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Should I Stay or Should I Go? – The push and pull factors affecting teacher recruitment

  • Should I Stay or Should I Go? – The push and pull factors affecting teacher recruitment

Teachers are joining and leaving in record numbers, so what’s drawing people in and what’s driving them away, asks Lloyd Burgess…

Can’t sleep, no social life, but still love ‘teaching’; it’s the rest of it that’s unbearable.

Sound familiar? The government is keen to tell us that record numbers of new teachers are joining the profession, and, of course, there are more ways in than ever before. But more teachers are leaving too, creating a deficit. While we’re seemingly doing a decent job of recruiting young, enthusiastic educators, many are leaving within the first few years. What are we telling them that creates such disillusionment in teaching. Or perhaps, what aren’t we telling them?

The current issues around the profession are certainly well-documented, but people still want to teach regardless. Phrases like ‘In it for outcome, not the income’ are often used to point out that giving children a good education is the driving factor, and the hashtag #whyiteach is similarly littered with the usual reasons such as ‘to give children the education they deserve’, ‘to make a difference’ and ‘for those lightbulb moments when a child finally ‘gets’ it’.

Why I teach

A recent report from Pearson and LKMco looked into how we can encourage people to join and stay in the teaching profession. The most common reasons given for going into teaching was that people believed they would be good at it (93% said it was an important factor), and that they wanted to make a difference in pupils’ lives (both had 93% of people say they were a factor). Making a difference to society and working with young people came in at 87% and 86% respectively.

This was certainly the case with the new teachers we spoke to who were heading into their first year this September. Andrew Campbell, 25, studied Geography at Oxford, before teaching English as a foreign language in four different countries, then this year starting teaching in Baddow Primary School near Middlesbrough. “I’m hopeful that I can make a real difference, but I know it’s going to be a huge challenge,” he says. “With friends in the profession, I’ve heard a lot of horror stories. When I mention that I’m going to be a primary teacher I often get that look of, ‘Are you sure?’. I think that maybe a lot of people see the primary teacher as a motherly figure, which for men could make some a bit reluctant. But, obviously male primary teachers can make a difference, and can also be a lot of fun for the kids.”

Gabrielle Ko had a similar route into the profession, heading out to Thailand to teach, before starting at West Newcastle Academy this year. “My degree was in maths and economics, but I knew that I didn’t want to work in the banking or finance industry where a lot of my friends went,” she says. “I tried out lots of different jobs. I worked at a defence company for a while, and did an internship with the school service, and I was even a Christmas elf. That was what made me realise that I really enjoy working with children.”

West Newcastle Academy opened in 2013, with a teaching style modelled on Reggio Emilia and Danish pre-schools. “It’s a really progressive school, and I’m really into new ideas,” says Gabrielle. “I come from quite a disadvantaged background, so it spoke to me that I’d be helping children who were in that position. There’s always talk about this recruitment crisis, but I think that places like Teach First are one of the ways you recruit more. It’s doing a really good job of attracting graduates who might otherwise not have gone into teaching.”

Job-changer Hannah Lister, 26, who now teaches at the Northumberland Church of England Academy in Ashington, made the switch from the political sector, having worked as a campaign organiser for the Labour Party in Scotland. “I started teaching piano in the evenings, and decided I absolutely loved it,” she says. “With politics, everybody goes in thinking they can change the world, but sadly that doesn’t happen. But I think with teaching you feel on a day-to-day basis that you can help, that you can make a difference.

“When you hear that a lot of people don’t stick to the job, and you’re coming from a stable, permanent position, that can be off-putting. The financial help and support isn’t there for career changers. I applied for PGCE and a PGDE in Scotland, but that route is quite impractical because you’d have to go back to university and, you know, I’ve got a mortgage to pay. So I went the Teach First route, which is really good for career changers in terms of support. It’s salaried job, but it is unqualified teacher pay for the first year.”

Why I quit

But it seems that there is a limit as to how far you can push these good intentions that draw people to teaching. More than half (59%) of respondents to the aforementioned Why Teach survey said they had considered leaving in the past six months. Workload is the main reason for this, with 76% of teachers citing it as a reason, while lack of quality in leadership and management and insufficient pay were next on the list, each with 43% of teachers highlighting them as important factors.

Peter Keeffe, a former teacher of 30 years, and head of teacher education at South Leicestershire College, has seen many young teachers hit this wall of disillusionment. “I left because I was fed up with it, particularly the managerialism and increasing surveillance,” he says. “It kills innovation and demotivates people who are being constantly surveyed and critiqued. Managers are under increasing stress and pressure because they’re target driven, and then it becomes a kick-the-cat-down-the-line process for younger teachers. New teachers are ultimately given a paint-by-numbers approach that precludes innovation, that precludes joy, that precludes individuality. And that, this increasing dead hand of standardisation, drives people away from the profession.

“With the best will in the world, these young teachers are so keen, and they put more and more in, and then burn out too quickly. The adverts they put on the TV paint such a rosy picture, but it has no reflection of the realities of teaching whatsoever, and the people who get sucked in by that are soon disillusioned by the harsh reality of the profession.”

Jess Ratcliff had been teaching for 11 years when he left the profession in 2014. “My heart wasn’t in it any more,” he says. “I was bored with the relentless grind of exams, tests, parents evenings. There wasn’t time to think, or to plan. And the thing that I actually enjoyed doing, the teaching, was always the first thing that got pushed to the sidelines. Teaching had taken over and I had a young family with whom I wanted to spend time. When I did have time off I was just shattered. I didn’t realise actually how stressed I was until I left teaching.”

Jess explains that the constant attacks by politicians made him feel that teachers weren’t valued any more, and that they were expected to give themselves totally to the job for very little reward. “I know that many new teachers coming in want to give and give and give, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. If I have the option between you at 100% for three months, or you at 60% for a year, there’s no contest. It’d be you at 60% for a year.

“I’m, in essence, an adult educator now. I’m less stressed, and within a couple of months there were noticeable changes in my behaviour, mood and my energy levels. And I actually feel trusted to do my job, people listen to my opinions and I’m not micromanaged. But the the biggest change is I believe in what I’m doing. I believe I’m making a difference, whereas as a teacher, I just didn’t feel like that any more.”

What can be done?

The government has at least spoken about its desire to address these issues, but any action taken is still very much in its infant stages. The government has released a new TV recruitment advert, but that has come under scrutiny for being misleading. Teachers took to Twitter to question the figures shown, particularly the claim that you can get earn “up to £65k as a great teacher”. While technically true, it has since emerged that this is a salary earned by only a very small minority.

Others pointed to the fact that the advert largely ignored primary teaching, and didn’t address workload issues at all. The £30,000 bursary that it boasts of applies only to physics teachers with a 1st or PhD, with primary teaching bursaries at the bottom of the list at £3,000, cut from £9,000 last year. Teachers may not be in it for the income, but they still need to be able to live.

“Housing costs, particularly in the south and south east, are a real problem,” says NUT Executive Member and teacher, Jerry Glazier. “In many parts of the country they are so high that it just mitigates against new teachers remaining in the profession, and with pressure to reduce costs from central government, pay increases become more difficult.”

Julie McCullogh, Primary Leadership Specialist for ASCL, is hopeful that some of the schemes put in place will have an effect, such as the government’s recently announced incentives to get exceptional teachers into coastal schools.

“I think there is some really good work being done,” she says. “The report on assessment without levels [PDF], the new workload groups set up by the DfE, Ofsted’s inspection reforms; it’s all a step in the right direction. They’re new, so we haven’t seen what they’ve come back with yet, but it’s good that those groups exist.

“One thing we would like to see, though, is a slim, smart and stable accountability system. But most of all, trusting and empowering the profession is key. We need teachers to feel that they’re being treated as professionals and that they’re empowered to teach in a way they find works best. That makes a huge difference in terms of attracting and retaining teachers.”

“At the moment there’s a great deal of cynicism that the government doesn’t have any desire to deal with the real structural issues which are making the profession so difficult to stay in,” adds Jerry Glazier. “Teachers need to be freed up to do their jobs in a professional way, they need to be trusted and they need to be valued.”

Lessons learned

The NUT’s Attractiveness of Teaching survey provided many personal stories and comments that give an insight into how teachers feel under current circumstances. Here are a few that might sound familiar…
• “Friends and family are proud of what I have achieved but they have suggested that I look at other career options to ensure I am happy and am paid for the hours I do.”

• “Enjoy the work and the challenge, but shocked at how many hours I work at weekend and on my two ‘days off’.”

• “I’m in my final year of my four-year degree and massively regret making the move due to high pressure and lack of time with my family. I have given myself the target of getting through NQT year but if things are still the same I’m not going beyond that. I really hope things change because I do enjoy the teaching.”

• “The expectation and pressure is unrelenting, and you have never finished. Although there are wonderful light bulb moments, there are not usually enough of these to wipe out the downsides. At the start of my second term as a NQT I am exhausted and starting to be demoralised.”

• “My peers and I are often told to be prepared to be disappointed, stressed and to quit. There is very little positivity in the profession at the moment. Teachers feel undermined and unappreciated.”

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