Recruitment and retention

We can and must make working in schools less toxic

Innovative solutions to the recruitment and retention crisis are emerging but the sector is not keeping pace

Innovative solutions to the recruitment and retention crisis are emerging but the sector is not keeping pace

30 Nov 2023, 5:00

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

I occasionally visit a Facebook group called Life After Teaching. It makes for interesting and frequently uncomfortable reading.

Common reasons for leaving the profession include work-related stress, micromanagement and classroom behaviour. Schools not being able or willing to accommodate childcare responsibilities is another. Pay is actually quite low down the list.

Many of those issues should be resolvable but the fact is, for these individuals, they weren’t. Sadly, it shows that a teaching career can feel toxic for some.

We have to adjust to the reality that expectations of teaching careers are shifting – a process that has accelerated post-pandemic. Unfortunately, school and trust leaders aren’t responding quickly enough to this changing landscape.

More employees want something different from their career. They want more flexible working, career development (engagement with CPD makes teachers far more likely to still be teaching a year later), more challenge, better work-life balance and improved wellbeing.

They also want a degree of autonomy – and, perhaps most importantly, purpose.

These expectations will become minimum requirements for new generations considering a teaching career. Most of us will have taught Gen Z – those born roughly from the mid-90s onwards – so we should know them better than anyone. The question for employers now is: as they enter the workplace, does your offer reflect their values? If not, they’re not going to work for you.

Competition from sectors positioning themselves to meet these changing expectations is growing, but that competition can actually foster some innovative approaches.

I met one MAT leader who was dismayed that a bright young maths teacher was being lured away with a lucrative tech job offer. Rather than just let him go, they spoke to him and his prospective employer and discovered that the business was keen to come to an agreement. The teacher took up both jobs. The school got an A level maths teacher for two days a week. And the tech company got an ambassador in front of potential future employees.

Many schools and trusts have yet to put formal people strategies in place

Giving prospective new teachers a chance to ‘try before they buy’ is another creative approach. The United Learning trust teamed up with Teaching Personnel to create a Future Teachers programme to give new graduates a taste of the classroom before committing to a salaried teaching or TA apprenticeship. The scheme has already delivered improved retention rates for the trust.

Supply agencies can play a greater role in supporting schools out of their recruitment and retention challenges, but we need to transform the narrative – to see them less as emergency services and more as flexible workforce partners. Perceptions of agency educators must also change. It’s simply not the case that they can’t cut it in a permanent classroom role. Many are attracted to an agency because it allows them to pursue other projects alongside teaching.

Of course, none of these new approaches are going to have a meaningful impact unless they form part of a well-designed people strategy, owned by everyone in the organisation. It needs to be simple, clear, consistent and checked regularly to ensure it genuinely makes a difference in recruitment, retention, wellbeing and professional engagement and advancement. Worryingly, according to research by Strictly Education, it’s still the case that many schools and trusts have yet to put formal people strategies in place.

At nearly a million people strong, the education workforce has never been larger, and it continues to recruit incredibly motivated, talented people. But that is obviously not enough – the attrition rate is phenomenal and recruitment targets are being missed.

The government’s updated recruitment and retention strategy should be coming soon. We wait with bated breath, but in the meantime we need to start thinking differently about this challenge, working together to create imaginative and coherent responses that match its scale and complexity.

We have to work harder to understand and match the aspirations and expectations of serving and future cohorts so that i fewer leave for the wrong reasons and education remains a go-to career option.

If we can achieve that then there’ll be far fewer regretful online confessions about teaching careers that have ended far too soon.

Penny Swain will be addressing this year’s MATs Summit as a keynote speaker today

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  1. Sharon Brown

    I’m part of the same Facebook group. This article implies that many people leave teaching because of the lack of more accommodating working conditions, rather than having to cope with challenging behaviour with little resources or classroom support to cater for the ever expanding needs of children that are no longer being met by the outside agencies. Add to that the heavy workload demands of a curriculum no longer fit for purpose and a government keen to trash the profession and you end up where we are now. Teachers aren’t changing schools they’re leaving the profession entirely because the problems are the same across the board.

  2. Helen Park

    One of the reasons that schools are so toxic is the constant pressure to hit Ofsted targets. Inspection is quick to judge without considering the demographic of the pupils. This breeds a blame culture and an unreasonable expectation that every single person should be academic.
    SEN provision is woefully inadequate and teaching assistants are expected to carry the burden for low pay and very little appreciation.

  3. Christina F.

    One aspect most articles neglect…. many teachers are leaving their chosen profession because they are sick and tired of having to deal with rude, aggressive parents. Parents feel that it is their right to offend staff verbally or via email and unfortunately SLT usually sides with parents to keep them ‘happy’ – who cares how the teachers are feeling!?!