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Amy Mitchell
Executive Director for Programme Development at Teach First

Today’s teacher retention challenges call for innovative solutions

Teacher recruitment and retention has rightly long been on the mind of policy makers. Yet despite efforts to improve outcomes, figures are on the decline. How do we get to the root of the issue, and how should we begin reframing the way we approach it?

Time spent with pupils is one of the most valuable aspects of a teacher’s role. But every lesson plan, worksheet and assessment is the product of a great deal of thought, reflection and research. Anyone who has spent time in the classroom will know that it’s the planning and preparation teachers commit to that make their lessons effective and engaging, their relationships meaningful and their practice rewarding.

New analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) confirms that a range of factors influence teachers’ decisions to stay or leave the profession, including: workload, development and progression opportunities, relative pay and personal factors. As the Department for Education (DfE) considers proposals for teacher pay over the next two years, it is time to recognise the importance of these realities within the increasingly pressing debate about teacher retention and recruitment.

Last month, the Government set out new Education Investment areas, proposing £3,000 pound retention payments for teachers in 55 local authorities with the greatest levels of disadvantage. This is a welcome development, most importantly because it acknowledges that it is schools in the most disadvantaged communities that face the greatest challenges recruiting and retaining teachers - especially in shortage subjects.

COVID-19 and the teaching workforce

Teacher recruitment and retention has rightly long been on the mind of policy makers. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns around recruitment levels have resurfaced. At the outset of the pandemic, recruitment figures for Initial Teacher Training courses increased. But analysis from the NFER economist Jack Worth suggests this bounce may be short-lived.

The Government has taken some welcome steps to improving recruitment. In 2019 the Teacher recruitment and retention strategy was published containing some vital changes to support teachers to stay in the profession and schools to retain them. The Early Career Framework (ECF), for example, offered more support for new teachers to invest in their professional development.

Despite these developments, challenges with recruitment and retention remain, particularly for the most disadvantaged schools, and it is prudent to look for innovative solutions. Teachers in these schools face unique, context-specific challenges that make it more challenging for them to teach a typical timetable than if they were teaching the same number of lessons in a school that serves a more affluent area.

If we are to emerge from the pandemic with a better supported teacher workforce than when we entered it, it is more important than ever to ensure that we are taking steps to tackle teacher recruitment and retention. Any efforts to do this must take into account the additional difficulties faced by schools in the most disadvantaged communities.

More time on the things that matter

There is evidence to suggest that financial incentives play an important role in teachers’ decisions to join and stay in the profession. Fair pay is a moral imperative – teachers work tirelessly to support their pupils and they deserve to be fairly remunerated. But as research commissioned by the Office for Manpower Economics suggests, financial incentives can only do so much. In fact, the report suggests that non-financial incentives, such as reduced workload or better professional development, might have a greater effect on teacher recruitment and retention.

Teachers’ decisions to stay or leave are also linked to their access to professional development, sense of job satisfaction and confidence in their practice. Excessive workload is one of the main reasons teachers cite for leaving the profession. It can also make it difficult for them to carve out the time they need to invest in their professional development, invest time in lesson planning and further research their subject. Statutory guidance means many teachers’ timetables allow only 2.5 or 3 hours for ‘planning, preparation and assessment’ for around 22 hours of teaching. It is difficult to see how discussions around recruitment and retention can be separated from the imperatives to reduce workload and support and develop teachers’ practice.

ECF reforms go some way to acknowledging this. The ECF extended the induction period for early career teachers (ECT) from one year to two years. In addition to the 10% timetable reduction that all ECTs receive in their first year of induction over and above what a mainscale teacher receives, second year ECTs will now also receive a further 5% timetable reduction.

Given the impending challenges in recruitment and retention - and the clear link between this and workload and the need for more time for professional development - the logic of these reforms must be extended to help schools more widely.

Innovative solutions to long-standing problems

In Teach First’s manifesto A fighting chance for every child, we made the case for piloting a reduction in teachers’ timetabled teaching hours by 20% for the 1% most disadvantaged schools. This proposal would see an additional 20% of a teachers’ timetabled hours be allocated to planning, preparation or professional development, with no loss to student learning.

This is an innovative proposal that could allow schools the breathing room they need to:

  • manage teacher workload
  • offer even better support to staff and pupils
  • offer more training and professional development
  • invest in developing curricula
  • allocate staff time in a way that supports the specific needs of their pupils

Given the evidence we have so far on the factors driving teacher recruitment and retention, there is good reason to believe that this proposal would see participating schools experience improved retention and better supported teachers. Crucially, it would also lead to improved pupil outcomes.

As the DfE considers proposals for teacher pay for the next two years, this is as good a time as any to build on the financial incentives offered to teachers and look for solutions that could reshape the nature of teaching as a job, and the profession as a workforce. The proposal to pilot a reduction in teachers’ timetabled hours in the most disadvantaged schools could do just that. 

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