During the 2010s, teacher retention was an acute problem in the United Kingdom. Shockingly, nearly a third of teachers leave within the first five years; vast effort and money is wasted while a hike in pupil numbers necessitates the opposite. Here we examine some of the contributory factors to our teacher retention crisis, and attempt a prediction at whether each is likely to ease or intensify.
Anyone looking at a teacher forum over the last decade would have been greeted with daily evidence that the UK’s punitive accountability framework, in the form of Ofsted, statutory exams and school league tables, is taking a heavy toll on teacher mental health. Teachers are now almost twice as anxious as the general population, with inevitably damaging effects on the pupils in their classrooms. Sadly, evidence is growing that Ofsted’s new framework has exacerbated rather than relieved pressure on teachers, contrary to its overt intention to inspect whether school leaders are ‘realistic and constructive in the way that they manage staff, including their workload’. The screw will be tightened further if the incoming government fulfils its promise to introduce no-notice inspections.
One in four teachers works more than 60 hours a week. A huge proportion of precious time is spent on non-teaching tasks: planning, marking and data collection demands have proved onerous, and in many cases unmanageable. Four consecutive Education Secretaries – Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening, Damian Hinds, and the incumbent Gavin Williamson – have recognised the workload crunch, and paid serious attention towards trying to solve it. Leaving aside its participation in causing the problem, the DfE deserves serious credit for publishing both the early career framework, an attempt to boost support for new teachers, and the school workload reduction toolkit, a set of practical resources for school leaders and teachers to help reduce workload. However, nowhere near enough people know about the toolkit. If more can be done to embed it, major inroads might be around the corner.
Outlook: cautiously optimistic
Parents have benefited from a trend towards far more information about what is happening in school, at a micro level via more frequent reports, parents’ evenings, and communication, and at a macro level via league tables and Ofsted reports. However, this hasn’t all been good news for teachers, since the concurrent growth of social media has led to an appalling explosion of public bullying. Although some schools are issuing guidance to parents on how to complain effectively, it is hard to see how the education system could catch up with the full implications of the societal changes wrought by Twitter and Facebook.
Teacher salaries have not been growing as fast as comparable public sector professions, nor as fast as graduate professions at large. The picture has been complicated by the introduction of performance related pay, despite OECD research concluding that there is ‘no relationship between average student performance in a country and the use of performance-based pay schemes’, and by academisation, which allows newly formed academies to set pay outside of collective bargaining, leading to relative increases for headteachers alongside relative decreases for classroom teachers.
The government appears to have realised the extent to which teachers have suffered in this regard, promising a new starting salary of £30,000. This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, although it is likely to upset existing teachers who have worked for a long time and not yet achieved the proposed new starting salary.
Although there are some signs of impending improvement, cultural change takes a long time to implement: in schools, in government, and in Ofsted. Stringent accountability is not going to disappear, so it seems likely that teachers will continue to flee the profession at an alarming rate in the 2020s.