Teacher retention – The profession needs a long-term recovery plan

Photo of female teacher being handed too many folders and too much paperwork

The reasons for teachers’ disquiet are no mystery – but government officials still seem reluctant to address them, observes Melissa Benn

Melissa Benn
by Melissa Benn

Over the past few years, I’ve been following the progress of several young people I know (children of my friends, friends of my children) who decided to enter teaching soon after graduating.

At the beginning, these young adults seemed enthused, even evangelical, about their chosen profession. It was tough, yes, but they loved their pupils, they relished being able to make a difference and, being keen and clever, were often given significant responsibilities and promoted speedily.

But things changed over time. Not every young teacher I know has decided to leave the profession, but about half of them have – mirroring, as it happens, the national figure of around 50% of teachers who abandon the job after five years.

When I asked them why, I’d get either a long, involved answer or a short, sharp response, both amounting to the same thing: ‘I just can’t hack it anymore.

Multiple causes

These are individual stories, yes, but it’s actually not that hard to identify the root causes of the teacher retention and recruitment problem. It’s just that there are so many causes, all of them interconnected.

Take the issue of teachers’ starting pay. The government has made much of bumping up teacher starting salaries to between £28,000 and £34,000 p/a (for those starting work in inner London).

You might think that doesn’t sound too bad for a starting salary. Yet what’s less widely known is that this early career boost – an obvious ploy to boost recruitment in the short term – has come at the expense of a similar uplift in salaries for more experienced teachers, thus exacerbating the ongoing retention issue and sowing resentment in the process.

At the same time, overall teachers’ pay has been reduced over what a recent joint statement from the education unions describes as ‘A decade of unjustified, unevidenced and damaging government attacks on pay.

Structural problems

And what of the perennial workload problem? I’ve sat opposite too many once enthusiastic young men and women with glassy, faintly guilty expressions as they’ve talked about the long hours, intense demands and lack of quality time with family and friends.

It seems you can’t draw on, and eventually drain the energy of the young and committed. The Teach First model seeks to recruit clever graduates who then go on to transform inner-city classrooms – which isn’t a bad idea in itself, but is no substitute for resolving the deeper structural problems of state education.

To that, we can add yet more issues to the mix – including poor initiatives, such as the recruitment of insufficiently qualified teachers and performance-related pay – and the many cuts we’ve seen to school funding both during and after the austerity years.

Many have also reported an increasingly oppressive atmosphere in schools that robs teachers of their freedoms to teach or even make key decisions. Dr James Mannion, director of the Rethinking Education consultancy, has called this ‘The operation of The Top-Down Monster.

Cumulative effect

Then there’s the unhealthy inequality in salaries, with some MAT leaders being paid close to half a million while qualified level 2 TAs bring home between 18k and 21k a year.

The cumulative effect of these long-term pay reductions and poorly-thought-out reforms can be seen in a worrying breakdown in trust between the profession and the government. For a demonstration, look no further than teachers’ recent willingness to go on strike.

It seems especially sad to me that teaching is no longer considered to be the respected, well-supported or stimulating graduate profession it once was. Instead, the story is fast becoming that of a beleaguered, over-controlled and underpaid workforce who feel unable and unwilling to meet unreasonable demands set by government and various agencies and semi-corporate arms.

In every country’s political history, there comes a time when serious alternatives to crumbling existing structures must be devised. As a general election gradually approaches, I look forward to learning more about the Opposition’s alternative proposals.

For now, at least, it’s clear that we urgently need a long-term support and recovery plan – not just in relation to teachers’ pay, but also to the notion of teacher autonomy, and the creation of a profession that can genuinely attract and retain the very best and brightest.

Melissa Benn (@Melissa_Benn) is a writer and campaigner, and visiting professor of education at York St John University

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