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Education’s retention crisis: why do teachers leave?

Written By: Jonathan Doherty
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A recent report tracks teachers when they leave the profession and how their lives change

The heightened interest around teacher recruitment and retention in the last few years (Doherty and Gerrard, 2016; Lynch et al., 2016; DfE, 2017; Ward, 2017) has given rise to the timeliness of a report published by the NFER and the Nuffield Foundation. Is the Grass Greener Beyond Teaching? (Bamford and Worth in 2017) presents a robust, independent analysis of teachers’ motivations to leave teaching.

Many other publications, especially those from the Department for Education (DfE), seem to delight in presenting charts of statistical data telling us the numbers of teachers currently in the profession, their age bands, the numbers leaving, as well as demographical information showing the areas in the United Kingdom most hit with attrition rates. Typically, any analysis of the factors causing this exodus in the profession and recommendations to actually curb it, are less developed.

What immediately engaged me with this report, was how the format makes the information easily accessible to the reader. The key findings are made clear and given early on under four headlines (outlined below). Secondly, it does not swamp you with data or skew data to present a picture of teacher retention that suggests all is well and the profession is in a healthy state. Instead, it directly addresses the issue using a non-biased data set from the Understanding Society survey (ISER, 2016). This is the largest over-time survey in the UK and involved 40,000 households where individuals were tracked over 6 years and those who were teachers were observed at points over the six phases of the survey, an average of 4.5 times. The report investigated teacher retention tracking the destinations of teachers who had left and how their pay, working hours and job satisfaction was affected. Valuable recommendations are made at the end of the report on the types of interventions that could improve retention in the profession.

The research poses the early question, Where do teachers go when they leave the profession and how do their circumstances change after leaving?’

Key findings and conclusions

More than half of non-retiring teachers leaving teaching remain in education

This tells us that of those who leave state schools, 50% stay within the wider education sector. They may go into teaching posts in the private sector or take teaching-related jobs in schools. The important point is they do not leave education, but continue to feel a strong alliance to it and generally want to stay in. It could also mean that a lack of confidence to go outside the sector, or fewer opportunities elsewhere, precludes them from work outside teaching. The report makes an important point that many former teachers remain in positions to return to teaching, which is encouraging.

Teachers do not leave for higher paid jobs

In fact, some teachers take pay cuts to go to a new job. Clearly teachers are motivated by things, other than money. Workload, job satisfaction and conditions are important factors for those leaving.

Teachers who leave teaching work fewer hours in their new jobs

For many jobs, working evenings and weekends in addition to normal contracted working hours are unheard of. This is not the case for many teachers. There are fewer opportunities to work part-time in teaching than in many jobs today and this is especially so for secondary teachers where the proportion who go to work part-time after leaving teaching increases by 20%.

Job satisfaction and wellness increase after leaving teaching

This is such a sad headline to read and an indictment of the profession we love. Backed up by research evidence (e.g. Sims, 2017), there are obvious lessons here for how school leaders and Ofsted sustain and nurture teachers at all stages of their careers and manage their workload.

The report concludes that teachers who leave the profession enjoy their new leisure time and that there is a trade-off between pay and working conditions, with the latter being a stronger motivation to leaving teaching in the first instance. It makes three useful recommendations which the profession as a whole would do well to heed. These are:

  1. School leaders need to monitor teachers’ job satisfaction and intervene when needed
  2. Opportunities for flexible working, in particular part-time, should increase
  3. Government, Ofsted and headteachers have a responsibility to regularly review teachers’ workload and take action accordingly to allow it to be managed better.

There is much to commend in this report. The research is robust and independent and the recommendations, whilst not surprising or different to what is known already ‘on the ground’, offer clear ways forward in the growing teacher retention crisis.

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