Recruitment and retention

Can the ECF really fix our perpetual retention crisis?

A new report indicates likely improvements for the early career framework – but none is likely to make teaching easier or improve retention, writes Becky Allen

A new report indicates likely improvements for the early career framework – but none is likely to make teaching easier or improve retention, writes Becky Allen

7 Nov 2022, 5:00

Schools in England have a problem with teacher retention. For every 10 who begin their training, three never take a job in a state-funded school and a further one or two leave during their early career.

This creates a profession that is less experienced than in other developed countries and it a perpetual teacher recruitment crisis where we must keep stuffing the pipeline with new trainees. It damages the overall quality of teaching that students experience through unnecessarily high exposure to inexperienced staff. Early career retention is a problem worth fixing.

The Early Career Framework (ECF) introduced just over a year ago was the latest attempt to improve the early-career experience. Over the past year, the teacher survey app, Teacher Tapp, and the Gatsby Foundation have been finding out how it is working.

Some parts of the ECF are unambiguously good. Giving new teachers a reduced timetable in both years 1 and 2, for example, will reduce stress and exhaustion.

However, the ECF’s package of mentoring, training and self-study materials seems to have been less warmly received. Those mentoring these new teachers were happy that the ECF improves knowledge and offers good guidance, but they complain that it adds too much to everyone’s workload and can’t meet individual needs well.

So, how should the ECF be refined to suit schools better? Our research suggests two modifications would be welcome.

Such solutions are appealing because they are cheap(er)

First, review the overlap in content between initial teacher training and the early career framework. Eighty-four per cent of new teachers said they had not learned a great deal that they didn’t already know. As teachers, we know that having opportunities to return to ideas is important to support the application of knowledge in the classroom. However, it does seem that there is currently too much repetition between training and the ECF.

Second, adapt the framework to suit teachers’ specialist subject and phase needs.
Teachers are diverse in their classroom lives. Those teaching four-year-olds have different needs to those teaching 14-year-olds. Physics teachers face challenges that are different to drama teachers.

The ECF is currently delivered to 96 per cent of teachers as a one-size-fits-all programme. Half of the respondents to our survey felt it a priority to tailor the programme. Mentors also wanted more specialised professional development to help them to deliver the ECF in their context.

Despite these complaints about workload and lack of specialisation, mentors and senior leaders are generally supportive. The Labour party, which is busily crafting new education policies this week, should note that just one-in-ten say they would entirely scrap the reforms.

What teachers would like is a much greater role in co-designing early-career provision, alongside the right to adapt existing programmes to suit an individual teacher’s needs.

The government had hoped the ECF would improve the retention of early-career teachers through high-quality professional development. Our survey responses suggest that it isn’t having much of an effect.

Perhaps it is unrealistic for any professional development framework to substantially alter how manageable teaching is in those early years. Teaching is an unusual profession because we expect our novice professionals to complete the job independently. A professional development programme cannot change the reality of how hard it is for a novice to swim in the deep end from day one.

If only we could make swimming in the deep end less of an endurance test by further reducing contact hours for new teachers.

If only we could make the deep end a little shallower by allowing new teachers to start with small group teaching or co-teaching before moving on to leading whole classes.

Alas, both of these approaches to making teachers’ early careers more survivable cost an enormous amount. Professional development solutions are appealing because they are cheap(er). So, let’s make them the best we can.

And let’s accept they may not do much to help new teachers survive.

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