The general trend for numbers of qualified teachers leaving the profession was consistently upwards in the period from 2011 to a peak in 2016. Since that time it has started to fall. The wastage rate in the latest statistics (2019 Workforce Census) was 9.2%, a slight dip on the previous year. Notwithstanding tentative signs of recent improvement, the retention rate has remained stubbornly stable for the last 10 years, continuing to show a worrying number of teachers leaving the profession in the early years of their career: 73.2% of teachers are still in post three years after qualifying and that drops to 67.4% after five years.
In times of belt-tightening and pay freezes, and particularly during the tail end of the coronavirus pandemic, the need to take measures to keep the best teachers remains as pressing than ever. The teacher supply and retention problem cannot be solved by schools and colleges alone. There are, however, steps that senior leaders can take to improve their chances of retaining talent as part of an overall retention strategy.
A retention strategy is not as complex as it might sound. It can be helpful to think of it as an evolving structure which is put together one piece at a time. It can be constructed incrementally at a pace to suit the school or college, adjusted as needs change and as the pieces start to fit together in a logical way. To help with developing your own strategy, here are some tips on teacher retention drawn from the experiences of school and college leaders.
Normal appraisal processes have been badly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. As you start to get back on track, use appraisals and half-year reviews to understand the career goals and aspirations of your teachers and facilitate objectives which have these in mind. Whilst there is obviously a place for formal training, this is not the only—or always the best—option. Consider what could be achieved through job shadowing, mentoring or networking opportunities, perhaps with partner schools, or what skills could be developed through involvement with particular projects or secondment to another post. Good teachers who are keen to progress inevitably tend to move elsewhere if they feel that there is no room for growth.
Lead by example by noticing and acknowledging the contribution of all staff and encourage your managers to do likewise: this is not an onerous or time-consuming commitment but is of great value. A simple ‘thank you’ can be very powerful.
These can be harnessed and engaged, often in unforeseen ways, both for the benefit of the individual’s job satisfaction and the organisation as a whole. Stretch your most able teachers: competent performers need both autonomy and encouragement to use their skills and do their jobs in their own way. For some this is enough. Others are easily bored unless regularly challenged to use their skills in different ways, pick up new knowledge and have opportunities to add real value. Make use of temporary or permanent TLRs (or equivalent in other settings) to give teachers a chance to lead on initiatives or areas of the curriculum. If you can map out career paths which link to opportunities this will also feed into succession planning in the longer term.
None of us feel loyal towards organisations that do not appear to value our contribution, or where we are not listened to or encouraged to put forward ideas. Confront unhelpful attitudes where these manifest but also be prepared to welcome challenges to the status quo where such contributions are intended to be constructive. Consult teachers on changes in teaching and learning and allow them the chance to air their concerns.
This can be particularly difficult in education settings when term time is in full swing, but offer flexibility where this is possible, empower teachers to take control of their own work-life balance and don’t encourage “presenteeism”. Teachers still frequently cite workload and stress as chief reasons for leaving the profession. Work with teachers to identify the main stressors for them in your school or college and look for solutions to mitigate the impact.
Individuals feel satisfied and motivated by a role where they can carry out their job requirements without feeling so pressurised that they are unable to cope. Even a heavy workload immediately feels more manageable when there is a supportive line manager able to offer advice as needed as well as regular, manageable milestones with the chance to reflect back on achievements. Don’t suppress opportunities for pay progression on financial grounds: where budgets are tight this often seems like one of the only areas left to make savings. This is a false economy in the long run as teachers will eventually seek that acknowledgement of their contribution elsewhere, leaving you with recruitment and supply cover costs instead, as well as the loss of skills and knowledge built over time.
Of course this doesn’t just apply to teachers. Every member of staff has a role which fits into the overall picture. When people understand how their effort contributes to the aims and objectives of the school or college it lends a sense of purpose and value to what they do. Communicate the overall vision and work with teams to support their understanding of how what they do every day contributes to it. Encourage and welcome ideas for improvements and see these through with action plans.
Small and inexpensive ventures really do make a difference. Some schools arrange activities such as after-school fitness or skills sessions or occasional social events, many of which have been on hold for the last year. Others focus more on aspects of the environment that can be appreciated every day, like providing good quality hand soap in the toilets, fruit or snacks during long meetings, or ensuring that the staff room is well maintained. Other initiatives could focus on work-life balance such as a regular staff wellbeing day when all teachers are encouraged to leave straight after school.
The first few weeks in a job form a lasting impression, whether negative or positive. There is an excellent—and easily overlooked—opportunity here to help new teachers settle in, understand the culture and ways of working, feel accepted and become effective and loyal members of staff. The effects of a bad or non-existent induction tend to linger for a long time. Teachers in their first few years in the profession can be particularly vulnerable and should have access to extra support to navigate the more difficult and unexpected trials they may face, such as managing parental communication effectively.
It is very difficult to truly engage teachers if you aren’t clear what motivates them, how they feel about the school or college and how it is run. Get the most out of appraisals by collating feedback on what teachers think works well and less well. Hold exit interviews or distribute exit questionnaires to leavers to understand what it is that influences their decision to move on. Conduct staff surveys where teachers can provide anonymous ratings and comments. Be brave: it might not always be pleasant to hear but you can often learn a lot from this process, both good and bad, about your effectiveness as a leader. Create action points which can be taken forwards for the benefit of the rest of the staff.