action resulted in 52% of schools being either completely closed or only open to select groups of students. 

The strikes are the latest flashpoint in an industrial dispute over pay. Teacher unions, in chorus with other public sector unions, have been calling for a pay rise in line with inflation – otherwise their current pay deal is effectively a pay cut. However, teaching unions have been clear that this demand for an improved pay deal goes beyond helping teachers survive the current cost of living crisis. Improving teaching pay is part of a long-term strategy to fix the huge issue of teacher recruitment and retention in England. 

This blog gives a snapshot of the current state of teacher recruitment and retention in England before zooming in on how the crisis relates to arts subjects. We conclude with three recommendations for overcoming the recruitment and retention crisis in arts teaching. 

Teacher recruitment and retention – a general overview

Maintaining a sustainable supply of classroom teachers depends on two factors: getting enough new teachers into the classroom (recruitment) and motivating them to stay working there (retention). If we struggle to do both of these, then we end up in a situation with there not being enough qualified, experienced teachers. The consequence of this is schools having to:

  • Remove subjects from their offer due to lack of teachers (e.g. arts subjects at GCSE and A-Level) 
  • Recruit teachers to instruct in a subject in which they have no qualifications or expertise (e.g. using an inexperienced English teacher to teach drama) 
  • Source teachers using supply teacher agencies which charge exorbitant recruitment fees, further damaging school budgets and often resulting in high teacher churn (the same class may have three or four different teachers over the course of a term) 

When a school is forced to take any (or all) of these paths, the consequence is that the quality of the educational experience their pupils receive is damaged. This is especially the case for schools serving deprived, low-income populations where recruitment and retention challenges are greater

Given this profound impact of poor recruitment and retention, it is vital that the government maintains a high standard of both. However, the evidence shows that this is not the case, and has failed to be the case for the last decade. The government has missed its targets for recruiting new teachers into the profession annually for the last ten years, with shortfalls of as much as 60% in subjects such as Modern Foreign Languages. Of those teachers that do join the profession, retention is a major issue – within five years, 40% of these new teachers have left the classroom. 

Teacher recruitment and retention – arts subjects

As reported previously, the government has had a mixed record on recruitment of initial teacher trainees into arts subjects this year:

  • In Art & Design the government has exceeded its recruitment target for trainees by 34%
  • In Drama, the government has exceeded its recruitment target by 48%
  • In Music the government fell short of its recruitment target by 30% 

While the figures for Art & Design and Drama look promising, it's important to note the following:

  • Teacher recruitment always improves during periods of economic recession. This explains the substantial uplift in teacher recruitment in Art & Design and Drama when, in 2019, there was a shortfall of 30% for new Art & Design teacher trainees 
  • The most recent analyses show that teacher recruitment has returned to pre-pandemic levels, meaning the fundamental issue of poor recruitment has not been solved by this temporary improvement 

Teacher retention by subject is much harder to estimate, as the government does not collect the requisite. However, analysing the Teacher Workforce Census for the 2020/21 academic year shows the following important patterns related to retention:

  • Music has one of the highest ‘vacancy rates’ (a measure of how many teacher vacancies for a particular subject there are in England, compared to the total number of teachers needed in that subject) out of any subject. This means that there is a particular issue of recruitment and retention for music teachers. For comparison, Music has a vacancy rate of 0.7, which is just below rates for Maths and Physics which the government has specific strategies and policies for recruiting into
  • Between academic years 2019/20 and 2021/22, the percentage of secondary school music teaching hours delivered by an individual without a music qualification ‘above A-Levels’ increased by 0.8%. This reflects an increased use of non-specialists to teach music in schools 
  • For Drama, the percentage of secondary teaching delivered by an individual without a relevant post A-Level qualification is 20%. This is particularly high, with the figure standing at 11.6% for Maths and 8% for History. This similarly reflects schools’ greater use of individuals with lower levels of qualification and subject expertise to teach arts subjects 

What can be done to improve teacher recruitment and retention in the arts?

The government cannot rely on episodic recessions to improve teacher recruitment and retention. If it wants to resolve this challenge in a way that is sustainable long into the future, it needs to explore the following: 

    • Improving teacher pay – The evidence is clear that, if teacher pay is competitive with the wider job market, then teacher recruitment and retention improves. As a result, an improved pay deal may have a particularly large impact on recruitment to arts subjects. Creative arts graduates typically have low pay compared to other industries for their first ten years after graduation. As such, an attractive pay deal for teaching may make this an equally attractive career pathway during that period.  
    • Introducing trainee bursaries in arts subjects – The evidence is similarly clear that bursaries improve the recruitment of new teachers. At present the government offers a bursary of £20,000 to train to teach in Biology or up to £27,000 to train to teach in Chemistry. No bursaries are offered for any arts subjects. This is despite the fact that Music has a vacancy rate seven times higher than Biology and more than twice as high as Chemistry. As such, the government needs to direct its resource for bursaries towards subjects that are most in-need 
    • Making it easier to try teaching – A surprising number of teachers ‘stumbled’ into the profession through working in a school or otherwise working with young people and getting hooked. As such, commentators have argued for the need to create more of these opportunities for prospective teachers to ‘fall into’ the profession through trying working with young people. For arts subjects, this could be achieved through ‘teacher taster’ days offered to creative arts students in Higher Education, or those delivering cultural learning outside of a school setting 


Teacher recruitment and retention is likely to endure as the central problem at the heart of our educational system. Fixing it will require a concerted sector-wide effort in developing solutions and lobbying government. We’d love to hear from you if you work in cultural learning and have thoughts to share on either of those topics.