Recruitment and retention

If we solve the retention crisis, the recruitment crisis will follow

Staff attrition is a marker of the health of our education system and our diagnosis calls for immediate intervention, writes Sinéad McBrearty

Staff attrition is a marker of the health of our education system and our diagnosis calls for immediate intervention, writes Sinéad McBrearty

6 Jun 2023, 5:00

The Education Committee has heard from a panel of experts on how to solve specialist teacher shortages

The pressure on teacher recruitment presents a fundamental challenge for government, schools, parents and learners. Recruitment data are tracked with regular analysis offered by a variety of stakeholders across the sector. And rightly so. Strange then that the attention we collectively pay to teacher retention is somewhat less focused. Education Support’s commission on teacher retention was convened to sharpen our gaze. 

Staff attrition is a marker of the health of the teaching profession and of the overall success of our education sector. Too many teachers are voting with their feet. Our inability to retain them results in less experience across the workforce and less experience in the classroom. It also represents poor management of our most important educational asset: the professionals on whom so much hinges. 

The most recently available data show that 4,200 teachers retired in 2020-21. A further 32,000 left the sector for other reasons. It costs the Government £20,000 to train a teacher, so these ‘other reasons’ add up to £640m of lost capacity in that single year. At this rate, we will replace the whole workforce every 14 years. 

This attrition rate is a flashing red light amid a range of data that point to poor wellbeing in the education sector. In any job, poor wellbeing leads to worse outcomes. In this case, the relevant outcomes are the academic, vocational, social and emotional development of our children and young people. I’m making this point at a time in history when we ought to move heaven and earth to ensure that our next generation of adults are supported with generosity and stability after growing up during such uncertainty.  

Teacher retention matters across the whole country, but especially so in the least well-resourced communities. In neighbourhoods where families have no spare capacity, where incomes are low and services are stretched to breaking point, stability in a community’s teaching staff matters more.

The commission heard countless stories of the vicious cycle of high staff turnover, recruitment deserts and the pressure on the remaining staff teaching in these settings. The result is higher than average staff attrition with knock-on effects for the education of the very young people who face the harshest headwinds.

Our commission also heard teachers and school leaders describe significant disaffection, anxiety and disconnection among the young people they teach. This goes beyond usual behaviour issues and appears linked with the increase in mental health issues presenting in schools.

Our evidence makes it clear that teachers don’t know how to deal with the scale of this challenge. Parents don’t appear to know either, and currently, wider social and mental health services are not resourced to address the scale of the issue.

This matters for teacher retention; it isn’t the only problem they face, but it is a big one. If teachers feel powerless to make a difference in the lives of the young people they work with, demoralisation is an inevitable result and changing career becomes a rational choice.

Our system does many things well, but as our research shows, it is antiquated and increasingly unattractive to young graduates choosing a career. The evidence we heard shows that modernisation is a pragmatic necessity for restoring the status and satisfaction of the profession on which our children and young people depend. Retaining talent in the sector and securing a future pipeline of talented educators needs to be a policy priority for government.

If we can fix the retention crisis, we will also fix the recruitment crisis. We’re not just trying to rebuild the lives of teachers; we’re trying to rebuild the reputation of the profession.

This is today’s problem, and tomorrow’s problem too.  The longer we wait to take action, the greater the damage we’ll do to the profession and to the life chances of children and young people. In particular, we will betray learners in the least well-resourced communities across the country.

Happily, there are clear routes to improvement. Let’s get on with it.

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  1. VWalker

    Before our school became an Academy there was a different Headteacher who was always visible and approachable. He had created a culture of kindness and fairness and teacher retention was high. It then became an Academy and the Head was forced out. . The new Head and the Trust have systematically destroyed a culture and an ethos that staff parents and students related to. Staff have left in their droves because of the harsh approach from management. Trusts might be an initiative that suits the Government but it is one that is destroying education and contributing to poor staff well-being and retention problems.