Devastating impact the cost-of-living crisis is having on school recruitment and retention

By Megan Lucas, NFER Research Manager

Monday 20 November 2023

This article was first published in ASCL’s Leader magazine on Monday 13 November 2023

Pupils, schools and school staff have been profoundly impacted by the cost-of-living crisis. In September, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) published a series of reports [1] drawing on responses from over 2,500 senior leaders and teachers in mainstream and special schools to understand the impact of cost-of-living pressures on pupils, schools and staff.

Our research finds that recruitment and retention challenges have been intensified by cost-of-living pressures. It highlights that without urgent action now, recent cost-of-living increases risk having far reaching and long-lasting impacts on pupils, particularly those who are most vulnerable, across both mainstream and special school settings.

Due to recruitment challenges being compounded by cost-of-living pressures, large numbers of teacher, teaching assistant (TA) and support staff vacancies are remaining vacant for more than two months.

Pressures on school budgets have been compounded by recent cost-of-living increases, limiting the salaries schools are able to offer potential staff at a time when staff are contending with pressure on their personal finances. As a result, existing recruitment difficulties are being exacerbated and senior leaders report posts for staff of all types going unfilled for prolonged periods of time. For example, among the schools recruiting TAs over the last 12 months, only 7% of special schools, 23% of secondaries and 45% of primaries report filling all TA vacancies within two months. This is a particularly critical challenge for special school leaders where statutory staffing ratios are high and inadequate staffing may be unsafe.

Recruitment challenges are only set to get worse

The increased cost of living may also have contributed to historically low initial teacher training (ITT) recruitment in 2022/23. NFER forecasts show that ITT recruitment in 2023/24 is also likely to be significantly below target. Applications received up to April 2023 suggest that less than half of the secondary teachers that schools need are expected to be recruited. This is likely to place even further strain on schools attempting to recruit in the coming years.

School leaders report that some teachers and TAs are leaving in favour of better paid jobs in other sectors

Our findings suggest that, in addition to exacerbating recruitment challenges, cost-of-living pressures are adding to the difficulties schools face in retaining staff of all types. Teachers’ personal finances have been put under pressure by the increased cost of living, with less than half of teachers agreeing that they could afford to pay an unexpected expense outright. School leaders report that this is causing some teachers to leave in favour of opportunities to earn more elsewhere. As shown in Figure 1, around 59% of secondaries report teachers leaving to earn more elsewhere compared to 36% of primaries and 34% of special schools.

Senior leaders report that this is also true amongst their TAs, with 88% of secondary and special schools agreeing TAs are leaving school to earn more in another job, compared to 71% of primary schools. Leaders explained that TAs, in particular, are likely to seek employment in roles that offer, alongside flexibility, either increased pay or more working hours.

Figure 1 - The proportion of senior leaders who agree or disagree that teachers and TAs are leaving the school because they can earn more in another job

Graph highlighting the proportion of senior leaders who agree or disagree that teachers and TAs are leaving the school because they can earn more in another job.

Source: NFER survey of 1441 senior leaders: the minimum number of responses given to an individual item was 1125.

TAs are taking on second jobs for the first time to supplement their income due to cost-of-living pressures

Schools report that, as well as staff leaving to earn more elsewhere, some of their TAs are seeking additional employment. Around 82% of special, 75% of secondary and 72% of primary school leaders report that some of their TAs are taking second jobs, for the first time, to supplement their income due to cost-of-living pressures.

School leaders also report that cost-of-living pressures have increased the level of pupil need in their schools and affected their schools’ core provision

Over 84% of senior leaders across primary, secondary and special schools report cost-of-living pressures driving increases in both the numbers of pupils requiring additional support [2] and their level of need, especially in the most disadvantaged schools.

In response to this escalation in pupil need, the majority of schools are providing unprecedented urgent support to pupils, and in some cases their households. For example, over 87% of primary, secondary and special school leaders report providing uniform and clothing to some pupils. While this may go beyond schools’ statutory responsibilities, pupils whose most basic needs are not being met are less likely to attend school and successfully engage with learning.

However, senior leaders report that cost-of-living pressures have simultaneously had considerable negative impacts on the financial positions of their schools, which have necessitated cuts to teaching and learning provision. Leaders are expecting the situation to worsen next year. Around 50% of primary, 42% of secondary and 39% of special school leaders are expecting a budget deficit and needing to make more cuts to provision in the 2023/24 financial year.

Senior leaders highlighted that worsening recruitment and retention challenges have amplified the impacts of the cuts necessitated by cost-of-living pressures, and vice versa, further hindering schools’ ability to meet pupil need. For example, leaders explained that the combination of financial pressures, high workload, low morale and a lack of classroom support was making it especially challenging to retain teaching staff in school and that high numbers of staff leaving schools is only intensifying workload pressures on remaining staff.


Our findings paint a concerning picture of the profound impact that cost-of-living pressures are having on schools, and these pressures show no sign of abating in the immediate term.  

Amongst other considerations, we are recommending that the government should prioritise the refresh of the teacher recruitment and retention strategy and extend its scope. A wider education workforce strategy is needed that has a long-term focus, and includes TAs, school support staff and tutors as well as teachers and leaders. For wider support staff, this should include looking at whether pay is competitive enough to attract and retain sufficient high-quality staff.


[1] This study was conducted with ASK research and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

[2] Defined as anything over and above the usual provision pupils might receive in relation to pupil premium and/or Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) support.