The recruitment and retention strategy covers the right areas, but will need to develop effective policy detail quickly to deliver what is needed, says Jack Worth

I was chatting to a teacher recently, speculating on what might be included in the Department for Education’s long-awaited teacher recruitment and retention strategy. “Why is recruitment always seen as more important?” she said. “It should really be a retention and recruitment strategy”.

It seems that she has got her wish in today’s published strategy, with a notable change of emphasis from recruitment to retention.

Retaining teachers in the profession to help meet the teacher supply challenge is the central focus of the new government strategy. This marks an important shift in focus and is one NFER welcomes. Along with many others, including the National Audit Office and Education Select Committee, we have consistently called for more attention to be given to retaining teachers, alongside measures to improve recruitment.

Retaining teachers is just as important as recruiting them: every teacher successfully retained is one less for the recruitment targets, which are already rising due to increasing pupil numbers. Retention also builds the education system’s capacity for high-quality teaching, as inexperience is one of the few factors we know is related to teaching quality.

The centrepiece of the strategy is the Early Career Framework (ECF), a two-year support package designed to encourage more new teachers to stay and to build their skills and effectiveness. Rates of teachers leaving the state sector have increased since 2010, particularly among early-career teachers. The first few years in the profession are critical: when the right opportunities, nurture and support can make or break a career in teaching.

Teachers want opportunities to develop and progress, so the ECF’s promise of funding and guaranteeing time off timetable for all in their second year of teaching is an important commitment. However, our recent research for the DfE finds that the level of support early-career teachers receive from more experienced colleagues is crucial to their professional development. Funding for mentoring and mentor training is likely to help, but funding alone may not free up enough staff capacity, which is already stretched from increasing staff shortages and high workloads. Unless school leaders get more help to free up the capacity amongst its best teachers to enable them to support junior teachers, this may not get the traction the DfE desires.

Indeed, reducing teacher workload is where the biggest potential for improving retention lies. Unmanageable workload is consistently the most cited reason teachers give for why they leave the profession.

There are few big-money announcements in the new strategy

DfE’s assertion that school culture makes the biggest difference to teachers’ workload and retention, and that school culture is the domain of school leaders, is broadly right – although financial incentives designed to encourage retention, and the funds school leaders have to manage their schools and develop their teachers is a government responsibility. The strategy makes an important recognition that government policy changes and accountability arrangements can have a very significant influence on school culture through the incentives they create, which have driven teacher workload. The devil will be in the detail, and how the detail is received by the sector, in whether the proposed shift to a “simpler and more supportive” accountability system will lead to a workload and retention breakthrough.

The strategy includes other welcome moves for improving retention that our research has flagged as important: restructuring training bursaries to incentivise retention in the state sector beyond training and encouraging more part-time and flexible working in schools for teachers who would prefer more flexibility.

There are few big-money announcements in the new strategy. This is partly the nature of a strategy: setting the direction of travel for the detailed policy development. However, it is also a conscious statement of the DfE’s priorities ahead of the comprehensive spending review expected in the autumn. Although teachers’ decisions to leave the state sector are not primarily motivated by higher pay, ensuring that teacher pay is competitive with other professions should be a key objective to support recruitment, and will also aid retention, alongside the other measures in the strategy.

In our view, the recruitment and retention strategy covers the right areas, but will need to develop effective policy detail and be implemented fast enough to deliver what is needed. Pupil numbers have already started rising in secondary schools, while the number of teachers leaving still exceeds the numbers joining and recruitment targets have been missed for a sixth consecutive year. The scale of the teacher supply challenge is daunting, but there is hope of meeting it with the strategic direction set out by DfE.

 

Jack Worth is Lead Economist at NFER, and lead author of the Nuffield Foundation funded Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England report: Worth, J., Lynch, S., Hillary, J., Rennie, C. and Andrade, J. (2018). Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England. Slough: NFER.