Research: What factors affecting retention matter most to teachers?

5 Apr 2021, 5:00

Research has long shown what factors affect retention but not which matter more to teachers themselves, write Hui Lu and Peter Burge. Until now

Maintaining an adequate supply of teachers is a challenge and an area of significant concern. Of the teachers who qualified in 2014, only 67.4 per cent remained in service after five years, according to a School Workforce in England (2020) report.

The House of Commons stated that the number of secondary school teachers has been falling since 2010 and the number of teachers leaving for reasons other than retirement has been increasing since 2012. These dwindling numbers become more concerning given the fact that the number of pupils is rising, and is expected to keep rising in the future, and the number of teachers being trained is insufficient. The combination of these factors has placed increased pressure on teacher supply.

Previous evidence shows that pay is deemed to be one of the most important factors influencing a teacher’s decision to stay in a role, together with the workload and flexibility of working hours. However, up until now, no study has measured the relative importance of the different factors that could influence teacher retention or quantified the impact that changes to these factors could have. For example, just knowing that ‘pay’ is abstractly considered important (or even most important) is not as helpful as insight into different levels of change in pay.

To help fill this gap a RAND Europe study used an innovative economics technique, known as a discrete choice experiment (DCE) to better understand teacher retention. The study was conducted between August 2019 and June 2020, although the survey fieldwork took place before the Covid-19 pandemic. It involved surveying 2,210 state school teachers in England who were broadly nationally representative of the teacher population, and covered a wide range of school types, school roles and contract types from the full spectrum of the pay scale.

Teachers would be willing to trade higher pay/rewards for other benefits

In the DCE, teachers were asked questions about a series of hypothetical scenarios with teacher job options, described by pay, rewards and other employment characteristics. The information provided from the DCE was supplemented with other background information collected in the survey.

From the choices teachers made we were able to quantify what attributes were valued and prioritised most, and what trade-offs teachers were willing to make.

We found pay and rewards are important retention factors. But non-financial aspects can also compensate for (and in some cases may be more effective than) increases in pay. Teachers would be willing to trade higher pay/rewards for other benefits, such as working in supportive environments with fewer challenges from pupil behaviour.

The most influential non-financial employment characteristic was teaching environment, reflected by pupil behaviour in classes. For instance, moving from a situation where “poor behaviour is rarely a serious problem” to a role where “poor behaviour from a few students significantly disrupts most lessons” would on average require an increase of 26.2 per cent in annual pay to compensate.

This confirms research by the Department of Education and Ofsted that shows poor behaviour leads to higher workloads and reduced wellbeing levels and negatively affects teacher retention. But it’s the first research that quantifies that effect.

Supporting the DfE’s policy response of the past few years, the DCE also showed that teachers value workload reduction and investment in their professional development. They value flexibility and access to part-time arrangements, and they prefer situations where they receive support from school leadership and peers.

However, contrary to the reported likely effect of the proposal to raise starting salaries, teachers also prefer larger pay scale steps, and a quicker rate of progression when their performance is rated as excellent.

Our results were used to test out a series of policy scenarios to measure the relative effectiveness of different policy interventions. These show that policies seeking to improve retention rates are most likely to succeed if they are multi-faceted.

Therefore,  rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, a set of interventions developed to target the preferences and expectations of specific groups of teachers is likely to be most effective.

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