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Which graduates start their careers in teaching and education?

February 2019

Despite the sector's continued popularity among graduates, staff shortages remain a major problem in teaching and education. What are the backgrounds of those entering this field, and where could new talent come from?

Education is a popular employment sector for UK graduates. In 2016/17, around 10,720 first-degree graduates secured jobs in this sector six months after graduation. That accounts for 5.8% of all UK-domiciled first-degree graduates in employment from that year, according to HESA's Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) data.

The only occupations proving more popular among this cohort were nursing and midwifery professionals (9.5%), sales, marketing and related associate professionals (7%) and health professionals (6.6%).

Widening the net to include 2016/17 employed graduates from all levels of study - since many teachers train after having graduated with their undergraduate degree - teaching and education professional becomes the most popular sector of all, with 37,775 (13.5%) of all such graduates securing jobs in this field.

Serious teaching shortages persist

Even though it remains a popular career choice for new graduates, the UK has experienced severe teaching shortages in recent years. The sector faces constant difficulties retaining professionals and recruiting enough sufficiently qualified teachers to meet the growing pupil population.

Recent figures reveal that 50% of physics teachers and 54% of maths teachers, although possessing the necessary teaching qualifications, do not have degrees in those subjects.1

As well as many teachers leaving the profession due to low salaries and the high workload, shortages are exacerbated by the fact that graduates are not evenly distributed throughout the sector.

Primary and nursery education attracts a larger proportion of graduates than do secondary-level roles. Both are significantly more popular than roles in further education or special needs education.

Most graduate teaching staff train via PGCEs

There are many routes into teaching professions, but the most common is via a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE).

First degrees - generally in education or teaching-related subjects - are also a popular route. However, while 95.8% of all postgraduate PGCE graduates secured employment as teaching professionals, only 58.5% of first-degree graduates studying education or teaching-related subjects did.

Instead, many found work in childcare and related personal services as:

  • teaching assistants
  • nursery nurses and assistants
  • educational support assistants
  • childminders and related occupations
  • playworkers.

Unlike PGCEs, not all education-related undergraduate courses grant students Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) on completion, preventing graduates entering the education and teaching profession immediately.

Despite the overall popularity of PGCE routes, certain training pathways tend to lead to employment in certain areas of education. Graduates wanting to teach specific age-groups or abilities will benefit from exploring which training route is best suited to their aspirations.

Primary and nursery education

Teaching positions in primary and nursery schools are filled by similar proportions of graduates from postgraduate PGCE and first-degree routes, 44.2% and 39.7% respectively. Masters degrees were uncommon (3.3% of all graduates who secured employment in this area) and Doctorates rare (0.1%).

Secondary education

As secondary school educators generally teach a single subject in depth, many graduates securing these jobs (64.9%) possessed an undergraduate degree - likely in the subject to be taught - followed by a PGCE.

Only 14.2% secured employment following a first degree. Further study was relatively uncommon with only 8.2% of graduates working in secondary schools possessing Masters degrees and 0.8% holding Doctorates.

Further education

Only 16.2% of graduates employed in further education trained via PGCEs and 15% via first degrees. Masters degrees proved more popular than in other routes, with 13.6% of graduates working here possessing one, and 5.2% holding Doctorates. These qualifications may be beneficial for individuals entering education roles in further education, but they are rarely essential.

Alternatively, for postgraduate students who wish to utilise the expertise earned in completing a higher degree - but do not wish to do so in the highly competitive and often unstable academic job market - further education may be the perfect destination.

The most popular training routes for graduate teaching professionals in further education were instead via 'other undergraduate' and 'other postgraduate' qualifications (20% and 17.4% respectively). Unfortunately, DLHE provides no further clarification as to what these qualifications are, but popular routes into FE included:

  • awards, certificates or diplomas in education and training
  • Post-Compulsory Education and Training (PCET) programme
  • diploma in education and training including a specialist pathway
  • integrated or standalone specialist diplomas.

Higher education

Unsurprisingly, higher education teaching roles were dominated by graduates with 'other postgraduate' qualifications (41.2%), Doctorates (28.6%) and Masters degrees (17.9%).

Special needs education

For graduates employed as special needs education teaching professionals, 37.4% held an 'other PG qualification' and 32.9% held first degrees. The most common subjects studied at first degree were:

  • psychology (20.6%)
  • academic studies in education (10%)
  • training teachers - primary (7.7%)
  • academic studies in nursery education (5.2%)
  • academic studies in specialist education (3.1%).

Education profession popular with older graduates

Most graduates entering the education and teaching profession in 2016/17 were aged 21-24 (43.3%), representing a clear majority over other age-groups. However, 58.9% of all graduates from all levels of study in work six months after completing their course were aged 21-24, meaning that compared with other sectors, the education and teaching profession attracts a higher proportion of older students.

Age group,Percentage of graduates employed in education professions,Percentage of all graduates employed anywhere 
40 and over,17.3,11

Larger proportions of graduates securing teaching roles in primary and nursery schools (79.5%) and secondary schools (75.3%) were under 30 years old than those entering further education (36%) or higher education (23.3).

Large female majority in special needs roles

Of all graduates working in education and teaching roles, 71.4% were female and only 28.5% male. This gender imbalance remains a consistent trend across all teaching and education occupations, though the size of the female majority differs.

Male graduates are particularly lacking in special needs education and primary and nursery education roles. The female majority is smallest among higher education and further education teaching professionals.

Ethnic minority and disabled graduates under-represented

As with UK 2016/17 graduates in general, those entering education and teaching professions six months after completing their course were largely white (85%). Black African graduates are particularly absent from these roles, as despite constituting 4% of the 2016/17 graduate cohort in work, they only made up 1.8% of graduates in education professions.

Graduates with a disability were also rare in education and teaching roles. Where they did gain employment in this sector, it was usually as teaching and other education professionals n.e.c. (14.6% of all graduates in these jobs) or as special needs education teaching professionals (13.1% of graduates in these roles).

Rather than discouraging ethnic minority or disabled graduates from pursuing a career in education, these figures highlight the extent to which such individuals are in demand throughout the sector.

Also in this series


  1. The teacher labour market in England: shortages, subject expertise and incentives, Luke Sibieta, Education Policy Institute, 2018.

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