Recruitment and retention: We do not need quick fixes

Written by: Dr Sarah Charles & Dr Alison Hardman | Published:
Image: iStock

Quick fixes are not the solution to the teacher recruitment and retention crisis. Dr Sarah Charles and Dr Alison Hardman​ argue that it is about status, and policy-makers might look to Finland for an example of how to get it right.

If we are to believe the headlines, we might assume that those with qualified teacher status are a dying breed, soon to be extinct.

A range of data supports the headlines, with the government failing to meet its teacher recruitment targets for the last five years. Primary postgraduate numbers are down by 4.9 per cent and secondary applicants are down by 7.7 per cent.

This barren and arid landscape is equally bleak in terms of retention, with the National Audit Office having recently revealed that, in 2016, 34,910 teachers left the profession for reasons other than retirement.

Worse still, four in 10 teachers reportedly leave within their first year of qualification, while
53 per cent of teachers questioned in a recent survey said they were considering leaving the profession in the next two years due to the demands of the job (National Union of Teachers, 2015).

Government initiatives, which are estimated to have totalled £555 million, have clearly done little to prevent a mass exodus from the profession. However, among this desolate landscape, an oasis does present itself, with 14,200 qualified teachers heading back into teaching according to government figures, indicating that, for some, the grass is not always greener beyond the classroom.

Satisfaction or money?

Deceptive advertisements highlighting seductive salaries and promises of accelerated career progression aim to attract more high-quality applicants to the profession.

But surely the motivation to teach should not be borne out of desire for monetary reward, rather a desire to make a difference and to increase opportunities for children and young people? Pay, on its own, is not the answer.

Global research reflects how there is a direct correlation between time and money spent by prospective teachers on training and career longevity. Short-term and cheap routes into teaching – designed to provide a body of NQTs quickly and at low cost are problematic for a number of reasons.

These reductionist models of teacher preparation produce a workforce which is not wedded to the profession, who have been furnished with little more than the basic understanding of curriculum requirements and a fistful of “tips” for teaching.

In some cases, we see individuals having what is tantamount to a financial fling, using pupils as stepping stones out of debt accrued as a student. The quick fix financial incentives in the form of golden handshakes for shortage subjects are not the panacea for the recruitment crisis nor should they be the driver for people to enter the profession.

Professional status

Furthermore, these “quick fix” qualifications, lacking theoretical underpinning, result in short-term gain but long-term pain for the profession, reducing the professional status of teaching.

Professor Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educationalist, warns that fast-track teacher training programmes turn the teaching profession into a stop-gap profession that people do for a while until something better comes along, giving the impression, to the general public, that almost everyone is capable of doing the job.

As long as the teaching profession remains low status but high stakes, high-quality graduates in the UK will be reluctant recruits.

The teaching profession cannot compete with unapologetically incentivised corporate landscapes where business positions yield status, where wages are not subject to national pay freezes, and where the attraction of clear progression plans are competitive.

The educational landscape of the 21st century, in the UK, is witnessing the status and role of the teacher slowly being eroded, starved of growth and renewal, drained by punitive budgetary constraints and scorched by public and external inspections.

In an era where teachers are vilified for many of the ills in society, where teachers’ decisions are questioned daily by parents, politicians and the papers alike, where working conditions and levels of accountability are unsustainable and where teachers are powerless, should it be of any surprise that there is a recruitment and retention crisis?

Our European neighbours

The UK would do well to look to some of its European neighbours to improve recruitment and retention within teaching profession.

Finland, for example, has a very high retention rate for teachers, with about 90 per cent of trained teachers remaining in the profession for the duration of their careers. So what are they getting right?

  1. Finnish teacher education programmes are extremely selective, admitting only one out of every 10 applicants.
  2. Their training programme is for five years.
  3. Students must earn a Master’s degree – teacher education is heavily research-based, with a strong emphasis on pedagogical content knowledge. It is an evidence-based profession.
  4. Finland has developed a deeply thoughtful curriculum and then provided teachers ever more autonomy with respect to how they approach that curriculum. Teachers are trusted in their practice.
  5. Finland is at the frontiers of curriculum design to support creativity and innovation, teachers have a job that has many of the attractions of the professions that involve research, development and design. They are pushing their intellectual and creative boundaries.

This high level of trust, the intellectual challenges of a curriculum that aims high and is predicated upon creative innovation, the achievement of knowing that you have been admitted to a profession that is highly selective, the knowledge that you will be working with others who have the same attainments and the professional autonomy usually associated only with the highest status professions – this all makes teaching a desired profession and a career of choice.

In contrast to the UK, it is a thoughtfully designed and respected system, that is fit-for-purpose.

  • Dr Sarah Charles and Dr Alison Hardman are senior education lecturers at the University of Derby.


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