Seven new insights into teacher autonomy

By Jack Worth

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Teacher autonomy may be especially important for teacher retention, yet relatively little is known about it. To fill this evidence gap, NFER conducted the first large-scale quantitative study in England to look at teacher autonomy and its relationship with workload, job satisfaction and retention. To further explore the implications of our findings for policy and practice, we partnered with Teacher Development Trust (TDT) to bring together sector leaders to gain insights to inform our research. Jack Worth, School Workforce Lead at NFER, shares seven key findings from the report, published today. 

  1. Teachers have less autonomy than similar professionals

Our research supports the common perception that teachers have less autonomy than similar individuals in other professions. Indeed, only health professionals (which includes doctors and nurses) report having lower average autonomy.

Some would say that this is just the nature of teaching. Others will point to the particular demands of the education system in England. However, there is considerable variation between individuals within teaching, implying that there is scope for the profession as a whole to increase autonomy, even in the absence of major changes to the structure of the teaching role.

  1. Teacher autonomy hasn’t changed over time

Some argue that teacher autonomy has been falling over the last decade, but our research doesn’t support this. We find that the level of professional autonomy among teachers has not changed significantly during the period from 2010/11 to 2016/17.

The size of the autonomy gap between teachers and other professionals is a long standing one, not one that has emerged recently. This suggests that teacher autonomy in England has not been significantly affected by policy changes since 2010.

  1. Teacher autonomy is lower in School Trusts

We find that autonomy is significantly lower for teachers in School Trusts, compared to local authority maintained schools. This is particularly the case in Trusts with more than ten schools. However, this isn’t necessarily a negative as:

  • This may be linked to Trusts standardising or aligning practices across schools as they develop. Previous research has shown there is considerable variation in how Trusts approach standardisation. In some Trusts schools are highly standardized, while others have more devolved decision making (for example here and here).
  • Trust leaders are responsible for ensuring schools across the Trust operate with the necessary coherence to deliver good pupil outcomes, which can involve balancing autonomy and alignment. However, it may suggest that some Trusts may be missing the opportunity to harness the benefits of teachers having autonomy over their work.
  1. Classroom teachers hit an autonomy ceiling early in their careers

Our study sheds light on how autonomy varies with experience. Classroom teachers hit a relatively low autonomy ceiling after only five years, a lot earlier than other professionals. The only way many teachers get more autonomy is by moving into leadership roles.

We find that autonomy is lowest among early-career teachers. However, this may be somewhat unsurprising, as too much autonomy too early risks being unhelpful while teachers are developing their practice.

  1. Teachers have a lot of autonomy in certain areas of their work, much less in others

To gain a detailed understanding of teacher autonomy we asked teachers about the level of influence they feel they have in different areas of their work.

Teachers report relatively low autonomy over assessment and feedback, pupil data collection and curriculum content. This may be because schools see benefits from coordination in these areas. Teachers also report having low autonomy over their professional development goals.

Conversely, teachers report relatively high autonomy over how they lay out their classroom, how they plan and prepare lessons, and how they teach.

  1. Autonomy over professional development goals has the greatest potential to increase job satisfaction and retention

We also wanted to see which area had the greatest potential to increase teachers’ job satisfaction and their intention to stay in the profession. Interestingly, the winner, by far, was teachers’ autonomy over their professional development goals.

For example, increasing a teacher’s level of influence by one point (e.g. from ‘some’ influence to ‘a lot’) is associated with a nine percentage point increase in their intention to stay in teaching.

Teachers’ also report particularly low autonomy over their professional development goal-setting: almost 40 per cent of teachers report having ‘a little’ or ‘no’ influence over their professional development goals and only 23 per cent report having ‘a lot’ of influence. This makes it a particularly interesting area to explore further.  

  1. There are practical ways to give teachers more influence over their professional development

Autonomy over professional development goals doesn’t necessarily mean giving teachers total freedom to choose their professional development goals and activities. At a school level, it could mean asking teachers if they feel their professional development is relevant to them, and making sure they have some say about the design and content.

At a policy level, the DfE could look to produce guidance around the Standards for teachers’ professional development to emphasise how teachers can be given greater involvement in designing content, processes and goals.

Our new report provides much needed evidence into teacher autonomy in England, and how it relates to job satisfaction and retention. Beyond the key findings, there are many other interesting insights and further areas to and the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) have produced a practical guide for school leaders.

To find out more

The full NFER report ‘Teacher autonomy: how does it relate to job satisfaction and retention?’ is available at www.nfer.ac.uk/teacher-autonomy.

To complement the NFER study, Teacher Development Trust (TDT) developed a support resource for school leaders - ‘Guidance on teacher goal setting: Balancing autonomy and coherence’ which is available at www.tdtrust.org/autonomy20.