Retention: The vital role of teacher autonomy

Written by: Michelle Barker | Published:

Evidence is emerging showing the strong link between teacher autonomy, job satisfaction and retention rates in schools. Michelle Barker considers four new research findings

New research from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) shows that involving teachers in CPD goal-setting increases their motivation and intention to stay in the profession.

Pressures on existing teachers have long been at boiling point, with unmanageable workloads and low reported job satisfaction cited as significant contributing factors for teachers debating the decision to stay or go.

The new NFER analysis (2020) and accompanying resource from the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) suggests teachers’ feelings of autonomy make a huge difference to their morale and intention to stay.

The report states: “Only around half of those with the lowest autonomy are intending to stay in teaching in the short term, compared to more than 85 per cent of those with the highest autonomy.”

Surprisingly, only certain aspects of autonomy seem to make a significant difference. In this article I will outline the four key things you need to know from this report.

Four key findings

1, Autonomy is associated with increased job satisfaction and retention
Previous research has shown a clear link for many other occupations between autonomy and job satisfaction but until now there has been limited evidence on whether this holds true for teachers, and whether it is also associated with retention. Through this first large-scale quantitative study on the subject for teachers in England, the NFER finds that autonomy does, in fact, follow suit. Along with autonomy being strongly linked to the perception of a manageable workload, it also contributes positively to other retention indicators, such as higher job satisfaction and intention to stay.

2, Autonomy is lower in school trusts and in schools with low Ofsted ratings
The researchers analysed data from NFER’s Teacher Voice Omnibus survey to explore variation across school types and found that autonomy is significantly lower in small and large trusts, compared to in local authority maintained schools. This may be linked to leaders’ efforts to align practices across schools in trusts.

Interestingly, a similar disparity – albeit not as statistically significant – can be seen in schools with “requires improvement” or “inadequate” Ofsted ratings where classroom teachers report lower autonomy than those in schools rated “good”.

3, Autonomy for teachers doesn’t rise without promotion
What are the factors that prevent teachers who stay in the classroom from experiencing the same growth in autonomy as their counter-parts in managerial positions? It is an on-going challenge for school leaders to maintain schools where the best teachers are able to remain teaching while developing in their roles.

Findings suggest that autonomy varies across different areas of teachers’ work. More teachers report that they have a lot of influence over, for example, classroom management, teaching methods, and planning and preparing lessons, and less influence over assessment and feedback.

These factors might not come as a surprise to readers, but one finding is stark: teachers experience no growth in autonomy over their careers, unlike nearly every other profession.

In fact, there are no significant differences in the average level of autonomy among teachers with more than six years of experience unless they move into leadership.

4, The majority of teachers have little involvement in setting their CPD goals
A substantial proportion of teachers report having little direction over intended actions for improving their practice. Professional development is reported by teachers in England as an area of low autonomy, with 38 per cent of teachers reporting to have “a little” or “no” influence over their goals.

One practitioner focus group member, a leader of CPD in a school trust, is quoted in the report: “People seem to think that the only CPD route that is available to them is to get on that leadership track to headteacher. And actually most people don’t want that and that isn’t right for them.”

Despite this, the research suggests that perceived autonomy over professional development goals has the greatest association with improved satisfaction and intention to stay. This suggests that the greatest potential for increasing teacher job satisfaction and retention may lie in increasing autonomy over professional development goals.

Using these insights

We see a significant opportunity in these findings for school leaders. At the TDT, we have worked with many schools and seen first-hand the impact of developing and maintaining a supportive culture that creates room for effective development. We know that leading professional development well has great impact on student outcomes with benefits to staff retention, morale and stress reduction.

Often, performance management practices are used to determine performance in relation to planning next career stages but, in light of this new evidence, a particularly important practice for nurturing classroom teachers is goal-setting.
With teachers reporting having little direction over their plans to improve practice or grow as professionals, goal-setting provides an opportunity to involve them in establishing and committing to goals which are also linked to the school vision.

Case study

Astor College in Dover used the principle of increased teacher autonomy over CPD goals to drive improved morale. Leaders identified recruitment and retention of teachers as a barrier to building a school where their pupils had every opportunity to succeed.

Senior leaders provided structured development opportunities for their teachers. Each was linked to key school improvement goals. They created a culture of robust teacher self-evaluation, supported by line managers. Through this, teachers experience more autonomy in shaping and achieving their professional development goals.

As a result, staff absence has significantly reduced and changes in teacher behaviour include an enhanced belief in their power to make a difference to their pupils and their own lives.

A resource for schools

In light of this new report, the TDT has produced a free guidance resource for school leaders. It helps leaders to improve teacher autonomy in teaching, learning and CPD policies. In particular, the approaches can help teachers to see the relevance of their professional development plans to them as individuals, to their pupils and to the wider organisation.

Guided support in choosing professional development goals and activities will increase the satisfaction teachers feel around the direction of their development. The resource provides further recommendations on where these opportunities may be created and the benefits leaders can expect to see from the careful employment of high autonomy with meaningful alignment to a compelling school vision.

  • Michelle Barker is schools programme leader at the Teacher Development Trust, a national charity for effective professional development in schools and colleges. For information on the TDT Network, visit http://tdtrust.org/network

Further information & resources


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