Training and Retaining Our Teachers

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley5 Comments

There is continuous talk about the looming crisis of teacher recruitment. It will likely prove the biggest obstacle to school improvement in the coming five years. Clearly, the quality of our education system will not develop if we cannot fill our classrooms with enough good teachers.

Recruitment is an issue, no doubt, but we also need an concurrent focus on retaining good teachers. Before the summer, Tom Bennett asked the pertinent question about what are we doing to engage existing teaching staff


There is no doubt that we need an emphasis on retaining our best teachers in the profession and helping them to get even better – what Dylan Wiliam termed the need to ‘love the one you’re with’.

Much is known about the relative development of teachers. Most of us start off in the midst of a struggle, before we settle down and go on to improve quickly. Of course, too many teachers don’t and they leave the profession in the first five years – citing factors such as excess workload, difficulties with student behaviour etc. Beyond the first five years, many teachers tend to plateau, whereas some teachers continue to improve and flourish. It is crucial that we get to the root of how teachers flourish and develop, as this will no doubt help us retain more teachers in our profession.

First, it is important to recognise the common sense notion that teachers invariably improve more when they are working in great schools. Harvard Professors, John Papay and Matthew Kraft, have researched this very subject – see ‘Can Professional Environments in Schools Promote Teacher Development? Explaining Heterogeneity in Returns to Teaching Experience’. A significant issue is raised here: if a school is tainted by a poor OFSTED judgement, who is going to want to work and train there?

The death spiral for a school can prove quick as teachers leave struggling schools for gentler climes. In terms of our schools, the teacher rich get richer and the teacher poor get poorer.

So what makes for great schools? One key factor is that, regardless of circumstance, they invest in their teachers and prioritise what they do. Once recruited, these schools ensure that there is ample  continuous professional development (CPD) time for their teachers and that it is woven into the fabric of the school week.

One of my favorite quotations, comes from Sir Tim Brighouse, who cites American researcher Professor Judith Little, in describing a great school:

“Teachers talk about teaching, teachers observe each other’s practice, teachers plan, organise and evaluate their work together rather than separately, and that teachers teach each other.”

Teachers teaching one another, well organised in CPD time, makes an impact. Most often it is the schools unfettered by the time-heavy compliance requirements of OFSTED that are free to best undertake the actions described by Tim Brighouse.

We do not exist in splendid isolation – we survive and thrive in teams. We can gain a collective confidence working together in such fashion. The gains are strongest with those less experienced teachers, who face the many inevitable travails of the novice in the classroom – see here. Clearly, to do any of this collaborative learning to gain real school improvement, time and the requisite resources are essential.

The evidence is that the teaching profession doesn’t pull in the crowds for the big bucks. Paying Physics teachers a fat bursary is a sticking-plaster measure. Instead, we need to ensure our profession draws upon the intrinsic motivation of working with a social purpose, but also working as a highly valued professional. Professionals are treated as such – they are given time, agency and autonomy, balanced with high quality training to improve. Young people leaving university, or those looking to change professions, want the guarantee of high quality training, amongst other things. This costs time and money and it requires structural supports.

There are promises and hopes on the horizon. We have an emerging network of schools and higher education institutions looking to support one another in making schools, and teachers, evidence informed – equipped with the professional tools to improve. Robert Hill, from the Institute of education, has written eloquently about the opportunities for school leaders in the next five years – with a series of wise recommendations – but his vision of a self-improving school system still requires significant deve looming and investment. Promise can prove all too easily squandered. When the pips of the school budget are made to squeak, high quality teacher training is often compromised and our hopes can be extinguished.

It is a question of values I think.  I have a simple belief that if we invest in teachers, and teaching, then we will, over time – beyond a singular electoral cycle – improve the lot of our young people, whilst create a vibrant country and a sustainable economy. We continually look to the East for exemplary school systems, with an obligatory head turn towards Finland, but we do little but tinker with improving the lot of teachers. We are at a crucial juncture whereat small improvements simply won’t cut it: transforming the experience of being a teaching professional is required.

The Department of Education is signaling a recognition that improving the quality of teacher CPD matters by commissioning a group to create a standard for CPD in our schools. I was invited to take part in the group. Please do take a look at our call for evidence on teacher CPD and have your say here.

If we have a shared high standard for training, twinned with well targeted investment in such training, then we have the hope of retaining our best teachers and better attracting more much needed new recruits.


  1. Hi Alex, thanks for this. As a 20something who wanted to be a teacher, but then saw how taking that title would put my happiness largely in the hands of a management team… I’ve gone and done my own thing. The beauty of now is that there are so many ways to teach without being stuck in a school with limited reach and on an income that’s fixed by someone else, no matter how much you do. Going independent isn’t easy, but there are allot of incredible people out there who are teaching and supporting others on this path if they want it. Students aren’t helpless without school teachers so I’m personally not panicking about a teacher shortage because it might mean more would-be teachers are setting up their own thing where they’ve energy to help more students more significantly than being full-time in a busy school. Think of what we currently have for youth clubs, organisations, tutors and sports coaches and expand that. Some teachers thrive in a school environment and that’s great, they’re already fine. For the rest of us, I’m no longer convinced that a new management strategy will help.

    1. Author

      I recognise there are lots of routes for fruitful independent work, but I do think there are a vast number of teachers who are in a school environment and not thriving or developing. We need to better train and retain with that in mind, whilst also recognizing that those thriving will only do so with specific support mechanisms in place. I commend your work, but I think a teacher shortage would prove massively detrimental to the quality of schools and that impact that would have for our children. No one singular management strategy will help, but better training is one sure step amongst many to improve teaching and teacher retention.

      1. Great to hear back from you Alex. I’m a big fan of multiple solutions and side doors 😀 One of my favourite things about this whole economic situation (side note: my dad was made redundant several times while I was in school/uni, so I’ve really searched for a positive) is that because no one can guarantee job security any more, there is a shift in thinking towards job satisfaction and conversations around this. Thanks for writing on this important topic.

  2. Great post, Alex.

    I agree that the best quality CPD is really important. I also think that school ethos/culture, ensuring teachers feel valued and are lifted and inspired (the balance of support and challenge I’m always banging on about), and developing leaders who are capable of seeing the best in and working to get the best from all those in their teams are crucial factors in the drive to develop the best teaching we can. Middle leaders are especially important here – they have a significant impact on the morale and the performance of those they lead, and so on the quality of teaching and learning. I hope we’re doing enough with respect to their leadership training, as well as with the CPD that’s directly related to classroom performance.

    The very best of luck in the working group.

    1. Author

      As usual, I completely agree with you! Talked today about culture setting & focusing on CPD being the central planks of school improvement.

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