Is it time to start talking about a retention crisis?

Alex Collinson
Alex Collinson

We hear a lot about the recruitment crisis in schools. It’s understandable – the Department for Education (DfE) has been missing its initial teacher training targets for years now, and schools, Ofsted, unions and the School Teachers’ Review Body are all warning of a recruitment crisis. We’ve also written about it numerous times on the blog – looking at how recruitment concerns are hitting some areas worse than others, and the tension between budget concerns and recruitment worries.

While concerns around retention are often implicit (and occasionally explicit) when we talk about the recruitment crisis, it may be time that we started focusing on them more. Last week, the Education Committee published its long-awaited report on recruitment and retention, which noted that recruitment and retention was the second biggest challenge for school leaders surveyed by The Key in 2016. The report argues that the government’s attempts to improve the supply of teachers have overwhelmingly focused on recruitment of new teachers. The retention of existing teachers has been somewhat ignored.

Given that the DfE is not currently meeting its recruitment targets, and the cost of recruiting and training new teachers is high, it suggests that it may be more effective and cost-efficient to shift some focus towards retention.

Missing information

An obstacle to any shift towards retention is that the government isn’t collecting enough relevant information on the topic. While the DfE’s workforce statistics provide some information, there are considerable gaps in knowledge. The Education Committee report explains:

The government collects data on teacher retention rates broken down by gender, but it is currently unable to do so by subject or region so there is insufficient data to fully understand the problem.

There’s a similar lack of information collected about why teachers are leaving. The workforce statistics point out that retention rates have been fairly static since 2006. However, the statistics also show that fewer teachers are retiring than six years ago. In his evidence to the committee, Jack Worth from The National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) explains that this suggests a change in the number of teachers leaving the profession, rather than retiring.

The lack of data makes any intervention to increase retention difficult. How can we address retention issues, if we don’t actually know what the main issues are?

Filling the information gaps

NFER is one of the organisations that has tried to fill some of the gaps. Its analysis of teachers retention argues that while the majority of teachers are not considering leaving, a growing minority are. The report makes the point that not every teacher who considers leaving actually leaves. However, it’s concerning that around a quarter of teachers surveyed in the 2015/16 academic year said they were considering leaving. This compares to 17% only a year earlier. It also found an increase in the percentage of teachers who were considering leaving and actually had a next destination in mind. Our 2016 State of Education report showed that 61% of school leaders at secondary schools thought that a job offer at another school was the main reason teachers leave.

The proportion of teachers leaving for reasons other than retirement is also growing. More specifically, certain subject teachers (especially science teachers) are more likely to consider leaving than others. Levels of engagement, school phase, level of seniority and gender were also found to have an impact. However, it also says that underlying factors not captured in the organisation’s data may have an impact.

The analysis also attempts to look at why teachers actually leave. However, due to the difficulty in gaining access to teachers who are leaving the profession, the analysis is based on interviews with just 21 self-selecting participants. This, by their own admission, does not offer a reliable insight into the profession as a whole. Other organisations’ inability to collect this information reinforces the need for the DfE to do so. Only the DfE is able to access and collect large amounts of information on why teachers are leaving the profession.

The issue of workload

The NFER analysis does still offer some interesting insights. It explains that while workload “lays at the centre” of most of the stories they heard, it was part of a wider, more complex narrative. A common story was that pressures from above, such as inspection and policy changes, led to a higher workload. Without enough support and flexibility, this then caused teachers to experience poor health and feel undervalued. In the end, the teachers would decide to leave.

The central role of workload rings true with other available research. The Education Committee report agrees that while it’s not the only reason staff leave, workload seems to be one of the main drivers. The Key’s State of Education report found that 44% of primary school leaders and 42% of secondary school leaders believed the pressure of workload to be one of the main reasons teachers left their school.

The teacher workload survey, published by the DfE last week as part of its ‘workload challenge’, shows the extent of the problem. On average, classroom teachers and middle leaders have reported that they work 54.4 hours per week.  The vast majority (93%) of respondents feel that workload in their school is at least a fairly serious problem. Just over half feel that it is a very serious problem. Alarmingly, class teachers and middle leaders are more likely than senior leaders to feel that workload is a very serious problem.

Another concern is that newer, less experienced teachers are spending significantly more time working outside of school hours than more experienced colleagues. This could be due to more experienced teachers having become more efficient. However, it could be part of a concerning trend of newer teachers feeling they have to do more work outside school hours to satisfy pressure from above.

What’s the DfE doing?

The DfE has taken steps to address workload issues. Alongside the teacher workload survey, it released an updated action plan for reducing teacher workload. A full list of all its actions can be found on its website. The list includes a sincerely handy poster on teacher workload that’s already going viral.

The Education Committee’s report notes that the DfE’s workload challenge is largely welcomed. It adds, however, that there’s a scepticism about the real impact in schools:

The recommendations from the workload challenge will not bring about a change in school behaviour unless schools have the time and desire to implement them.

While workload is an issue, it’s not difficult to throw out other reasons why a teacher may leave a school, or even leave teaching altogether. The budget pressures on the sector mean that the sector is not the most pleasant place to work right now. Budgets are being cut and pay rises will be harder to come by. Headteachers have spoken about how their financial situations have forced them to make teachers and support staff redundant in order to keep afloat.

The sector also seems to be in constant flux, jutting between different policies and initiatives to such an extent that the Education Committee report recommends that one way to help workload and therefore recruitment and retention would be to just calm down a bit with changes to accountability, assessment and the curriculum. It’s unsurprising that a few teachers might be looking outside the profession.

What can schools do?

So how can we make teachers stay? Recruitment and retention are intertwined. It makes sense that what makes teachers want to teach in a school is also likely to make them stay. The NFER report says that job satisfaction is the biggest predictor of whether a teacher will stay in their job. Similarly, support from above, appropriate levels of pay and being proud to work at the school are associated with an intent to stay.

These provide good general tips for retaining teachers. However, research and data on why exactly teachers leave is still lacking. Schools, however, can try to gain their own information. Conducting exit interviews with all staff who leave the school, whether they’re leaving the profession or moving to another school, is vital. In the same way that the DfE can’t address the national retention issues without knowing why people are leaving, neither can a school do the same on an individual level.

As the NFER report points out, disengaged staff are more likely to express a desire to leave. Schools may therefore find it useful to look at how to re-engage staff. In particular, if the NFER are correct, keep an eye on any weary male secondary school science teachers.

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