Don’t underestimate the importance of school culture for retaining teachers!

3 Feb 2019, 5:00

Support for new teachers needs something more intangible than a framework; the right environment is vital too, says Cat Scutt

The new Early Career Framework released this week has the potential to radically improve the experience of new teachers. It marks a step-change in the support that they will receive at the start of their career, when their learning curve is steepest and, as “teacher retention warrior” Jack Worth’s analysis of teacher workforce data reminds us, when they are also increasingly likely to decide that teaching isn’t for them.

It sets high expectations both of and for these teachers, building on initial teacher training as the next step in a career-long journey that lets them progress to traditional leadership roles, through classroom-based specialisms, or supporting and developing colleagues. The training and recognition of mentors to ensure that new teachers have the support they need is also critical. We know the impact these things can have on teacher effectiveness, job satisfaction and retention, and that’s why I’m proud to have been a member of the expert advisory group for the framework’s development.

However, supporting new teachers requires something more intangible too. Teachers’ effectiveness increases at a much higher rate in schools in which there is a strong professional environment: where rules around behaviour are consistently enforced and there is a commitment to pupil achievement; where teachers are given time and resources for professional development; where there is a culture of trust, respect and openness; where there are opportunities for peer collaboration; and where teacher evaluation is focused on improving teaching quality. Of course, it’s not about just creating an environment where existing practices are praised, shared and embedded; ensuring there is sufficient challenge is important too.

Researchers in the US found that teachers’ effectiveness developed more when they were working alongside highly effective colleagues; this was especially true for less experienced teachers, and the impact of working alongside effective colleagues persisted even over time and when teachers then moved schools. Effective teachers are also more likely to seek advice and information from colleagues

Ensuring there is sufficient challenge is important too

A strong professional environment doesn’t just affect teachers’ effectiveness and pupil outcomes, either. Sam Sims’ analysis of TALIS data found opportunities to collaborate with colleagues influences teachers’ job satisfaction, as, unsurprisingly, does the extent to which they feel their workload is manageable. And having strong self-efficacy, something often driven by being in a supportive environment and part of a collectively confident, capable team, is also associated with improved teacher retention

School leadership, then, has a critical role to play. There are certainly schools whose leaders already manage to coordinate timetables to allow early finishes for professional learning, who look for ways to drive down workload to give teachers the time, space, and let’s face it, the motivation, to support and collaborate with colleagues. One of the Chartered College’s trainee teacher bloggers wrote just last week about how she felt that she had a department full of supportive, inspiring mentors.

But for other school leaders, the looming shadow of Ofsted, funding pressures and an unmanageable workload of their own can make it an almost impossible task to create the sort of professional culture and progression opportunities that enable teachers at all stages to flourish.

And that’s where the changes to the accountability system and the introduction of new teacher career pathways that are promised elsewhere in the recruitment and retention strategy will be crucial.

The value of and prerequisites for a strong professional culture in schools apply equally at a system level. Developing an effective, motivated workforce requires time, funding and opportunities for system-wide collaboration and development. For that to be a reality, it needs everyone – including the government, Ofsted, schools, unions, universities, training providers, and of course the Chartered College of Teaching – to be ambitious, to challenge established practices, and to collaborate to create an education system in which being a teacher is not just a good place to be, but the best place to be.

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