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What do we really know about what keeps teachers in the profession? Karen Wespieser FRSA argues that, for starters, we need to focus on the positive of what keeps teachers teaching.

Recruiting and retaining enough teachers to serve growing numbers of pupils is one of the key challenges currently facing education in England. Much analysis and commentary about the pressures on the teaching profession has focused on how many teachers say they plan to leave, and presents a negative view of the experiences of the few. In actual fact, the majority of teachers are not considering leaving the profession but it is true that the numbers who are has risen significantly in the past year from 17 to 23%.  And although smaller proportions than this actually leave, this figure has also increased.

I am part of a team at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) that has been researching these issues and our latest project has been to better understand the experiences and intentions of teachers in order to gain a more nuanced picture of teacher retention, and how this might be supported in future. The issues relating to teacher supply are complex. The demand for teachers is expected to grow, while relatively benign wider economic conditions have had an impact on the pipeline of new teachers. Many of the policy interventions to date have focused on teacher recruitment, such as changes to initial training and programmes to attract people back into the profession. But far less attention has been paid to retaining teachers currently employed in state schools.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has requested that the Department of Education: “show that the arrangements [for training new teachers] are more cost-effective than alternative expenditure, for instance on improving retention.” Meanwhile, recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has highlighted how costly low retention rates are for the education system in the long term, given the cost of training new teachers to replace them.

The NFER report finds that teacher engagement underpins retention. Identifying and addressing the causes of low engagement among classroom teachers could be critical for their retention. We explored how engaged and supported teachers feel, tracked this over time, and analysed how this relates to their intention to remain or to leave the profession. The research is based on four separate surveys of 2,300 teachers over a year and 21 in-depth interviews with teachers who have recently left or are considering leaving the state sector. Our key findings show that there is a relationship between retention, engagement, and teacher and school characteristics. So for example, the majority of teachers are not considering leaving the profession. The proportion of teachers considering leaving has, however, increased significantly in the last year from 17 to 23%. While smaller proportions than this actually leave, this figure has also increased. There is also a strong interaction between teacher engagement and retention. Half of teachers are ‘engaged’ and of these, the vast majority (90%) are not considering leaving. ‘Disengaged’ teachers are much more likely to be considering leaving, but only 15% of teachers are disengaged.

The research also shows that engagement underpins retention. Protective factors associated with retention include job satisfaction, having adequate resources, reward and recognition, and being well supported by management. We found no evidence of any influence of a school’s proportion of free school meal pupils, academy status or region on intent to leave the profession. Finally, the research shows that maths teachers and senior leaders have high levels of engagement and are less likely to be considering leaving. Conversely, science teachers, and experienced male teachers have a heightened risk of leaving. Based on our findings, we make six recommendations.

First, that we need more systematic monitoring of teacher intentions and engagement; this would help to identify at-risk groups, their reasons for considering leaving, and what would motivate them to stay. Second, that we need a more engaged workforce; for some groups of teachers, retention rates could be improved by addressing the causes of their dissatisfaction. A more targeted approach to retention should be taken among high-risk groups. Third that we need to do more to value and trust teachers. Methods of engaging the workforce need to take place within a positive narrative, to ensure teachers feel valued and are seen by others. Fourth that teachers need to receive clear messages. Whilst a significant amount of work has already taken place to myth bust and address workload issues, evidence from our interviews about why teachers are leaving suggests that these messages are not getting through. Fifth, more needs to be done to support staff well-being; this could include schools having a governor or trustee responsible for staff welfare, or a member of the management team with specific time and responsibilities in this area. And finally we need greater flexibility within and beyond school groups. School groups could explore whether teachers would be motivated and engaged by opportunities to move within the sector, rather than leave entirely.

These recommendations, alongside developments such as the new set of standards for teacher professional development could help both recruit and retain more teachers to our classrooms.

Karen Wespieser FRSA, is Senior Research Manager at the National Foundation for Education Research. Read the full NFER report, Engaging teachers: NFER analysis of teacher retention, available for free.


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