Teacher recruitment and retention – what can we do?

This blog explores research articles to identify the existing problems with recruitment and retention of teachers and support staff, and it suggests ways to recruit new teachers and slow down the high numbers of teachers leaving the profession.

The National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) report into the Teacher Labour Market in England 2024 presents four recommendations:

  1. An independent review focussing on how to reduce teachers’ workload related to behaviour management and pastoral care, which should consider the role of external support services, such as for special needs and mental health.
  2. Narrowing the gap between teacher pay growth and the wider labour market as a key to supporting recruitment and retention. Making the 2024 pay award exceed the 3.1% forecasted rise in earnings in the wider labour market and fully fund it.
  3. Set out plans to develop a long-term strategy for pay setting which reduces the gap in earnings growth with competing occupations, while ensuring that schools have sufficient funding to enact these pay increases without making cuts elsewhere.
  4. Consider introducing a Frontline Workers Pay Premium to compensate public sector workers for the lack of remote and hybrid working opportunities in their jobs compared to the wider graduate labour market. This is estimated as a 1.8 per cent consolidated pay increase for teachers.

The NFER suggests that pay and financial incentive is the best way to attract graduates to the profession and to keep good teachers in the classroom. Whilst it goes without saying that pay in general should be equal to other professional roles with similarly high levels of accountability, research from around the world suggests a very mixed picture of whether financial incentives are effective at recruiting and retaining teachers.

Schemes to attract teachers to work in schools with high numbers of children who are disadvantaged, or in rural areas, have been trialled across the world with limited and only short-term success. The Chinese government use the ‘Living Subsidy’ (Lingiu & Sun Yee 2024) which compensates wage differentials and provides living subsidies for student teachers, including tuition fees and loan reimbursements. This has had an impact on teacher attraction but less impact on retention, with many teachers who take up this option to work in rural schools, still thinking of it as short term before returning to the city.

Beng, Morris, Gorard, Kokotsaki, and Abdi (2024) in their critical review of international evidence, note that whilst financial incentives do have an impact in attracting teachers to challenging schools and hard to staff schools, they only stay whilst the incentive is available. In fact, they go further to say that evidence suggests ‘the use of discriminatory incentives may even worsen overall retention.’

The United Kingdom has a fairly long history of financially incentivising teachers, for example, in certain subjects, but The Sutton Trust report entitled ‘The Recruitment Gap’ (Allen and McInerney 2019) note that some past schemes have been axed almost immediately. Two examples are, the National Teaching Service which offered £10,000 for experienced teachers to relocate to areas of disadvantage that closed after just twenty four teachers accepted places on the programme, and the ‘Return to Teaching’ pilot that was axed because it failed to recruit significant numbers of former teachers.

This report notes a key issue in attracting and retaining teachers in schools with high numbers of disadvantaged students is pupil behaviour where 17% of teachers said poor behaviour had made them consider leaving the profession in the previous week. Certainly, there is nothing that makes you question your ability as a teacher more than having to deal with multiple incidents of poor behaviour in a lesson. It does makes you think “there must be better ways to earn a living.” To many teachers, behaviour is a ‘hygiene factor’ – if it isn’t good then no other school qualities matter. Shockingly, this report also found that teachers would rather work in a school with longer hours than teach in a school where behaviour is poor. Sadly, this means that some schools with high numbers of students who are disadvantaged and a less than robust behaviour system, suffer the consequences. These schools are often those who have a ‘poor reputation’ or notably ‘more children with challenging behaviour.’

Another issue discovered by this report is the lack of willingness to relocate, and how teachers, particularly those who are female become ‘geographically immobile’ once they are out of their twenties, leading to geographical concentrations of teacher shortages. The NFER suggest that school centred initial teacher training centres (SCITT) should be based in areas of high teacher shortage, with placements in these schools and then bursaries to incentivise graduates to work in these areas. This is a good idea, but the caveat must be a solid infrastructure within these schools to provide the training, coaching and mentoring support these young teachers will need.

Countries who achieve significant success in teacher education and retention ‘prioritise a well-prepared comprehensive framework of long-term planning to support new teacher’s well-being. These countries heavily invest in universal high-quality government funded teacher education programmes. They offer mentorship, reduced teaching loads, share planning time, continuous professional learning, engagement in decision making and competitive salaries.’ (Darling-Hammond et al. 2023 ASIA-PACIFIC JOURNAL OF TEACHER EDUCATION 2024, VOL. 52, NO. 3.)

In my second teaching post, in north-west London, I became pregnant with my first child. This coincided with four other members of the staff body. Our headteacher at the time decided to open a creche on the school site in a portable classroom. The caretaker’s wife had an early childcare qualification but during our pregnancies was paid to upskill herself, equip the creche, and employ an assistant. As staff members, we agreed to fund our babies’ childcare provision at the school creche at a competitive rate when we returned to work, to make the creche financially viable. This forward thinking meant that as new parents, we were nearby if there were any problems or for breastfeeding purposes. It took away the stress of returning to work, having to drop the new baby at a nursery miles away from where I worked, and sprint to school to arrive minutes before the first bell. It also meant I could work after school until 6pm if necessary, then collect him on my way to the car. Ideas like this could alleviate some of the geographical immobility, if provisions like this were available at more schools.

When the world emerged from the global pandemic, the working world became increasingly flexible with many professions allowing flexible working patterns or working from home. In schools where children come to be educated, it is difficult to replicate this flexibility, but does this mean that we shouldn’t try? The Employment Rights Act 1996 sets out the formal right of employees to request flexible working from the first day of employment. This includes arrangements like job share, part time working, phased retirement, staggered hours, compressed hours, sabbaticals, as well as in year flexibility with personal or family days and some remote working.

A report by the DfE in 2019 (‘Exploring flexible working practice in schools’) discusses the practicalities of granting flexible work requests by teachers and school staff, with balancing the impact on children. Whilst many headteachers can see the benefit of allowing flexible work requests upon recruitment and retention, they also cite the many problems with timetabling, additional workload, inconsistency for children to name a few. Many participants in the research for this report said that flexible working was dependent upon the attitude of the headteacher as some were more open to it and some declined requests based on the needs of the children.

As a great believer in ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’ I like the approach of Academy Trusts like Bradford based, Dixon’s who are aiming to introduce a nine-day fortnight for all staff that allow all to have one day off per fortnight. This is only achievable by a combination of sharing roles, some compressed hours, careful timetabling, and ensuring that all staff buy in. It is however, forward thinking and solution focussed, in a scenario where it is becoming more and more difficult to recruit school staff.

I do believe that the more ways we can find to make the education system more flexible will benefit the work force and the children, after all, our children will have to become more flexible in the way that they work in the future and build new technologies and challenges into their lives, so why not prepare them for that whilst at school?

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