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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Looking at teacher recruitment and retention in a new light

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 27 June 2023

Female teacher with a white bob haircut leans against a primary school classroom desk. Credit: Hero Images / Adobe Stock

Credit: Hero Images / Adobe Stock

Gemma Moss and Becky Taylor.

The school workforce crisis

Making teaching an attractive career matters, most obviously to schools and their immediate communities, but also to those preparing the next generation of teachers, to researchers trying to throw light on where things have gone wrong, and with policymakers, looking for solutions.

Solving this problem is urgent. NFER’s 2023 Teacher Labour Market report shows just how much the teacher recruitment and retention challenge in England has intensified since the Covid-19 pandemic. Teacher vacancies posted by schools are up 93% compared to a similar point in 2019. The DfE’s recruitment targets for ITE are not being met. Staffing challenges are particularly acute in schools working with our most disadvantaged communities. All this has led the Commons Education Select Committee to launch its own inquiry into what can be done to improve the school workforce situation.

So pivotal and pressing is this issue that we have made it the first topic of our new debates series ‘What Matters in Education?’, run in collaboration with the ESRC Education Research Programme (ERP). ‘Teacher recruitment, retention and development – rethinking policy and practice priorities’ takes place on 3rd July 2023, with speakers from policy, research and practice backgrounds discussing the issues together. We hope you can join us online – we recommend booking your (free) place for the debate. We are keen to tap into aspects of the topic that have been less explored to date and test the current consensus on how they might best be resolved.

The existing evidence base

Our own recent review of the literature on teacher quality, recruitment, and retention for the Education Endowment Foundation highlighted some of the uncertainties in this area. We concluded that research on system-, school- and teacher-level factors that impact on retention and recruitment needs to expand its conceptual reach, while measures used to explore teacher quality also remain under-developed. For example, the comparatively large number of studies on financial incentives is driven in part by the fact that these are relatively easy to evaluate using administrative data. Some caution is therefore needed before deciding that this should be the policy tool of first resort. Study findings are anyway mixed, suggesting that while financial incentives may help recruitment in the short term, it is less clear if they do so for retention over the medium to longer term. Raising teachers’ pay overall sets in play other political questions.

Meanwhile, comparisons with other professions or the labour market in general may overlook what really motivates teachers to spend time with young people and put their interests first. Research looking at teachers’ professional experience in England compared to that in other countries signposts avenues for further investigation. Findings include that teacher job satisfaction in England is lower than the OECD average, while levels of stress are much higher. Teachers in England are also much less likely to report that they actively participate in the school decisions that shape their working lives. New analysis suggests that these multiple aspects of teachers’ working lives are linked. This slide, below, presented by Jack Worth at the recent Nuffield Foundation event on the teacher workforce, is certainly food for thought:

Chart showing the non-financial attractiveness of teaching as a career in England vs. a grouping of other OECD countries.

Worth, J. Addressing the Post-Pandemic Teacher Recruitment and Retention Challenges in England, June 2023.

Additional avenues for understanding teacher recruitment and retention

In our view, research needs to pivot to aspects of school culture that can’t easily be measured using administrative data alone and that survey questions may struggle to adequately explore (see, for instance, Ainsworth and Oldfield, 2019 and Sims and Jerrim, 2020). Two elements stand out for us: schools as communities, and the level of professional judgement that the task of teaching itself requires. How do these two elements interact to shape teachers’ day-to-day experience?

Primary schools in particular are an integral part of their local communities; many secondary schools are too. Yet we know little about how schools harness and share with their staff knowledge of the particular communities they serve. What priority do they give to building community resilience amongst staff as well as pupils? Teaching is a high intensity occupation, with numerous decisions to be made in the moment in the classroom (Creagh et al, 2023). To successfully navigate such a rapidly changing environment requires a considerable depth of professional knowledge. Yet how much weight is given to the knowledge teachers accrue at first hand about how to do this well?  It may be that the “one size fits all” standardized prescription of “best practice”, that dominates much policy thinking, exacerbates teacher stress precisely because it undervalues professional knowledge developed in situ.

Projects working as part of the ERP are tackling these issues, amongst many others, by adopting new lines of enquiry and working in partnership with professionals in innovative ways. Our panel debates will draw out that dialogue.

The Teacher recruitment, retention and development – rethinking policy and practice prioritiespanel discussion takes place on 3rd July 2023, 17:30-19:00.

Update: Watch the full panel discussion recording

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