Retention: Practical steps to avoid driving new teachers out of teaching

Written by: Maria Cunningham | Published:
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The retention rate of NQTs and RQTs continues to fall. How can we mitigate against inadvertently driving new teachers out of the profession? Maria Cunningham draws on recent cross-sector discussions to offer practical advice – both to school leaders and NQTs

The NFER’s annual Teacher Labour Market in England report (Worth et al, 2020) shows that schools continue to face "significant challenges" in recruiting and retaining a sufficient number of teachers.

Based on data collected prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, a particularly worrying finding is that the retention rate of NQTs into their second year of teaching has continued to fall, as has the rate for second years going into their third year.

If this was the state of affairs in a pre-Covid world, what does this mean for teacher recruitment and retention amid the shifting sands of our current context, which is nothing like any teachers have experienced in their careers to date?

The Teacher Development Trust (TDT) and the Gatsby Foundation recently partnered to address this very question. This work has resulted in a number of resources, including a free resource to support schools with teacher recruitment in light of the pandemic (see further information).

Research compiled by SchoolDash and TeacherTapp (Hannay, 2020) shows a significant decline in teacher job mobility press during the coronavirus pandemic, with a 38 per cent drop in teacher recruitment advertisements on school websites between mid-March and the end of April compared to the same period in 2019.

Although low teacher mobility may not immediately seem to pose an urgent risk to the profession, Timo Hannay from SchoolDash explained: “One potentially serious risk from a slowdown in teacher recruitment is increased difficulty in placing NQTs, who might then be lost to the profession. Fortunately, they don’t generally face the same end-of-May deadline as other teachers for handing in their notice, so there’s still time to mitigate any foreseeable repercussions. The government and other participants should be considering this carefully.”

New teachers are quite literally the future of our profession, so it is critical that we are holding open doors for them to enter, as well as ensuring that they are adequately supported to find their feet and develop expertise as practitioners.

With the Education Endowment Foundation publishing evidence revealing that school closures are likely to reverse progress made to close the gap in the last decade (EEF, 2020), now more than ever our students need great teachers.

And yet Covid-19 has cast a significant shadow over the paths of this year’s trainees. As Professor Sam Twiselton, director of the Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University, explained: “The final third of a PGCE year is typically mainly spent in school and is usually a huge growth point in the making of a new teacher. The absence of this is bound to be severely felt and we need to be mindful of this when supporting and adjusting our expectations for teachers taking up their first jobs next year.”

Speaking in one of our recent #CPDConnectUp sessions, PGCE physics tutor at the University of Cambridge, James de Winter, agreed: “The almost universal concern they have is their capacity and experience to work at full pelt. They are also concerned about whether there will be a mismatch between what schools are expecting of them and what they are able or feel confident to do.”

We asked school leaders, policy-makers, ITT tutors and CPD providers to suggest what steps the sector could collectively take to mitigate against inadvertently driving new teachers out of the profession. Here are some of their practical recommendations…

Advice for schools and school leaders

  • Where possible, reduce the teaching load of NQTs and RQTs to allow for a continued or extended induction period.
  • Consider the additional training needs of your early career teachers and adapt your school or trust’s CPD programme accordingly, i.e. providing additional time for NQTs to take part in structured collaboration, peer-observation or team-teaching, or adjusting the focus of particular CPD sessions to minimise content gaps.
  • Carry out a training needs analysis or skills audit of your staff and ask NQTs at interview what additional support they might need as a result of curtailed training.
  • Do not forget to match this additional support and capacity for new teachers with that of their mentors. High-quality mentorship and CPD for mentors is just as important as nurturing NQTs.
  • Some leaders proposed finding an additional day or two in the autumn term “where mentors and NQTs can spend time engaging on these challenges together and finding out what anxieties and issues are there”.

Advice for NQTs

  • Maximise the time you have now and take advantage of the range of virtual CPD opportunities on offer. There is a wealth of free webinars on at the moment, which are a great way to learn from experts in the field. If you look for organisations who make creative use of breakout rooms, it is also a chance to “meet” other teachers and form networks ahead of joining the profession in earnest in September.
  • Stay up-to-date with your professional learning using the Chartered College of Teaching’s brand new Early Career Hub, which features articles, interactive content and teaching footage tailored to the needs of those new to the profession (see further information).
  • Try not to be disheartened if you have not yet found a permanent placement for September. Schools have largely been prioritising a safe return for pupils in recent weeks, with many teachers only handing in their notice by the May 31 deadline.

Reflections for policy-makers and the wider sector

First, additional financial support should be provided for schools and leaders to over-recruit teachers for the academic year 2020/21. This was the overwhelming message arising from the TDT and Gatsby web meetings.

Sir John Holman, senior advisor to the Gatsby Foundation, expressed particular concern around there being fewer opportunities for NQTs who are specialists in shortage subjects like physics. He said: “I’d urge headteachers to continue recruiting where possible, and to look at over-recruiting teachers in shortage subjects if they can.”

The urgency of this is heightened by the recent NFER analysis finding that “recruitment to ITT in 2019/20 is further below target in physics, maths, MFL and chemistry compared to previous years, compounding existing under-supply” (Worth, 2020).

Helena Marsh at Linton Village College in Cambridgeshire has deliberately overstaffed by recruiting two NQTs in biology. She said: “I have to justify the budget a bit more, but I think it’s worth it because we can then afford to make sure their teaching commitment isn’t quite so full on and you’ve then got community spirit between those NQTs working alongside each other.”

Second, schools would like more support with finding the capacity and time to provide a reduced NQT timetable. One soon-to-be NQT shared the concern that: “I am going to be expected to teach three subjects in my NQT year, two of which are not my specialism. I worry an 80 per cent timetable will be too much of a workload for me and negatively impact on my subject knowledge.”

Indeed, our experience tells us that colleagues are generally understanding of the need to minimise contact time of new teachers whose training or placement may have been limited, but some leaders feel concerned about how they will shuffle capacity accordingly, particularly in small primary schools.

A common concern shared on the #CPDConnectUp chat box was a lack of “national level clarity about flexibility on the induction timetable and deadlines”.

Third, there is a greater demand than ever for sustained, subject-specific CPD and support for NQTs. Research tells us that the role of subject-specific professional learning is vital (see Cunningham, 2019), yet discussion in our recent webinars suggested concern that this could well “move to the back-burner” as a result of increased focus on core subjects, as well as supporting teachers to deal with the additional pastoral and social/emotional challenges linked to the pandemic.

Mr de Winter passed on his students’ concerns about “the extent to which they have been able to dig deep and really build an identity as a subject teacher”.

The TDT and Gatsby Foundation recommend that all new teachers join subject associations for valuable sources of guidance and stimulation. Some suggested that the role of those associations, as well as other subject-specific providers in supporting NQTs through this challenging time, could be more clearly identified and better signposted by the sector.

  • Maria Cunningham is head of education at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective CPD in schools and colleges. A secondary school governor and former primary teacher, she leads the TDT services for schools; working with senior leaders to improve the quality and culture of their processes for staff professional learning. She tweets at @mcunners. Visit Read Maria’s previous articles for SecEd via

Further information & resources

Further NQT support & advice

ITE and early career teachers can follow the hashtag #NewEd2 on Twitter for details of a free online CPD event taking place on Saturday, June 27. Speakers include Hannah Wilson, Sam Strickland and Alison Kriel. Elsewhere, support for early career teachers from an NQT mentor can be found by following @MrTs_NQTs on Twitter. Finally, Professor Sam Twiselton has written recently in the journal Trust on NQTs and Covid-19: Challenges and opportunities. Visit


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