Recruitment and retention

Making teaching attractive again must be priority one for the next government

Any incoming government will have to put an end to the failed experiment of competition that is driving teachers away, writes Jonny Uttley

Any incoming government will have to put an end to the failed experiment of competition that is driving teachers away, writes Jonny Uttley

11 Jun 2023, 5:00

With both main parties’ general election campaigns centred on five key priorities, the Headteachers’ Roundtable sets out their own five urgent concerns for education. Read each in turn this half term, and visit them at the Festival of Education to add to the discussion.

It’s a common line in education that there are no silver bullets. I thought this for a long time. But I was wrong. There is a silver bullet. It isn’t a great pupil premium strategy, or assessing without levels. It’s not setting or mixed attainment, nor a homework policy or any of the multitude of less-worthy strategies I’ve spent half my leadership career discussing.

It’s much more straightforward. It’s a good teacher in every classroom, every hour of every day.

Find me a strategy that can make the difference between 0.5 versus 1.5 years’ worth of progress for a disadvantaged pupil in a single year (Sutton Trust 2011). Or one that makes a difference of $250,000 in lifetime earnings for a young person (Chetty, 2014).

There are many reasons why ten years of progress in closing the disadvantage gap were undone by the pandemic, but none are as significant as disadvantaged pupils being removed for so long from the things that make the biggest difference to their lives: good teachers. Sadly, silver bullets are in desperately short supply.

Teacher recruitment figures are truly terrifying. The NFER’s lead economist described the situation last month as “spiralling out of control” as the DfE was set to meet only about 47 per cent of its secondary recruitment target.

And the situation for retention is no better. The fact that one in four of new entrants has left the profession within three years is well known. Last year’s figures were still better than pre-pandemic, but the DfE itself was predicting a post-Covid exodus. This year’s dire figures, released this week, are really evidence of a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than any ministerial super-forecasting.

The cause of poor recruitment and poor retention is the same: the lived experience of too many teachers in England is simply too poor. Almost one in seven describes workload as unmanageable; stress levels are high and too many teachers still work in toxic cultures.

Too many teachers still work in toxic cultures

These cultures are created by leaders who either feel unable to resist, or gleefully embrace, a national zero-sum game that pits school against school through debunked progress measures and boils the extraordinarily complex work of a school down to a single-word judgement.  

Creating a successful school system in which all pupils can thrive isn’t rocket science. We need a good teacher in every classroom. And to get it, we must get serious about recruiting, retaining and developing the best.

That means we must finally reduce workloads, rather than defer our efforts in the hope that AI will somehow manage what the internet failed to deliver. And it means we must stop asking people to choose between being seen as a good teacher and being a good mum or dad. But more than that, it means we must change the cultures of our schools to make them places people want to stay, not places they want to escape.

Major reform of accountability is urgently required to stop pitting schools against schools and trusts against trusts for the best teachers. Teachers are voting with their feet. They are not hanging around to be ranked and yanked. They are heading for professions where they will be appraised and supported – or at least where their pay will be commensurate with their stress.

The cultures we need to make teaching attractive again require deep collaboration. This is actively discouraged by a system that sends in a small group of ‘experts’ on the pretence that they can accurately judge everything a school does with a single word.

Ministers and Ofsted could change this overnight, but leaders have responsibilities too. We must stop playing along with the patently dangerous nonsense that is competing with other schools. We must stop lauding success over others and care as much about the school down the road as we do about our own. Only then will we have a national school culture in which teachers will stay and thrive.

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6 Comments

  1. Mrs M

    Thank you for such common sense. I have seen the toxic environment ofsted indirectly creates in the leadership team . Even with outstanding A Level results I was constantly made to feel I wasn’t good enough. Ridiculous strategies from a assistant head, who arrogantly thought she new more about science teaching than me, even though she had never taught the subject. It took my own bloody mindedness not to crack under such pressure, but why bother to put up with this. I now earn more elsewhere.

  2. Sandy Cameron

    Quite. While the more than 80% of schools that appear to benefit from inspection continue to ignore Kipling’s advice (to “meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same”) then the stress, anxiety and needless workload that all endure will never diminish.

    It’s quite staggering that an allegedly humane democracy that cares about its citizens well-being seems incapable of finding a system of accountability that reflects that care.

  3. E Vine

    Education is a collaborative process: pushing competition, league tables is all stick and the carrots are extremely small and rare. Trouble is the system has been off track going in the wrong direction since about 1980!!

  4. It’s not only a workload, the size of classes and number of students a teacher has to deal with is a problem. Kids come to schools with more and more emotional, mental health and complex needs but one teacher have to deal with the problems. There is even a suggestion of increasing the number ratio of little ones , 2 year olds, per a staff member. The burn out is a real problem. You can’t just give and give and give.

  5. Paul Jones

    The problems within the education systems summed up beautifully. Clear solutions too. If only governments would listen instead of using education as a political tool.