'Savage’ NAO report spells out retention problems

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The teacher retention crisis is biting for secondary schools with more teachers quitting and one in 10 vacancies going unfilled. The National Audit Office is calling for action on workload and teacher support. Pete Henshaw reports

The number of secondary school teachers fell by almost 11,000 between 2010 and 2016 – a loss of around five per cent of the workforce.

Furthermore, more teachers are now leaving the profession before retirement than five years ago and one-tenth of state school teaching vacancies are going unfilled.

The findings are among those in Retaining and Developing the Teaching Workforce, a report published by the National Audit Office (NAO) last week.

The NAO, an independent body that scrutinises public spending for Parliament, concludes that the Department for Education (DfE) “cannot demonstrate that its efforts to improve teacher retention and quality are having a positive impact and are value for money”.

The National Association of Head Teachers labelled the report “savage but entirely justified” (see below).

In the report, teacher workload is identified as the clear reason behind the problems facing schools. The research shows that the number of teachers in state-funded schools increased by 15,500 (3.5 per cent) between 2010 and 2016, but that the number of secondary teachers fell by 10,800 (4.9 per cent).

The report also warns that secondary schools face “significant challenges to keep pace with rising pupil numbers” – the number of secondary pupils fell between 2011 and 2015 but is now forecast to rise by 540,000 (almost 20 per cent) between 2017 and 2025.

At the core of the problem, the NAO says, is the number of teachers quitting. The NAO reports that in 2016, 34,910 teachers (8.1 per cent of the qualified workforce) left for reasons other than retirement.

An NAO survey undertaken as part of the research found that 67 per cent of school leaders believe that workload is a barrier to teacher retention.

This comes after the DfE’s most recent workload survey, published in February 2017, found that classroom teachers and middle leaders worked, on average, 54.4 hours during the reference week (in March 2016), including the weekend.

There are 457,300 teachers in state-funded schools in England as of November 2016 and schools spend around £21 billion a year on their teaching workforce.

However, despite action promised as a result of the DfE’s Workload Challenge initiative in January 2016, the NAO finds that relatively little has been spent on programmes to support the existing teaching workforce.

For example, the DfE spent £555 million on training and supporting new teachers in 2013/14 compared to £35.7 million on interventions to support existing teachers (including £91,000 on workload and pupil behaviour interventions) in 2016/17.

After the Workload Challenge, the DfE published three working group reports in March 2016 offering advice on reducing workload across the key problem areas that had been highlighted by teachers. However, only 44 per cent of school leaders are engaged with these reports, the NAO’s survey found.

The NAO finds that despite the findings of its most recent workload survey, the DfE has not explained how it expects workload to change. The report states: “The DfE published an action plan in light of the survey, including offering grants to groups of schools to conduct workload reviews, but has not set out how it expects teacher workload to change.”

Recruitment is equally challenging, according to the NAO survey of school leaders. It reports that schools are filling only half of their vacancies with teachers “with the experience and expertise required”, and in around a tenth of cases, schools did not fill the vacancy at all.

The DfE believes that the quality of teaching is more important to pupil outcomes than anything else a school can control but the NAO highlights research evidence showing that teachers in England accessed an average of four days a year of CPD in 2013 – this compares to an average of 10.5 days across 36 other countries.

There is also a lack of data on what CPD teachers undertake and in a climate of huge budget pressures the NAO warns: “The need for schools to make significant workforce efficiency savings is likely to make it more difficult for them to support teachers’ development. Schools also struggle with finding training of the right quality, with no regulation of the wide range of external providers.”

The DfE has said it will increase spending on teacher development programmes to around £70 million a year over the next three years. It is also supporting the establishment of the Chartered College of Teaching.

However, the NAO warns that the DfE lacks data on local supply and demand and “cannot show that its interventions are improving teacher retention, deployment and quality”.

The report does highlight that in 2016, 90 per cent of primary pupils and 82 per cent of secondary pupils were being taught in schools where Ofsted rated the teaching, learning and assessment to be good or outstanding – a notable increase on 2010. However, there was notable variation in the proportion of secondary pupils in schools where teaching, learning and assessment was inadequate or required improvement – from nine per cent in London to 26 per cent in Yorkshire and Humber.

The report adds: “The proportion of pupils in secondary schools rated as inadequate increased with deprivation.”
There is a positive sign in the number of qualified former teachers returning to schools – a potential recruitment strategy the NAO believes the DfE should focus on. In 2016, 14,200 teachers returned to work in state-funded schools, an increase of 1,110 on 2011.

The report concludes: “Performance against national indicators suggests progress: the overall teaching workforce has been growing and more children are in schools where Ofsted has rated teaching, learning and assessment as good or outstanding. These indicators, however, mask significant variation between schools and concerning trends, especially in secondary schools.

“Schools are facing real challenges in retaining and developing their teachers, particularly when they are also expected to make significant savings by using staff more efficiently.

“Without a clear and practical integrated workforce and financial approach, supported by good evidence and school engagement, there is a risk that the pressure on teachers will grow, with implications for the sustainability of the workforce.”

The report calls on the DfE to clarify and set-out its approach to improving teacher retention with clear measures of success. It should also do more, the NAO says, to understand why teachers quit and to engage with former teachers to tempt them back to the classroom.

It must also “as a matter of routine, explicitly assess the workforce implications for schools of all key policy changes and guidance, in particular the impact on teachers’ workload”.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, added: “Schools are facing real challenges in retaining and developing their teachers, with growing pupil numbers and tighter budgets. The trends over time and variation between schools are concerning, and there is a risk that the pressure on teachers will grow. Since having enough high-quality teachers is essential to the effective operation of the school system, these are issues that the DfE needs to address urgently.”

Retaining and Developing the Teaching Workforce: Reaction

The Department for Education: “We continue to invest significant sums in teacher recruitment. We recognise there are challenges facing schools and we are taking significant steps to address them. We have established a £75 million fund to support high-quality professional development in those schools where teacher retention is an issue, and we are making it easier to advertise vacancies. We are working with Ofsted to tackle workload and will continue to engage with the profession to better understand the specific challenges and how we can address them.”

National Education Union (Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary): “The report’s findings are an indictment of a record of failings that stretches back over several years. The DfE has failed to engage with schools on issues of recruitment, retention and professional development. Its response to an on-going crisis has been on a scale far too modest to achieve effective change and has failed to collect the basic information which would allow it to address acute local-level problems. We have long decried the government’s limited focus on teacher recruitment, which ignores the early exodus made by many excellent and experienced teachers due to an inflexible and excessive-working-hours culture.”

Committee of Public Accounts (Meg Hillier MP, chair): “Workloads are one of the main reasons teachers leave the profession, yet the DfE expects schools to make efficiency savings in staffing – which means fewer teachers. The rise in teacher vacancies in secondary schools nationally is a key risk for pupils, as the DfE itself acknowledges. The DfE has not yet done enough to understand and act on local variation in teacher supply and quality since the Committee of Public Accounts reported on training new teachers last summer. It is still taking too much comfort from national statistics when education is a local issue with local implications.”

NASUWT (Chris Keates, general secretary): “In order to recruit sufficient numbers of high-quality teachers and retain existing professionals in the classroom, the DfE should be focusing its efforts on driving down excessive teacher workload and reforming the high-stakes accountability system which drives much of the necessary bureaucracy which teachers are facing. The government must also heed the growing pressure its public sector pay cap is having on recruitment and retention and act urgently to remove the unacceptable pay cap and restore salaries to levels which are competitive with other graduate professions and which reflect the high level of knowledge and skill which teaching demands.”

National Association of Head Teachers (Paul Whiteman, general secretary): “This report is pretty savage but entirely justified. The government cannot get away from the fact that it does not keep data on local supply and demand and cannot show that its interventions are improving teacher retention. As such, the DfE is scrambling around in the dark, wasting money and without a clear plan to tackle recruitment and retention. It’s a national problem. So it needs a national solution. Workload and pay are key issues to solve. Even where schools have the flexibility to pay recruitment and retention allowances to retain and attract staff, the crisis in school funding means that they can’t afford to do this. We are hearing that the government is planning to lift the one per cent public sector pay cap. This is essential if we are to address the recruitment crisis we’re currently facing. However, the government must make sure all new pay offers are fully funded. Schools will not be able to honour this pay increase from their existing budgets.”


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