Keeping your early career teachers

Written by: Matt Walker & Suzanne Straw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Amid the challenges of teacher recruitment, the retention of early career teachers has become even more crucial for schools. Matt Walker and Suzanne Straw consider how the teaching profession can effectively support and retain early career teachers

It is well-documented that England is experiencing an unprecedented challenge in relation to teacher recruitment and retention.

With rising pupil numbers in secondary schools, shortfalls in the number of trainee teachers and increasing numbers of working-age teachers leaving the profession (SecEd, 2018 & 2019), doing more to retain teachers in the state sector is a crucial part of helping to address this key issue.

Recent years have seen alarming attrition rates in the profession. Of particular concern is the rate with which teachers are leaving the profession early in their careers – within the first three to five years.

Retention rates of early career teachers have dropped significantly between 2012 and 2018 (Worth et al, 2018). The first five years are the critical years when the right development opportunities, nurture and support can make or break a teaching career.

Given the significant financial and personal commitment involved in an individual’s decision to train to teach, the cost of training teachers, and the fact that new teachers are quite literally the future of the profession, this issue clearly needs addressing as a matter of urgency.

School leaders and teachers welcome the fact that the Department for Education (DfE) has made this a focus, with the Early Career Framework (ECF) offering definite steps in the right direction (DfE, 2019; SecEd, 2019).

It is notable that the retention of early career teachers is also high on the agenda at an international level, with the issue being the focus of this year’s United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) World Teacher’s Day in October.

What does it take to keep early career teachers in the classroom?

In 2018, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) was commissioned by the DfE to research the experiences of early career teachers (those teachers in their first three years of teaching).

The report, Early career continuing professional development: Exploratory research (Walker et al, 2018), aims to identify the factors that lead early career teachers to feel fulfilled in their roles and therefore more likely to stay in teaching. It also looked at which factors are most likely to lead to a lack of fulfilment and the danger of them walking away.

One of the most significant findings of the research was that the translation of hopes and expectations to lived experiences at the chalkface can lead to “practice shock”, summarised by one research participant as follows: “When you go through your (initial teacher training) placements, you can’t truly understand how much work there is to do, or how much responsibility comes with the job. So I think that kind of hit me hard in the NQT year.”

The reality of getting to grips with new routines, a new work/life balance and new expectations – and feeling like a “beginner” all over again, regardless of previous achievements – can come as a surprise.

And unless these issues are addressed, there is a high risk of new teachers walking away from the profession well before they might have anticipated doing so. Therefore, support from colleagues to help them settle into their new roles, and to acclimatise to the school environment is of key importance.

Our report found that areas in which teachers in their first year in the classroom feel they need most training include behaviour management, assessment, pedagogy, and supporting students with particular needs.

During this first year, positive factors in supporting the development of new teachers include the presence of:

  • A supportive mentor, who is ideally a subject specialist and respected by the mentee as a practitioner in the classroom.
  • A balanced package of support, typically involving a standardised training programme alongside more personalised, teacher-led opportunities.
  • A supportive school culture.

In the second year, the importance of avoiding a one-size-fits-all model of CPD becomes clear in this report. Many teachers reported wanting more “light touch” support that allowed them the time and space to “hone their craft”, while others were keen to begin to pursue opportunities for progression into middle leadership and specialist roles.

In this second year in the classroom, our research suggested that the levels of support offered by senior staff or mentors varies in terms of regularity and formality of contact.

Positive experiences reported by teachers in their second or third year broadly chimed with those in their first year, with an emphasis on the need for bespoke training and support and, once again, the benefits of a supportive whole-school development culture.

Emotional support was cited as something needed by early career teachers but which was not always effectively addressed. In addition, several early career teachers highlighted that they would value more dedicated time to reflect on their training and development.

Moving forward

The introduction of the ECF has been broadly welcomed by the teaching profession and appears to address many of the issues highlighted by early career teachers.

The introduction of dedicated training materials and fully funded mentor training, with time for this taken into account, is a positive step forward.

Providing sufficient training and development for early career teachers is vital in helping to address the issue of the practice shock that new teachers can experience as they enter the classroom.

It is also encouraging to see that the development of the ECF has been evidence-based, with direct involvement of credible and experienced educational professionals. It certainly feels as if the government is engaging directly with teachers in a pragmatic move to address the teacher recruitment and retention challenge.

The ECF is being rolled out in selected pilot areas from September 2020, and nationally from September 2021. However, the framework is available now, and we would recommend that schools familiarise themselves with the detail and consider what the implementation and workload considerations might be for their particular environment.

  • Matt Walker is a research manager and Suzanne Straw is a research director at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

Further information & research

NFER Research Insights

This article was published as part of SecEd’s NFER Research Insights series. A free pdf of the latest Research Insights best practice and advisory articles can be downloaded from the Knowledge Bank section of the SecEd website: www.sec-ed.co.uk/knowledge-bank/


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