Solving the retention crisis: It's not rocket science

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Pete Henshaw, editor, SecEd

All the evidence shows that the teacher retention crisis is getting worse, but it's not difficult to tackle the problem. We just need the will and commitment from within the education system...

It’s not complicated, yet somehow we continue to fail in our attempts to tackle the leading cause of the retention crisis in our secondary schools – workload.

The National Audit Office report (see our full news coverage, here) is just the latest research to highlight the impact of high workload and poor work/life balance. It emphasises the importance of supporting our existing workforce and also warns about the low amount of CPD that teachers in England receive compared with the rest of the world.

It’s not difficult: High-quality and frequent CPD, with manageable workloads (and competitive pay) – achieve this and retention problems should disappear.

But no, schools lost almost 35,000 teachers in 2016, these teachers quitting a profession where they face 55-hour weeks and a long-term pay cap. Overall, secondary teaching numbers are down 11,000 since 2010. This at a time when pupil numbers are rising notably at secondary level.

Where does the blame lie? In a number of places. The pressure of the government’s unforgiving accountability regime filters down through the system very quickly to staff at the chalkface, driving up workload pressure and teacher stress.

The real-terms fall in school budgets means schools have spent the last few years finding efficiencies – a euphemism meaning fewer staff doing more work. It also means that so-called pay freedom for schools is anything but. The public sector pay cap since 2010, initially of 0 per cent and then one per cent, is also to blame. Most teachers do the job through a passionate vocation but there is a limit, which I fear we have passed. (There have been claims of late that ministers are going to relax the restraints on public sector workers’ pay – we will wait and see.)

Hugely squeezed budgets also mean that CPD to support teachers is either low-quality or cut altogether. The government’s recent announcement of a £75 million CPD fund is welcome, but nowhere near enough.

The government has also failed to invest as promised in initiatives to support retention. Its own Workload Challenge spelt out the problems and the three resulting working group reports last year offering ways to reduce workload were welcome – but we need more.

Ofsted has a responsibility too. The pressure of school inspection is great. What’s even worse is the perceived pressure of school inspection in schools. To credit Ofsted it does try to bust these enduring myths about inspection, but they persist still and lead to high-pressure, high-workload environments.

And schools themselves have their fair share of the to shoulder. In too many schools the leadership is not strong enough to protect its staff from the pressures. Furthermore, I fear that too many school leaders use accountability and Ofsted as an excuse to push their staff to the limit. The fact that only 44 per cent of school leaders said they had engaged with the DfE’s working group reports is, I fear, very telling.

The solution is not complicated: Competitive pay for teachers (properly funded by government), more effective and frequent CPD, and action from all sides to tackle workload (not just warm words).

  • Pete Henshaw is the editor of SecEd and Headteacher Update has been writing about education for 12 years. You can read his previous editorials for SecEd at Follow him @pwhenshaw.


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