Andrew Lifford is a former secondary school teacher, teacher trainer and education researcher. He has worked at Portland School, Google, The Key, Researchers in Schools and Teach First. The views in this post do not represent the views of Edapt.

The working world is changing for the professional workforce and the school sector has been dragging its feet to catch up.

There seems to be lots of well-intentioned initiatives that are trying to identify and tackle the issue of teacher retention. The DfE has recently published its ‘Teacher recruitment and retention strategy‘ along with the NFER’s research into the ‘Teacher labour market in England.’

I always find there is a bit of a disconnect between reports like these and how to implement the suggestions practicality on the ground. Broadly, the DfE have suggested the following ideas to improve retention:

  • More supportive school cultures and reduced workload
  • Transforming support for early career teachers
  • Making sure teaching remains an attractive career as lifestyles and aspirations change

Additional details include a new job share service, more support for new teachers (reducing timetables, strengthened mentoring) and a reformed Ofsted framework with a focus on reducing teacher workload.

It is a good start but I don’t think it is radical enough or will have enough ‘human’ impact on the day-to-day lives of teachers. Sometimes you need to look beyond the data, which I think might be a little misleading, and look at other professions (outside of policing and nursing.) I also think we need to step away from generic discussion about ‘workload’ and look at cultural and systemic factors which lead to poor retention rates.

As someone who has taught in and visited different primary, secondary and special schools around the country, school ‘cultures’ vary drastically. Some schools have placed an emphasis on staff well-being with SLT setting an positive example with progressive marking policies and meetings kept to a minimum.

In others, teachers can have very little autonomy, high workload with an authoritative, blame culture which simply wouldn’t be tolerated in other professions.

In my opinion, school cultures are nowhere near as autonomous, flexible or ‘comfortable’ as environments found in comparable private sector roles.

School cultures are nowhere near as autonomous, flexible or ‘comfortable’ as environments found in comparable private sector roles

The level of scrutiny, accountability and rigid working practices in teaching can make it an unsustainable career in the long-term. It doesn’t need to be this way.

The sector needs to reflect on what makes teaching enjoyable and what motivates employees to stay in a career. It also need to look at what results in high job satisfaction in other sectors. This includes:

  • Professional, trusting and stimulating work cultures
  • Safety from false allegations
  • A clear separation between work and home life
  • Opportunities to feedback improvements
  • Clear communication throughout an organisation
  • Flexibility to manage ‘life admin’
  • Processes, workflows and meetings which reduce workload
  • Working towards an ambitious vision and celebrating in successes
  • Working with high-quality and respectful colleagues
  • Days off to manage mental health or ‘duvet days’

Some may say these suggestions are simply not practical in running a school.

But are we confident that the solutions to retention will come from leaders and teachers who have been institutionalised in the sector for a number of years?

I suggest we need to look in other places for innovative solutions and some common sense answers for a future teaching workforce who will not tolerate the status quo.

There may be costs involved but it will be much cheaper in the long-term than expensively recruiting new teachers through different initiatives and filling in the gaps with supply agency staff.

Suggestions include:

  1. Treat teaching staff as professionals and human-beings. It sounds really simple but the retention statistics suggest it’s not happening. There are over-zealous managers and pressurised senior leaders in all sectors but there seems to be a higher proportion in teaching (not based on hard evidence, but I think many would agree, especially if you visit the TES forums). It could be systemic of schools as an institution where behaviour and order needs to be maintained with pupils, however, this should not be replicated to members of staff. Simply put, young professionals or people changing careers into teaching will not tolerate condescending or bullying behaviour and will look elsewhere for more attractive, constructive working relationships.
  2. Whole-school, well-being and rewards packages for school staff. Many organisations already use packages such as CharlieHR or Perkbox. for discounted cinema tickets, discounted mobile data plans etc. Could staff receive a ‘care package’ at the beginning of each term which includes gifts, vouchers, books? Many organisations also include opportunities to learn about new skills and sectors. Would staff be interested in listening to visiting speakers or taking part in classes once a month during lunchtimes? Could schools bring in a hairdresser for staff to get their hair cut at lunchtime or have their nails done? Schools could experiment with different options and see what works.
  3. Finding a solution to reduce the amount of sickness absence in teaching. The disruption and cost has a significant impact to schools, teachers and pupils. There are lots of preventative strategies which schools could take. Having more flexible timetables to enable all staff to take ‘duvet days’ at set dates throughout the year. Teachers also need to be able to recover when they are ill and not made to send in cover work (again this wouldn’t be acceptable in other professions.) Schools need to move away from a culture of teachers going on long-term sickness when dealing with high-work load and stress. There should be ‘well-being leads’ in each school who should pro-actively look at where to reduce workload or rotate staff during particularly stressful points during a school year. A similar analogy can be found in football, where a player might be struggling during a game, rather than forcing them to play on, the manager takes them off to ensure they recover for the next match. Schools need to find solutions to be more flexible in staff timetabling to allow rotations at short notice and not rely on agency staff to fill the gaps.
  4. There needs to be easily digestible case studies of schools with high staff satisfaction ratings and retention figures. Not all schools will collect staff feedback and track the duration of time teachers have been in the profession, however, this should be a requirement. Schools should be made to report on their staff satisfaction ratings, which could also be a positive way in attracting staff to a school. Staff should also be able to leave reviews of schools, on an education-based Glassdoor equivalent. Essentially, it should be more transparent how a school treats and retains its staff and should act as an incentive for schools to transform their cultures. The modern world of work is reciprocal, feedback and improvement flows in both directions in many organisations.
  5. No school work or marking during the evenings or weekends. This needs to be strictly enforced and some schools have made great strides towards this. In many private and public sector roles, employees would simply refuse to work on Sunday mornings and during their holidays. This is a huge cultural shift for schools to make because it is so entrenched and some people might think it is impossible to do. Any lesson planning and marking needs to be completed in school. There should be no detrimental impact on the quality of lessons or teaching, it just needs to be completed within school hours.
  6. Student loan debt should be written off after 5 years of service of teaching in the same school (no matter which subject). This has already been suggested before but it needs to be rolled out systematically and advertised to people interested in joining the profession. Student loan debt will be a huge issue going forward and reforms will need to be made.
  7. Ensure safety for teachers from false allegations and high-stakes lesson observations. Teachers will be less likely to want to stay in the profession if they are just one false allegation away from going through the investigatory process and potential disciplinary actions. Similarly, teachers are always just a couple of bad lesson observations away from going through the capability process or being placed on a support plan. If teachers have done something wrong then it should be addressed, but many good teachers have been on the wrong side of allegations or have made human mistakes (like employees in most professions) and then have ended up leaving the profession completely.
  8. Curriculum resources, workbooks and materials need to be managed and disseminated centrally within schools. Again, this happens in some schools but more often than not teachers are creating lessons from scratch, arriving at 7am to use the photocopier, updating images on PowerPoints and other inefficient working practices. Each school should have a curriculum director to lead on this work, with support from heads of department. Even though it may be an extra member of staff, the efficiencies saved in time, staff stress and sickness would be beneficial for costs in the long-term. In addition, the quality and consistency of learning should improve for pupils.

These are just a few ideas without even mentioning Ofsted, data collection or teacher pay. There are softer ‘quick wins’ as mentioned by updating leadership cultures and working practices while still maintaining a high-level of accountability and ensuring the best education for children.

I don’t see the retention and recruitment figures improving in the near future unless the sector takes some bold moves now.

Edapt provides teachers and school staff with casework services and edu-legal support in individual employment disputes and allegations. We’re apolitical and independent. Our team supports our subscribers individually, with integrity, consistency and transparency. A bit like a union, but different…

2 thoughts on “How to practically solve the teacher retention problem?

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    J. Phoenix says:

    As a fellow teacher, sometimes you need someone to set it straight and give good earnest information on the times when it is not always easy. Fantastic article, keep writing!!

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