Could fixing retention be easier than politicians make out?

1 Dec 2019, 5:00

The mistaken belief that money doesn’t matter to teachers has consequences. For too long, policymakers have relied on the altruism of the profession, and retention has suffered, writes Dr Sam Sims

Next month, around 30 remarkable individuals will be recognised in the New Year’s Honours list for the contributions they have they made to schools in the UK. Besides those invited to Buckingham Palace, half a million teachers in England are currently investing their energy, care and (often) evenings to ensure their pupils get the best education they can. Surveys consistently find that the desire to help young people succeed is the top motivation for teachers entering the profession.

Unfortunately, teachers’ altruism leads some to infer that money therefore doesn’t matter to them. As the economies of western countries have grown in recent decades, teacher pay has been allowed to fall further and further behind other graduate occupations. In England, teachers’ pay has also fallen further behind public sector pay in nine of the past ten years.

“Never fear,” policymakers reasoned. “Teachers will stay anyway.”

Except they didn’t. Early-career retention has declined year on year for a decade, resulting in a major shortage, particularly in secondary and in STEM subjects. Concerningly, research shows that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are most likely to lose out on having an appropriately qualified teacher as a result.

Whenever I make the case that retention could be improved by simply increasing pay, somebody responds: “But if teachers were motivated by money, surely they wouldn’t have gone into teaching in the first place!” This argument is logically flawed. People can be motivated both by the desire to help others and by money. The two have an additive effect.

Claiming that teachers aren’t motivated by money is also out of line with the data. Evaluations of two separate policies increasing pay for early-career teachers in the US – one in Georgia and one in Florida – have shown that this leads to sizeable increases in retention.

Sometimes proponents of the money-doesn’t-matter argument point to evidence that many teachers who do leave end up taking lower-paid work. But inferring from this that pay doesn’t matter is also flawed. Somebody who cares about pay will still take a pay cut if the other characteristics of the job are suitably attractive. Pay still matters.

Looking at the earnings of ex-teachers is also a classic case of averages hiding disparities. When you disaggregate teachers based on their degree subject – an important determinant of how much they could earn outside of teaching – those with high-earning STEM degrees leave the profession noticeably faster than their colleagues.

Degree subject differences also help explain why retention is better in primary, despite workload being higher. Far fewer primary teachers have degrees that attract higher pay outside teaching than inside it.

Fortunately, the government is now beginning to respond to the retention crisis that has ensued in part from over-reliance on teacher altruism. Teacher student loan reimbursements are now available for STEM and MFL teachers. More recently, retention payments worth several thousand pounds have been introduced, providing financial incentives for teachers in certain subjects to stay in the profession.

During the general election campaign, the three main parties seem to have engaged in something of a bidding war around increasing teacher pay. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have pledged to raise starting salaries to a least £30,000 (they are currently £24,373 outside London). Labour has promised a 5% pay rise for all teachers before the end of this academic year.

Teachers are motivated by the desire to do a good job and to see their pupils succeed. That is something that should be celebrated, perhaps even recognised with the odd bottle of wine or box of chocolates as we head into the Christmas holidays. But we must not lose sight of the fact that teachers too have to pay for Christmas, and much else besides. The evidence suggests that if we want them to keep them teaching, paying teachers more should be a priority for the next government.

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One comment

  1. Mark Watson

    What if people stopped pretending that anything as complicated as teacher retention (and most other aspects of the education sector) were simple and could be “fixed” by anything that could be boiled down into a glib soundbite?

    Of course teachers should be paid more. As should nurses, the police, street sweepers and most of the public sector. But firstly you can’t just snap your fingers and make it so, and secondly giving all teachers an immediate 10% payrise (or 5%, 20%, whatever you think) isn’t going to just fix things. It’s just not.