Test 27 October, 2017

The 10 per cent retention challenge

Attracting potential teachers who have the right combination of deep subject expertise, brilliant interpersonal skills, unflinching moral commitment and a sense of public duty is a global challenge. UNESCO estimate that 69 million new teachers are needed globally if the Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved by 2030. It’s easy to forget among the barrage of headlines about the recruitment challenges facing England’s schools, but most other jurisdictions around the world are also struggling to persuade sufficient people to do arguably the most important job in the world.

And of course, the challenge of teacher supply is just half the equation. Over and above the natural turnover of retirement, it appears that teachers are leaving the profession in increasing numbers and that many are considering changing career in the near future. Despite concerted efforts on recruitment in recent years, the net result is that roughly as many teachers leave the profession as join it. In England, we have something of a hole in our bucket. Faced with such a complicated problem, sometimes simple heuristics can offer different answers.

For example, we could take the sum of money currently spent on filling up the bucket (about £700m a year according to the NAO) and set ourselves a challenge. What if we were to take just 10 per cent of this money and spend it on teacher-retention initiatives instead? Even better, is there a way to retain enough teachers that you don’t need to spend so much on the expensive task of training new ones?

I can see three obvious targets for spending £70m: pay, conditions and job satisfaction.

Let’s start with pay. The money could be used to enhance salaries, rewarding all teachers better and pushing up their overall level of compensation. If evenly distributed among England’s 455,000 current teachers, it comes to less than £200 per person per year. This is probably more insulting than incentivising. What about if you targeted a similar pay award according to the risk and impact of any given teacher leaving? Recent reports that “almost a third” of teachers leave the profession within five years understandably made for some stark headlines. Those of us who have taught might see this as the time needed for novice teachers to become really effective practitioners. As teacher quality is so important, a scheme which pays a one-off incentive payment to any classroom teacher reaching their fifth year of teaching might mean an in-service bonus of about £4,000 (calculated from the 24,000 new teachers trained in a given year, with a 30 per cent attrition rate, leaving 16,800 to share the £70m). This begins to look more enticing, but might not stop people leaving after the incentive is paid.

Turning to conditions, the obvious approach is to do something which directly addresses the specific issues which are driving teachers from the profession. The evidence suggests it is a combination of burn out from high workload, and a sense of disempowerment about what is taught and how. To their credit, both the DfE and Ofsted have recognised this issue in recent months, but tangible impact is less obvious. Recent reports from NFER and the NAO about the underwhelming implementation of the 2016 Workload Challenge probably imply that people are too busy to work smarter, or don’t like taking direction in poster format.

So, could our £70m be spent on a genuine attempt to improve working conditions? Assuming that some schools have actually cracked this problem – and there must be some outliers where controlling workload has been a major management initiative – then perhaps substantial funding to propagate these effective models could be a sensible investment. Efforts to help schools meet the Workload Challenge could learn from school improvement, where it is now understood that deploying leaders who can demonstrate a track record of success in this area to schools most in need of support can make a difference. Certifying the quality of life that teachers can expect, in a similar way to the Investors in People status, might also allow more considerate employers to demonstrate this to prospective employees. Spent on better implementation of what works, £70m might actually be enough to make a difference here.

We know that, as a population, teachers are not particularly influenced by financial reward. We also know that there are other factors – autonomy, a sense of purpose, and positive identity – which influence how satisfying work feels. With this in mind, another approach (and one Reform have also proposed) might be to use the money to fund sabbaticals for classroom teachers after their tenth year of service, on the condition they come back! These experienced teachers could be tasked with conducting research into effective practice. This could be about capturing their ‘craft wisdom’ or contributing to the growing body of rigorous empirical research in our field. Even allowing for some non-salary funding for training and support, our pot of money easily buys 1,000 sabbaticals a year.

I recognise that none of these simple ideas represent a systematic approach to tackling such a complex and important issue. Trying to change deep-rooted societal perspectives and values about the teaching profession is not amenable to the quick fix, and the reality is this is much of the problem. However, spending a bit more time and money on worthwhile incentives to persuade existing teachers to stick at it, seems like a good first step.