Keeping teachers teaching

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Nearly 50,000 teachers left the profession in 2015. And this year seems set to be no different, with record numbers of teachers seriously considering quitting the classroom. How can they be persuaded to stay?

Stewart McCoy takes a look at two key areas of teacher retention: experienced teachers nearing retirement age, and younger workers just joining the profession.


The UK population is predicted to grow by another 10 million by 2039, which will put further stress on an education system already buckling under the strain of high pupil numbers and inadequate funding. An extra 40,000 teachers will need to be recruited over the next decade to cope with this increase. But, at a time when the government is repeatedly missing recruitment targets for new teachers, and when record numbers of teachers are seriously considering leaving the profession – and increasingly going through with it – a major shortage of experienced, quality teaching staff is a very real and serious threat.

It is unfortunate, then, that amid these circumstances, teachers have reported feeling under pressure to quit before state retirement age. Almost a third (32 per cent) say they plan to quit before reaching retirement age, due to a perceived societal pressure that older workers are no longer welcome in the workforce or because of a fear of age discrimination in schools.

There is huge value in the experience and knowledge older teachers bring with them, so encouraging them to remain in the profession past state retirement age is vital. They also need to be inspired to pass that knowledge on to younger teachers, not only to help improve their skills and abilities but to inspire them to remain in teaching.

At the other end of the scale, the recruitment of younger teachers needs to be overhauled. Graduates need to be supported and offered career development at every stage. Salaries need to be increased or incentives given to persuade them to stay rather than be recruited by other more lucrative professions.

How can older teachers be retained?

By 2022, the number of people in the UK workforce aged 50 to state pension age will have risen by 3.7 million to 13.8 million overall. However, the number aged 16 to 49 will have dropped by 700,000. This will create a serious skills shortage as the baby boomer generation starts to retire without corresponding numbers of younger workers to take over.

The education sector is already suffering from this effect, especially with archaic attitudes to age and ability still lingering. Recruiters need to actively work to dispel societal beliefs about age. Talented senior teachers need to be encouraged and celebrated, not cast aside once their perceived usefulness is gone. They bring with them a wealth of knowledge and experience which cannot be underestimated and can be employed to help mentor younger teachers. Indeed, 45 per cent of teachers say taking on a mentoring role would encourage them to stay working for longer.

This would also have a beneficial effect on retention of younger teachers, with experienced teachers helping them in areas such as lesson planning, engagement, pupil interaction or curriculum coverage. It would also help free up senior teachers or heads of department to concentrate on their roles.

Encouraging older teachers to remain in the profession also hinges on changing pay and working conditions. Many complain of 50 to 60 hour weeks just to keep on top of all the lesson prep and marking. That’s a big ask for anyone, especially if the remuneration is lacking, and you can see why jaded teachers might run for the hills or, at least, a job that is better paid with fewer hours.

There is also an immense pressure on teachers to deliver A-C grades; rather than instilling in their pupils a love of learning, they find themselves focusing on what will get them through the exams. Finally, there is irritation at the overregulation of teaching, with Ofsted micromanaging every aspect of the profession.

These factors all need to be addressed with competitive pay rates at senior levels, a reduction in hours and red tape, and in particular, flexible working arrangements. Almost half of working teachers (43 per cent) would consider delaying retirement if they were able to fit teaching around other responsibilities later in life such as caring for a loved one.

Phased retirement to allow a smooth transition from full-time work to part-time would also be beneficial, as would retraining schemes to take account of regular changes to the curriculum and the increasing prominence of IT in the classroom.

Encouraging senior teachers who are determined to leave to take up supply teaching would also act as a halfway house – they get to reduce their workload to more manageable and flexible levels, but the schools they work in still have access to their knowledge and expertise.

Stopping the mass exodus of newly qualified teachers

Retention of older teachers, though, must run hand in hand with grassroots recruitment of newly qualified professionals.

According to the government’s most recent teacher training census, there was an increase in Initial Teacher Training entrants from 25,753 in 2014-15 to 28,148 in 2015-16. However, nearly one in five secondary places for September 2015 remained unfilled, and the overall secondary recruitment target was 82 per cent, significantly down on the previous year when 94 per cent of the target was achieved.

Keeping new teachers in the profession, it would seem, is about as hard as rowing across the Atlantic in a hurricane. So what is going wrong between training and taking up a post to cause this worrying exodus?

The same problems affecting more experienced teachers are also affecting the newly qualified – long hours, heavy workloads, pressure to hit those all important A-C grade targets and overregulation have all contributed to them throwing in the towel, sometimes before they have even begun. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, has described teaching as being a profession ‘incompatible with a normal life’ and said with so many teachers burnt out, stressed and under pressure, it’s no surprise they quit.

At the very least, the ethos surrounding teaching needs to change, with recruiters emphasising the positives of teaching, such as it being a rewarding and stable career with excellent career progression, over the negatives. In short, the stereotype needs to change.

In order for that to happen, though, there needs to be a sea change in the way teachers are remunerated, flexible working hours and their continuing professional development.

Teacher recruitment is already suffering at the hands of better-paid industries in the war for graduate talent. Many university students are opting for more lucrative careers, and teacher pay simply can’t compete. During the recession, teaching was a relatively stable profession with people made redundant from other industries retraining to become teachers. But as the economy has recovered, other professions have too – and once more, they are siphoning off the best graduates, leaving teaching undernourished.

The switch to academies will allow schools more flexibility in pay and working conditions, but the government also needs to look at the longer-term earning potential for teachers compared with other graduate careers over the next decade if they want them to stay in teaching.

In addition, creating a positive atmosphere would go some way to easing the crisis, as would having experienced teachers mentoring younger ones.

Equally, flexible working is something that could help stop the exodus, particularly as around three-quarters of teachers are women – a figure even higher in primary schools. Women are more likely to require flexible working or ask to go part-time, especially after having children or needing to care for an elderly relative, but some headteachers are still resistant to this, leaving teachers with no choice but to quit and find a profession that does offer it.

Supply teaching is one answer and increasingly, graduates are actively choosing this as a way into the profession because it offers them variety and flexibility. Teachers get to experience life in different schools as well as enjoy a certain freedom from the more onerous aspects of teaching such as lesson planning, target setting and assessment. They can try supply teaching in a particular area before they commit to a permanent job, allowing them to make a more informed choice about the school and subject they want to teach in.

The future of teacher retention

The future of teacher recruitment needs attention – disillusioned staff are quitting in their thousands, with low retention rates and falling educational standards all familiar laments. But it isn’t too late to turn the tide. Remuneration is important and that needs to be improved upon. After all, everyone, whether a teacher or not, has the right to be paid properly and according to their experience and qualifications.

But pay is only a small part of the picture and, equally, workplace perception and environment matter too. Older teachers need to feel they aren’t being put out to pasture, and younger teachers need to be supported as they take their first steps into the world of teaching. Teaching is a vocation, and all teachers need to be made to feel like they are valued, that they have a sense of purpose. They should be offered greater flexibility in working hours, and the red tape that is strangling the day-to-day workings of the profession needs to be cut.

If these things happen, the ticking talent time bomb might just be averted. The best schools will already be actively planning for this – making the most of their existing, experienced workforce and supporting younger teachers in their roles.

Stewart McCoy is Strategic Operations Director at teacher recruitment agency Randstad Education.


Related articles:

  1. Holding on to your talent - Take care to retain and reward your star teachers, says Jody Goldsworthy, and your efforts will be repaid many times over.
  2. Keeping new teachers teaching – The demands of a teaching job are often overwhelming for someone just entering the profession. Chris Wheatley and Paul Stone discuss what heads can do to help. (Read part of this article for free!)
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