Can professional development help improve teacher retention?

Jack Worth said there were easy gains still to be made on teacher workloads

1 Feb 2020, 5:00

The National Foundation for Education Research and Teacher Development Trust have partnered up to research CPD’s impact on teacher retention and develop resources to help break the ‘autonomy ceiling’

Much has been written on the pressing teacher supply challenge facing the school system. Rising pupil numbers, combined with too few teachers entering the profession, makes retention particularly important.

So how can we plug the ‘leaky bucket’ and encourage teachers to stay in the profession? We know that an unmanageable workload and low job satisfaction are significant factors in determining teachers’ decision to stay or leave. What is less clear is what school leaders and policymakers could do to improve these factors.

Our new research, published this week, finds that teachers’ perceived autonomy over their work is central to their job satisfaction and their intention to stay in the profession.

Teachers report particularly low autonomy over their professional development goal-setting, suggesting that this is a particularly interesting area to explore. We partnered with Teacher Development Trust (TDT) to bring together sector leaders and policymakers to explore the implications of the research further.

The study is the first large-scale quantitative study in England to look at teacher autonomy and its relationship with workload, job satisfaction and retention. We surveyed teachers on the level of influence they feel they have in different areas of their work, such as lesson planning, behaviour management, teaching methods, curriculum content and assessment.

When we looked to see which area had the greatest potential to increase job satisfaction and retention, the winner by far was autonomy over professional development goals.

Classroom teachers hit an autonomy ceiling

It is important to stress the difference between autonomy and total freedom. Indeed, there is mixed evidence from other research about whether completely free choice is effective. However, autonomy has the potential to have a big impact on teachers’ motivation and could lead to improved job satisfaction.

What that means is ensuring that the relevance of teachers’ professional development to their individual needs, their pupils’ needs and the school’s organisational goals is clear. It also means involving them in choosing those goals, and ensuring they have some influence over how they show they are meeting them.

The study also sheds light on how autonomy evolves with experience. Unsurprisingly, it is lowest among early-career teachers, and this is instinctively right, as too much autonomy too early risks overwhelming teachers who are developing their practice.

More problematically, however, classroom teachers hit an autonomy ceiling relatively early in their careers, after only five years. The only way many teachers get more autonomy is by moving into leadership roles, which is not ideal for those who remain in the classroom.

In effect, both early-career and experienced teachers could benefit from greater autonomy over their professional development goals, albeit in different ways. The good news is that the policy context is already there upon which to build that autonomy.

The DfE’s Early Career Framework sets out what early career teachers are entitled to learn, and could work well as a professional development menu rather than a prescription. With guidance from a mentor, this could allow new teachers to focus on the development they most need, and to develop their skills in identifying what that might be.

And the DfE is committed to developing specialist qualifications to establish clearer non-leadership career pathways. Our findings reinforce that idea, by showing that offering more experienced teachers a wider range of options to meet their development needs can keep them highly engaged for longer.

Meanwhile, with this new evidence on the importance of autonomy in teacher professional development comes a significant opportunity for school leaders. Teacher retention is certainly not their job alone, but by considering how they design and deliver their performance management and appraisal systems, they can take the lead in developing solutions that work for teachers, schools and the education system as a whole – and model their own professional autonomy in the process.


The full NFER report ‘Teacher autonomy: how does it relate to job satisfaction and retention?’ is available at nfer.ac.uk/teacher-autonomy, and the TDT resource is available at tdtrust.org/autonomy20.

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