Teacher Recruitment and Retention: Importance and Strategies

October 11, 2021
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In this article, we will outline what is meant by teacher retention, explain its importance, and begin to discuss the factors contributing to teacher turnover – alongside strategies for improving retention in education.

38.8% of teachers who entered the profession in 2009 are now not working in the sector, the highest rate since 1997. The number of teachers leaving the profession has been increasing since 2012, with exit rates being more severe in shortage subjects, such as maths, sciences, and languages.

Declines in teacher retention over time mean that more new teachers are required to replace them, yet early career teachers (ECTs) also have very low retention rates. In 2019, just 67% of ECTs remained in the profession five years after they joined, down from 72% in 2010. Therefore, the government is focusing its retention strategy on boosting financial packages to incentivise and support ECTs. These include higher starting salaries of £30,000 for new teachers from September 2022, and incentives of £2,000 per year for new teachers in shortage subjects.

Overall pupil numbers are expected to decrease slightly by 2026, which could potentially ease pressure on primary teacher recruitment. However, despite the government’s attractive financial incentives for ECTs, it is expected that teacher retention pressures are likely to continue for secondary and non-mainstream schools.

What is Teacher Retention?

Teacher retention relates to the goal of keeping staff in the workplace, and reducing employee turnover.

Teachers are much more likely to exit during their first few years of teaching. One in five new teachers leave the profession after their first two years, while four in ten leave after five years. A large number of those leaving the profession go into non-teaching roles.

Due to this high turnover, the government’s aim is to keep more teachers in the classroom, and attract more people to the profession.

Why is Teacher Retention Important?

There is no other profession as important to the fate of the next generation than teaching. Receiving a good education improves children’s life chances – their wellbeing, social skills, future employability, and financial independence. High turnover rates create a constant state of flux in children’s lives, which in turn impacts academic progress and achievement. It also makes it significantly more challenging for schools to implement key policy changes.

We know that education is a pathway out of poverty. 30% of children in the UK are officially poor, so receiving the best possible teaching and learning experience is vital if we are to reduce the poverty divide and achieve improved equality across society. The effects of high-quality teaching are especially significant for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Research by the Sutton Trust outlines that for poor pupils, the difference between a good teacher and a bad teacher is a whole year’s learning. Positive teacher-pupil relations can also reduce exclusions, and enhance effective retention and reintegration strategies for disaffected students.

‘There are no great schools without great teachers. The key to education is the person at the front of the classroom. At a time when there are more pupils in our schools than ever before, we need to be attracting and keeping great people in teaching.’

Department for Education’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy

Factors Affecting Teacher Retention

According to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, teaching staff and education professionals report the highest rates of work-related stress, depression, and anxiety in Britain. Satisfaction levels amongst teachers also remain lower than that of the general public.

In a research report on teacher wellbeing, Ofsted uncovered that despite the positive feelings towards teaching as a vocation, many teachers believe that the ‘advantages of their profession do not outweigh the disadvantages, and that teaching is undervalued in society.’

Those surveyed cited heavy workload pressures as a key challenge. Burdensome administrative tasks, staff shortages, policy changes, and increased marking and planning load all contributed towards many participants’ poor work-life balance. They also cited perceived low pay as a reason for job dissatisfaction. Teachers are currently paid less than most other professional occupations, with pay being even more uncompetitive for those with degrees in maths and physics. Low-level disruption, verbal abuse, and intimidation from students are also factors highlighted in the report as having a negative impact on teacher wellbeing.

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Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategies

1. Improve Teacher Autonomy

‘Autonomy plays a significant role in teachers’ motivation. Giving teachers greater influence over how they do their job has the potential to increase job satisfaction, which in turn is important in tackling teacher retention. At a time when the school system cannot afford to lose valuable teachers, improving autonomy, workload, satisfaction and retention could help address the teacher supply challenge.’

Jack Worth, Lead Economist, NFER

A teacher retention report backed by the DfE found that almost half of primary and almost one quarter of secondary teachers did not feel they were being trusted to do their job. They stated that levels of scrutiny into lessons and teaching styles were too high, and found classroom observations ‘intrusive, unconstructive, and feedback could be demoralising.’ Furthermore, most primary and some secondary teachers surveyed experienced a lack of support from their senior leadership team, on issues such as workload, and pupil behaviour.

Improving teacher autonomy is a key factor in improving teacher retention outcomes. Creating a culture of trust and support, rather than accountability and fear, is a fundamental step in making sure teachers feel valued as professionals.

2. Flexibility

Some teachers are looking for flexible working opportunities to support a better work-life balance, and/or to help with family and care responsibilities. However, many feel reluctant to request a flexible working pattern.

A 2020 DfE study exploring flexible working practices found that participating teachers all agreed a culture shift needed to occur within the sector to encourage senior leaders to be more open to flexible working. Where flexible working had been accommodated, senior leaders identified many benefits, including recruitment and retention, staff morale and wellbeing, and improved capacity and skills development.

Participants reported that reducing their working hours had enabled them to fulfil care responsibilities, and spend more time with their families. This resulted in reduced stress levels, and an increased enjoyment in work.

3. Support for All Teachers

The House of Commons believe the high number of ECTs entering the profession is unlikely to ‘reverse shortages which have built up over several years.’

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) reported that it is now harder than ever to retain early career teachers (ECTs). They discovered that ECTs often experience a ‘practice shock’, and that ‘the reality of life in the classroom can take them by surprise.’ They believe that training, as well as incentivising ECTs, will ensure they are fully supported in the early years of their career.

The NFER also believe that strategies must be implemented to help tackle the rising number of more experienced teachers leaving the profession, suggesting clearer progression paths, further qualifications, and increased opportunities for flexible working as positive solutions.

4. Purposeful Professional Development Opportunities

Teachers involved in a 2018 DfE study stated that there is a disparity between the expectations of schools, and teachers’ capabilities from their training. They believed that more time to access high-quality training and in-school coaching would support all teaching staff to excel and thrive in their roles.

A report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) found that giving teachers a formal entitlement to high-quality training and further professional development opportunities  would only cost the government an extra £210m in funding per year. This figure, even when added to the existing training and development budget for schools, would only represent less than 1% of the government’s total budget for schools in England.  

There are also many wider benefits to extending professional development pathways for teachers. EPI research outlined that introducing a formal entitlement for teachers in England to 35 hours of high-quality CPD a year would boost pupil attainment by an extra two-thirds of a GCSE grade. In terms of life chances, this translates to extra lifetime earnings of over £6,000 per pupil.

5. Reduce Workload

According to the Department for Education, teacher workload is the reason most often cited for teachers leaving the profession.

An Ofsted report focusing on teacher wellbeing uncovered that 53% of primary teachers and 57% of lower-secondary school teachers felt that their workload was unmanageable. Those full-time primary teachers in England who took part in the survey stated they worked 52.1 hours per week. This was more than in any other participating country except Japan.

Similarly, a report by RAND, which surveyed over 2,200 teachers in England, found that one third of teachers report working 51%-100% more than their contracted hours.

Therefore, reducing teacher workload may significantly improve teaching’s appeal – to those entering the profession, and those considering leaving.  

6. Respect

‘In order to keep good, experienced teachers in the profession, there must be systems in place to nurture, support, and value teachers to keep them engaged.’

Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)

In the DfE’s teacher retention research report, participating teachers stated that an increased respect for teachers across society would improve retention. Those surveyed believed that an increased understanding of the expertise and dedication required of teachers, by young people, graduates, and parents, would improve teacher retention levels.   

Sadly, only 57% of teachers surveyed in an Ofsted report say they are given praise by their line managers, and only 52% have received useful feedback. Teaching is a vocation, a passion. Therefore, in order to keep teachers motivated and inspired, they must be made to feel worthy and valued by those in managerial positions.

The same report highlighted that ‘teachers experience a relatively high prevalence of poor behaviour in schools.’ Participants reported that they are, ‘not supported by senior leaders (nor parents) in managing pupils’ misbehaviour.’ Ofsted recommend that teachers are fully supported to ‘implement behaviour policies consistently and ensure that the overall school culture helps to optimise pupils’ behaviour.’

Improving teacher retention will not only positively impact the lives of teachers, wider society will also benefit in innumerable ways. Supporting ECTs and those more experienced professionals must be a priority. Providing flexible working patterns, reducing workload, increasing professional development opportunities, and creating positive working environments for all will help to achieve this goal.

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