Teacher exodus shows workload pay and flexibility must be fixed

Monday 12 June 2023

Jack Worth, NFER School Workforce Lead

This blog post was first published by tes on Friday 9 June 2023.

The latest data from the Department for Education (DfE) shows that fewer teachers are retiring but that almost 40,000 working-age teachers left the profession in 2022, the highest number since records began in 2010.

The overall rate of teachers leaving in 2022 was similar to before the pandemic, at almost 10 per cent per year. This will contribute to workforce supply challenges in the coming years.

The pandemic led to a temporary lull in rates of leaving the state sector, likely owing to a combination of economic and practical factors.

But as restrictions lifted and job opportunities in the wider labour market recovered strongly, the leaving rate rose from 8.1 per cent to 9.7 per cent.

NFER’s latest analysis of recruitment to initial teacher training (ITT) shows that the targets are highly unlikely to be met in most secondary subjects and overall secondary recruitment is likely to be less than half of the target.

However, teacher supply issues are as much down to not retaining teachers as poor recruitment. For every teacher who leaves, there is another that needs training to replace them, pushing the ITT recruitment targets further and further out of reach.

The latest post-pandemic spike in attrition is already built into the target-setting for next year, as the DfE predicted that the leaving rate among classroom teachers would rise. Those predictions also assume that the retention rate will improve over the next two years.

Making sure this does happen has to be a policy priority.

Policy action to improve teacher retention

Policy-watchers’ eyes are fixed firmly on the DfE’s pay award, which is expected to be published in the coming weeks. There are reports that the pay review body has recommended that teachers’ pay rise by 6.5 per cent.

This would be higher than outside earnings, which are expected to grow by 4.1 per cent this year, and therefore likely to, all else being equal, improve retention.

The key questions for the coming weeks are whether the DfE will agree to those recommendations and what additional funding will be made available to schools to enact the changes without making cuts elsewhere.

There is also a longer-term need for the government to develop a new funded strategy on pay and financial incentives that addresses competitiveness and improves recruitment and retention.

The workload problem

Non-financial factors are arguably even more important. Workload is the number one reason teachers give for leaving the profession.

This week Education Support published the findings from its Commission on Teacher Retention, a detailed analysis of how issues such as workload impact on retention and with a set of thoughtful recommendations and areas for policy attention.

The report also highlights the importance of supporting the retention and wellbeing of school leaders.

School leaders took on enormous responsibilities and stresses during the pandemic and the DfE retention data shows that the leaving rate for primary senior leaders is the highest it has been since at least 2010.

Ensuring school leaders are well supported is essential for effective school leadership, as well as for encouraging the pipeline of potential future leaders.

Making teaching more family friendly and flexible

Another group that has seen a particular increase in leaving rate between the year before the pandemic and 2022 is teachers in their 30s, particularly women.

These teachers are likely to have gained much classroom experience in their careers so far and have long potential careers in front of them, so are a valuable group to focus on retaining.

They are also likely to be parents, or would like to be, and may as a result place a high value on job flexibility.

NFER’s recent teacher labour market annual report highlighted the shift in working practices in the wider graduate labour market to home working.

Nearly half (44 per cent) of similar graduates worked mainly from home, up from 15 per cent in 2018-19, which is likely to have a negative impact on the relative competitiveness of the comparatively inflexible teaching profession.

The DfE needs to develop a recruitment and retention strategy that reflects the new post-pandemic realities of working life.

We must not erode education quality

This data on teacher retention adds to the ominous set of data on recruitment, vacancies, pay and working conditions that suggest there is an urgent need to improve the attractiveness of teaching to ensure sufficient future supply.

Indeed, the knock-on effects of under supply are starting to be seen in this workforce data, with numbers of unfilled vacancies and temporarily filled posts at record highs, and increases in non-specialists teaching maths, English, science and geography.

The use of non-specialists to plug gaps will ultimately affect pupil outcomes. The intensity is only likely to increase in future as the smaller post-pandemic ITT cohorts feed through into the teacher labour market.

Addressing the issues now is essential to ensure the quality of pupils’ education is not further compromised.