How to solve a problem like teacher retention – part 2

There’s a staffing crisis right now in England’s schools.  In part one of this blog I explained why this was the case.  I explained that pupil numbers were growing, that there were not enough new secondary school trainee teachers coming into the sector, and that we were losing too many experienced teachers from the profession.

In June 2018, I was asked to conduct a review of academic literature on the subject of teacher retention – which can you can read in full here.The purpose of the reviewwas to survey the landscape of academic papers on the topic of teacher retention in order to:

1. Assess the scale of the problem in the UK and abroad
2. Understand the most common causes of teacher attrition
3. Identify the common predictors of high teacher turnover
4. Explore some solutions to the problem of high teacher turnover
5. Survey the products and services available to schools to help reduce attrition
6. Offer suggestions about products and services that might help in the future.

In addition to a review of the literature, my report also included the results of a survey of teachers’ views.  In the latest round of this survey, conducted in September 2018, there were 421 respondents. 10.69% cited ‘working conditions – timetable, teaching load, etc’ as the main driver for them considering quitting the teaching profession, 10.45% cited ‘working conditions – pressures over student outcomes’, 9.5% said ‘workload – administrative tasks’ was the primary factor, and 9.26% said it was ‘workload – marking and feedback’.

The full results are below:


In this blog, I’d like to explore the scale and the nature of the teacher retention problem…


The scale of the teacher retention problem

According to a report by the National Audit Office published in 2017 called ‘Retaining and developing the teaching workforce’, schools spend around £21 billion a year on their teaching workforce.  Overall, the number of teachers in state-funded schools increased by 15,500 (3.5%) between 2010 and 2016.  However, the number of secondary school teachers fell by 10,800 (4.9%) over the same period and secondary schools face significant challenges to keep pace with rising pupil numbers.

The NAO report found that more teachers are now leaving before retirement than was the case five years ago, and as such schools are finding it difficult to fill posts with the quality of teachers they need. In 2016, 34,910 teachers (8.1% of the qualified workforce) left for reasons other than retirement, the NAO found.

According to a NAO survey, 67% of school leaders reported that workload is a barrier to teacher retention. A Department for Education’s survey, meanwhile, found classroom teachers and middle leaders worked, on average, 54.4 hours during the reference week in March 2016, including the weekend.

According to the NAO survey of school leaders, schools filled only half of their vacancies with teachers with the experience and expertise required, and in around a tenth of cases, schools did not fill the vacancy at all. There are also regional variations in the supply of teachers, with the North East having the lowest proportion of schools reporting at least one vacancy (16.4% of secondary schools), while Outer London (30.4%) and the South East (26.4%) had the highest.

However, the 2017 NAO report also found that a greater number of qualified teachers were returning to state- funded schools.  The NAO therefore concluded that the Department for Education and schools have scope to attract back even more teachers who have left and benefit from the investment made in their training. In 2016, say the NAO, 14,200 teachers returned to work in state-funded schools, an increase of 1,110 on 2011.

The Department for Education believes that the quality of teaching is the most important factor that determines pupil outcomes. In 2016 90% of primary pupils and 82% of secondary pupils were in schools where Ofsted rated the quality of teaching, learning and assessment as good or outstanding. However, the number of pupils being taught in schools where Ofsted rated teaching, learning and assessment as requires improvement or inadequate varied greatly across the country. This ranged from 9% in London to 26% in Yorkshire and the Humber. The proportion of pupils in secondary schools rated as inadequate in this respect increased with deprivation.

While the NAO had previously reported that the Department for Education spent £555 million on training and supporting new teachers in 2013/14, they found that it spent only £35.7 million in 2016-17 on programmes for teacher development and retention, of which £91,000 was aimed at improving teacher retention.

Schools report that time and cost are barriers to improving teacher quality. Although data is not systematically collected on how much continuing professional development teachers undertake, a survey cited by the NAO found that teachers in England spent four days a year on professional development in 2013, compared with an average of 10.5 days across 36 other countries. The need for schools to make significant workplace efficiency savings is likely to make it more difficult for them to support teachers’ development, the NAO suggests.


The nature of the teacher retention problem

According to a report by CooperGibson Research on behalf of the Department for Education entitled ‘Factors affecting teacher retention: qualitative investigation’ published in March 2018, workload remains the most important factor influencing teachers’ decisions to leave the profession and most suggested solutions to addressing retention were linked in some way to workload.

The report says there is evidence that early career teachers made the decision to leave the profession quickly, typically within three months of when they first started to consider leaving. By contrast, more experienced teachers were more likely to consider their decision over one to two years.

Teachers’ decisions to leave the profession were generally driven by an accumulation of a range of different factors and over a sustained period of time. However, CooperGibson found that, for some teachers, there had been a specific ‘trigger’ point, for example around teaching performance resulting in involvement from the senior leadership team, feeling undervalued after an issue had been highlighted or a specific behavioural incident involving pupils and parents/carers.

When asked by researchers, teachers found it challenging to provide solutions to retention issues or suggestions for how issues they had faced could have been resolved. Nevertheless, they did provide some ideas for consideration. These related to:

Improving in-school support for teachers – greater levels of support and understanding from SLT was needed, for example, in terms of the management of pupil behaviour, and the ability to have open and honest conversations. This would help support teachers’ relationships with their SLT and reduce feelings of pressure in terms of scrutiny, accountability and workload. Considerations would be how the message to senior leaders and teachers can be strengthened to dispel the myths around inspection and the commitment to reduce workload. This would mean giving greater confidence and support to senior leaders to address workload and well-being.

Greater focus on progression opportunities – there was some evidence that the availability of wider progression opportunities may help support retention. This could be supported by communicating examples of how multi-academy trusts have developed alternative subject progression pathways, exploring transferability to other schools and supporting schools to consider job role swaps.

Reducing workload at a school level – for most teachers a significant reduction in their workload would have led them to reconsider their decision to leave. As well as supporting schools to implement recommendations of the Workload Review Groups, sharing and making accessible good practice examples of success in schools would be beneficial. Supporting teachers with confidence to plan and mark efficiently and effectively and supporting senior leaders to implement the necessary changes, would also be important contributions.

Improved working conditions – flexible working and part-time contracts were generally viewed positively. Some viewed these as a way to secure a better work-life balance. Increasing opportunities for flexible working may have a role in helping to retain teachers in the profession, but offering such opportunities without addressing fundamental issues around teacher workload is unlikely to have a significant impact. Although pay was not the driver for many teachers, it was stated by most that the pay levels were not reflective of teachers’ expertise, experience and dedication. Some suggestions included grants/funding for teacher training and better pay/incentives for staying in teaching.

Professional recognition and greater autonomy – although teachers were unclear on how this could be achieved for the profession as a whole, it was evident that teachers feeling more respected and valued would have gone some way to retaining them in the sector. Their suggestions related to how senior leaders trusted their work and gave them freedom and autonomy to mark and plan.

In addition, teachers felt strongly that further subject specialist support for early career teachers was needed, particularly around mentoring, providing networks and resources and using a database to track teachers and offer additional support if they decide to leave. Concerns were around not duplicating what was already available, having the time to use elements of the support package, confidentiality and independence of mentors, and the availability of mentors at a suitable time prior to making a decision to leave. Some also suggested the support package would be useful for those slightly later in their careers.

Teachers wanted their schools to commit to implement the recommendations from the three Workload Review Group reports, with evidence suggesting this assurance would be more likely to have an impact on retention/returning to the profession. There were concerns raised as to whether the recommendations would be implemented, and as such there could be a need to review progress across schools and support schools in communicating their workload reduction successes. Schools may also need support in overcoming some of the practical challenges of reducing workload.

Early career teachers viewed the prompt around removal of pastoral responsibilities positively; however, many felt that it was an integral part of the role. A ‘sympathetic timetable’ (focusing on fewer year groups as an early career teacher) was viewed positively by around one-third (n=20) of secondary teachers. Considerations included how flexibility could be offered to early career teachers who want broader teaching experience, how pastoral responsibilities could be gently phased in and how these could be managed practically in school.


Next steps…

The next step in this project is to consult with school leaders from a range of organisations including primary and secondary schools, local authorities maintained and academy schools, mainstream and special schools. A working party of headteachers is being convened in the midlands in November 2018 to begin this process. The purpose of this initial meeting is to discuss each school’s experience of teacher recruitment and retention and to identify some possible solutions to the problem.

I’ll report back on the group’s work later this year.

In the meantime, you can read my series on how school leadership approaches and organisational models can impact on staff well-being and effectiveness, and therefore recruitment and retention rates.


Follow me on Twitter for more: @mj_bromley



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