Can schools in the most deprived areas hang on to their teachers?

By Susie Bamford

Wednesday 9 March 2016

Teacher recruitment and retention is still high on the political agenda with claims that it is the biggest challenge facing England’s schools and cries that a crisis is unfolding. One current focus is on recruiting teachers to schools in deprived areas. But once they get there will they stay?

Last week Policy Exchange published a compilation of essays which set out practical things that government, schools and heads might do to tackle the teacher supply crunch currently affecting schools in England. A number of these essays drew on our NFER research that tracked moves in and out of teaching. We showed that whilst movement in and out of teaching remains relatively stable, with a steady 10% joining and a corresponding 10% leaving each year, aspects such as growing class sizes and shortages in specific school phases and in subjects (specifically EBacc subjects) mean that the topic remains significant.

This week we are beginning new research to better understand the experiences and intentions of teachers, and are looking for teachers to share their views with us. The new research will be published in the summer but, in the meantime, is there more that our existing data can tell us?

One aspect is the challenge facing schools in deprived areas. We’ve heard recently that deprived schools may struggle more than others to attract teachers. In the Ofsted National Report Sir Michael Wilshaw warned that a two-tier system could emerge, producing a thriving set of schools that are more able to recruit alongside a more unfortunate group that find recruitment much more challenging. Speaking this weekend at the ASCL conference, Sir Michael warned:

“More and more, we see the best schools in the most popular areas snapping up the best teachers while underperforming schools in poorer or more isolated areas are facing an increasingly desperate struggle to find good candidates.

“They are trapped in a vicious cycle – unable to recruit because they are struggling, but unable to improve because they cannot recruit.”

Recent research by the University of Cambridge found that teachers working in the most deprived schools are more likely to be inexperienced. The government aims to address this with the introduction of a National Teaching Service which will provide elite teachers to these struggling areas. But once these teachers have been recruited, will they stay?

We explored this using data from our November 2015 Teacher Voice survey. What we found was unexpected. In the survey, current teachers were asked:

Are you considering leaving teaching in the next 12 months?

The results show that there appears to be no difference in the proportions of teachers considering leaving across five different levels of deprivation – as measured by percentage of pupils entitled to free school meals (FSM). Across these levels, the numbers of teachers saying that they were considering leaving held steady at around 23% for schools with the lowest level of pupils eligible for FSM through to schools with the highest levels.

When we looked back at the responses to this question in the June 2015 round of the survey we found that the results were very similar. The proportion considering leaving was 17% in the most deprived schools compared to 19% in the least, and there was no statistical difference in desire to leave across the five different levels of deprivation. So the finding remains consistent across the two surveys, although the proportion considering leaving appears slightly higher in November than in June. This could be a seasonal effect or a real trend, and we will be able to look at the forthcoming results to our March 2016 round of the survey to look at this issue in more depth.

To some extent, the finding that school-level deprivation does not influence teachers’ desire to leave seems to contradict the idea that these areas are less attractive places to be employed. There are some possible reasons for this, for example it could be that in deprived areas there are strong reasons to want to leave but equally strong opposing arguments to stay. For instance, you might wonder if people are considering leaving teaching in deprived schools, but these areas lack alternative local employment which might sway a decision to stay in teaching.

Linked to this, outside wages might affect the relationship between intention to leave and deprivation. Outside wage information is not available in this dataset, but region is and might account for some variation here. So we took another look at our data (by running a regression looking at the impact of region and deprivation on desire to leave) and found that region did not interact with deprivation in predicting desire to leave. So the pattern remained across the different regions.

There are complex factors affecting these decisions and of course FSM levels are only a proxy for deprivation. We also need to remember that this is based on ‘intent to leave’ as opposed to actual leavers.  But overall, our data suggests that the teacher retention challenges faced by schools with more disadvantaged pupils are no greater than those faced by other schools. This supports the policy focus on recruiting more teachers to deprived areas. Once the teachers get there, it seems they do want to stay.