What do returners want?

By Jack Worth and Caroline Sharp

Wednesday 11 July 2018

At a time when the number of teacher trainees has been below target for several years, one way of increasing teacher supply would be to attract more teachers into the profession from other sources. Qualified and experienced teachers who have left the profession, and who could be encouraged to return, are one such potential source.

The latest data on the teacher workforce, published last Thursday, shows that there are 250,000 former teachers of working age not currently teaching in the state sector. Of these inactive teachers, 160,000 are age 50 or under and 80,000 are under 40. Many former teachers already return to teach in the state sector each year: last year 14,500 returned.

Enticing more inactive teachers into the profession each year might help to ease the growing teacher supply challenge. So how could the government encourage more inactive teachers to return?

The Return to Teaching pilot launched by the Department for Education in 2015 represented an attempt to overcome some of the key barriers by matching potential returners with schools with recruitment challenges. The programme funded secondary schools facing recruitment shortfalls to support potential returners to return to the profession, with a focus on recruiting returners to teach English Baccalaureate (EBacc) subjects. NFER’s evaluation of the programme, published last month, showed that the programme did not achieve its target of 650 qualified teachers returning to teaching an EBacc subject. However, the evaluation generated some valuable learning about the nature of potential returners, what barriers they face and what they really need to enable them to return.

We highlight three of the key findings below:

1. Returners are not all the same

Our research found that potential returners are very diverse in terms of their previous teaching experience, their motivations for returning and the barriers they face. Their needs are very individual, which was reflected to some extent in the tailored design of the programme. Some qualified teachers who applied for support were actually uncertain about returning to teaching and were using the programme as an opportunity to find out whether it would suit them.

We identified five distinct types of returner. The groups included ‘idealists’ (passionate educators who miss making a difference to young people’s lives) and ‘opportunists’ (primarily motivated to return to teaching by pay, holidays or because they were currently unemployed), as well as ‘movers’ (had no previous experience of teaching in England / the state sector) and ‘pragmatists’ (motivated to return by some other reason).

One of the most interesting groups was ‘career breakers’: their main reason for leaving teaching was to raise a family and they were primarily motivated to return because their family had grown up. They were very committed to teaching and did not necessarily see themselves as ‘returning’ because they did not feel that they had ever left. Our research suggested that ‘career breakers’ have the greatest potential to make a successful return with minimal support. Their key barriers were a lack of confidence and recent experience, which the programme was relatively good at increasing.

2. A lack of flexible working opportunities was a key barrier to returning

One of the main barriers faced by many potential returners was a lack of flexible working opportunities. We found that ‘career breakers’ would be particularly attracted by an offer of part-time work.

Much of the debate around part-time and flexible working opportunities has focussed on how to make more flexible working opportunities available to existing teachers whose circumstances change. However, the challenge is even greater for returners, as there is a lack of part-time posts advertised and school leaders are less likely to make ‘compromises’ (as flexible working is often framed) for new hires, compared to existing staff they already know.

3. Returners wanted to gain teaching experience, but schools found it hard to provide these opportunities

Many of the potential returners supported by the Return to Teaching pilot had been out of the teaching profession for a considerable time: less than a third had taught in the previous decade. They face a catch-22 situation: lacking the skills, confidence and track record to enable a return to teaching, and being unable to gain practical classroom experience because they have been out of teaching for too long.

Returners said that the opportunity to teach was one of the main benefits of the programme. However, schools were reluctant to offer practical experience for a range of reasons, including concerns about the quality of returners, a lack of time to support returners to plan, teach and debrief a lesson and the programme running during exam season. Instead of classroom experience, returners were more often given the opportunity to observe other teachers, which was useful, but no substitute for teaching themselves.

What next for returner support?

A general finding from our evaluation is that piloting is useful. When relatively small-scale programmes encounter challenges, the learning can be used to tweak the programme and develop an improved model in its place. Where pilots demonstrate poor value for money, as in this case, at least they contain the risk before programmes are rolled out nationally.

Much of the learning from the original pilot has been fed into the development of its successor: the Returners Engagement Programme pilot. The new pilot was launched in 2016 and targets returners who are serious about returning, but who lack up-to-date classroom experience. The new programme emphasises to schools the importance of schools providing practical teaching experience and training in classroom skills for returners and the scheme includes an explicit financial incentive for schools to employ returners in a part-time role.

Despite the challenges faced by the Return to Teaching pilot, encouraging qualified teachers to return to teaching is a worthwhile activity. Our evaluation provides a useful knowledge base for the development of further policy initiatives aimed at returners, who represent an under-used source of teachers.

'What do returners want?' is the third in a series of blog posts on the school workforce in England.