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‘Loss of self’ and the accountability culture: why teachers are leaving the profession at a worrying rate

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 8 April 2019

Jane Perryman

I used to be a teacher and, like so many others, I left the profession. Perhaps this is why I’m so interested in finding out more about the long-standing problem of teacher attrition. Why do so many qualified teachers continue to leave within five years, internationally and in the UK?

Today I am presenting data at the American Educational Research Association (AERA), from a survey of the past five years of UCL’s alumni database (around 3,500), which we have used to find out who had left the profession, who had stayed, and why. Of the participants, 18% had already left teaching, and from their responses, we predict a potential ten-year attrition rate of 40%.

For those who had left, the reasons given were to improve work/life balance (75%), workload (71%), and a target-driven culture (57%). The same reasons were given by those intending to leave. The data spoke to a discourse of disappointment. Participants found the reality of teaching worse than expected, and the nature of the workload, linked to notions of performativity and accountability, were a crucial factor in their decision to go. Within the data were many reports of stress and emotional upset caused by this culture, with 51% of leavers claiming ‘teaching is making me ill’. The surveyfound that teachers experienced excessive workload, not just in terms of long hours, but as a de-professionalising series of performative hoops. Many of the sample experienced a ‘loss of self’, causing physical and mental illness, and prompting some to leave the profession.

The focus of the survey was on why teachers had left or stayed, but I was struck by the many references to stress and loss of self as a reason for leaving. The teachers knew about the heavy workload and thought they could cope, but the reality was different. Workload was described as ‘incredible’, ‘unmanageable and unsustainable’, ‘insane’ ‘unrealistic’ and ‘extreme’. People claimed to work 11-hour days, 60-70 hours per week and spoke of ‘not having weekends or evenings free during term time to pursue personal interests’. They argued that the work was constant – ‘could never feel as if I’d finished for the day or week’, ‘always took work home with me’,’ could never switch off’. Many detailed their workload, for example: ‘I was up at 5am every day, commuting/in school until 5pm, then working at home until at least 10pm and working at least 4 hours each weekend day’.

Workload for the sample was very much linked with the hyper accountability culture in the schools. They complained about the amount of planning and marking – ‘the level of detailed planning and preparation and marking that was expected was simply not achievable’ as well as data, target and accountability pressures. One complained about the way that the accountability culture ‘just takes away from the purpose of my job which is helping all the children in my class’.

There was a theme in the data about the loss of self that came from this accountability and crying was another recurrent theme, as many respondents made reference to illness: ‘All in all, teaching made me seriously ill after just three years. So much so that they found me one morning crying in the cloakroom because I just couldn’t take it anymore’.

These findings amplify the problem of teacher attrition, as those who want to be teachers are committed to the profession and yet, somehow, that commitment is eroded.  The general response from government in the UK is that teaching will be improved by reducing workload, removing unnecessary tasks and increasing pay. The US Learning Policy Institute suggests better incentives and improved mentoring and induction.

These measures may help, but these findings imply that much of the problem lies within the culture of teaching: the constant scrutiny, the need to perform, and hyper-critical management. Reducing workload and improving pay will not address these cultural issues. Teachers need a reduction of unecessary performative tasks, and support in schools to help deal with the accountability culture and the stress it causes. A settled teacher workforce is crucial to the well-being of society, and it is hoped that this project will contribute to positively influencing policy and school-practice to improve retention.

The session is ‘Teacher Retention: Hyper-Accountability and the Emotions of Teaching in Educators and Emotional Labor: Coping With the Emotions of Teaching April 8, 8-10, Metro Toronto Convention Centre, 700 Level, Room 704.



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2 Responses to “‘Loss of self’ and the accountability culture: why teachers are leaving the profession at a worrying rate”

  • 1
    @TeacherToolkit wrote on 8 April 2019:

    Fascinating – thanks for sharing.

  • 2
    John Mountford wrote on 8 April 2019:

    This is a timely article. The evidence contained in your BJES paper Accountability, Performability and Retention, is of just the quality needed to stimulate a national discussion among parents and others in England and beyond about why teachers are leaving the profession in growing numbers. If this is to be tackled, knowledge of what is happening to cause this crisis is crucial.

    I am currently a supporter of a parent group in Bath and North East Somerset campaigning locally against cuts to education funding that have worsened dramatically since 2010. I am clear that the matter of cuts represent only the visible tip of a menacing iceberg that lurks, ready to scuttle our nation’s education service, just out of plain sight.

    The English education system is actually threatened by the GERM (Global Education Reform Movement). Since Pasi Sahlberg first coined the acronym to describe this movement as long ago as the 1980’s, it has become a seemingly unstoppable force, ravaging education systems across the globe.The tragedy is that most people, especially busy parents, are totally unaware that this is happening. How could they know, therefore, that the GERM exists solely to create a global education market.


    It is important to take every opportunity that presents itself to refute the claims made by supporters of the GERM, that the creation of such a market is good for the future education and the wellbeing of young people. Equally, it is vital for the future of our society that it is stopped. Your paper linked to this article has huge potential to contribute to this end.

    The issue of education reform has been widely reported nationally but, stubbornly, has remained ‘under the radar’ in terms of people grasping its significance for us all. In this instance, it isn’t appropriate to blame Brexit for what is happening. As much as the handling of that important issue has been rendered chaotic by politicians of ALL parties, the fact is, the subject of teacher recruitment and retention has been understood and managed by both Conservative and Labour governments dating back several decades with the collusion of the media. To this end, parents have been systematically uninformed and ill-informed about the seriousness of the worsening teacher recruitment crisis and its wider implications.

    Thank you for bringing such valuable evidence to light at this crucial time.