Improve part-time working to halt decline in secondary school teachers, says NFER

More opportunities for part-time working must urgently be created in secondary schools to try and prevent the increasing number of older teachers leaving the sector, according to a new report.

Research by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) show part-time secondary school teachers are far more likely to leave teaching than part-time primary school teachers. For both genders the proportion of part-time teachers increases with age, contributing to the fact that the number of teachers over the age of 50 is rapidly declining.

The Teacher Retention and Turnover Research: Interim Report warns that, as a growing proportion of secondary school teachers approach their mid-30s, the sector will face a real teacher supply challenge over the next decade.

The interim report, commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation, recommends the government “looks urgently” at accommodating more part-time working in secondary schools in a bid to improve the retention rates of teachers and persuade former teachers to return to the profession.

However, Professor Samantha Twiselton,  director of the Sheffield Institute of Education, argues that although retaining part-time teachers is an issue for the sector, it is not the most important element when addressing the decline of teaching staff.

“In secondary schools, part time jobs might be available but the amount of flexibility is lacking,” she said.

“The rigidity of timetabling means any flexible working is more constrained. The school might not be able to give the exact hours you need to fit in with childcare, for example. That’s a problem.”

Twiselton said her experience told her that this was an issue for primary schools as well as secondary.

“I came from the primary sector and I wanted to be part time, and didn’t find it particularly conducive to allowing those hours,” she said.

“It’s one of the issues. I don’t think it’s the most important. Teachers need to have a greater work/life balance, and newly qualified teachers need more support and longer training to prepare them for their role.”

About 25 per cent of teachers in the primary sector work part-time compared to about 17 per cent of secondary teachers. A gap persists even when only taking into account teachers of the same age and gender, which the report suggests shows that “secondary teachers and/or secondary schools have more difficulty making part-time employment work”.

The proportion of teachers older than 50 decreased from 23 per cent to 18 per cent in primary schools and from 24 per cent to 19 per cent in secondary between 2010 and 2015.

However, the report says this decrease is “disproportionately driven” by reductions of teachers in non-EBacc subjects, which may indicate these teachers are being disaffected by their subject receiving less priority or are being incentivised to retire early.

The number of teachers moving schools has increased between 2010 and 2015, rising from nine to 11 per cent for primary school teachers and 11 to 13 per cent for secondary, and bringing it with vacancies, recruitment costs and staffing uncertainty.

London faces the biggest challenge, with the capital seeing an exodus of experienced teachers leaving every year as it prepares to face a boom in secondary pupil numbers.

Carole Willis, NFER’s chief executive, said balancing a demanding work environment with a personal life could be “challenging” for many teachers.

“As our report suggests, one solution to this issue is greater flexibility,” she said. “Identifying ways in which more and better part-time working can be accommodated in secondary schools could help to alleviate teacher supply challenges in England.”

Willis said offering part-time opportunities to teachers may not only improve work-life balance, but could also attract former teachers back into the profession.

“We recognise there could be logistical challenges faced by schools in accommodating more part-time teachers, but finding a way to overcome these difficulties may provide a major boost to teacher supply.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We recognise there are still challenges facing the profession which we are taking steps to address.This includes publishing guidance on flexible working, to help head teachers identify ways of supporting their staff.

“Earlier this year the Secretary of State also announced she would hold a flexible working summit to bring together teachers and experts from other sectors to look at how we can make this way of working common practice across the profession.”