We have to do more to hang on to our teachers

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders

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The government is finally talking about doing more to tackle issues of teacher retention, but workload remains the key battleground

It is safe to say that there will be many issues on the desk of new education secretary Damian Hinds, as well as many people lining up in person and online to proffer their advice.

All of this will be deemed important, albeit to varying degrees. The job of a government minister is to decide what’s actually important – what will make a genuine difference in the world beyond Westminster.

Here’s one thing we can agree on: few suggestions will be quite as pressing as working out how to prevent so many teachers leaving the profession early.

More than 10 per cent of teachers leave within one year of qualifying and 30 per cent leave within five years. Why they have made that decision is the million dollar question. Indeed, in terms of the actual cost to the education system, it is worth a good deal more than that.

The House of Commons Education Committee, in a report on the recruitment and retention of teachers published in February 2017, provided some answers.

They said: “Over the past six years schools have been faced with a series of changes to curriculum, assessment and the accountability system, as well as uncertainty about changes to school structures. This will have led to increased workload and pressure as schools implement the changes.”

And it went on to highlight a survey carried out in 2015 (LKMco and Pearson’s Why Teach?) which found that
76 per cent of teachers cited high workload as the most common reason for considering leaving the profession.

Workload is not the only reason of course. Pay levels are probably not why we go into teaching, but years of government-imposed pay freezes and pay caps have not helped retention, particularly among teachers who feel that their workload has burgeoned at the same time.

For the new education secretary – and for the system as a whole – this all adds up to a particularly troubling issue in the context of rising pupil numbers. Over the next five years the number of pupils is set to increase by 492,000 – which means we are going to need a lot more teachers.

As the government is not able to hit its existing targets for new trainee teachers (the secondary target has been missed for the past five years in a row), hanging on to those teachers we already employ becomes even more critical. However, that Education Select Committee report from 2017 found something else: “Government intervention to improve the supply of teachers in England has consistently focused on recruitment of new or returning teachers, rather than retention of existing teachers.”

It went on to suggest that “introducing initiatives to help improve teachers’ job satisfaction may well be a much more cost effective way of improving teacher supply in the long term”.

And, to be fair, the government has listened.

The proposals published in December on strengthening qualified teacher status and career progression are, according to former education secretary Justine Greening, “not just about making teaching as attractive as possible to prospective teachers” but “also about developing existing teachers and supporting them to stay in the profession.”

And in October last year, I co-chaired the Flexible Working in Schools Summit with regional schools commissioner Vicky Beer, to promote flexible working as one of the ways in which we can retain more teachers at different stages of their lives.

But it is clear that there is much more to be done, particularly on the issue of workload. For a start, we need a period of stability in the education system free of any more landscape-changing reforms. Schools need time to embed the changes to the curriculum, qualifications and accountability that are still working their relentless way through the system.

We also need to look to ourselves. By that I mean everyone in the education sector – government, regulators, unions, trusts and schools – must ensure that we are doing everything we can to prevent, identify and extinguish unnecessary workload.

That collective effort will help to make the profession more attractive for both new recruits and existing teachers. And it will also free up teachers to focus on what they do best and what most benefits children – teaching.

Since this is the topic that most benefits children and teachers, it’s the item that should be at the top of the new education secretary’s to-do list.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit www.ascl.org.uk

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