The Problem with Teacher Retention

So, 30% of teachers quit within five years. This news has been emblazoned across the BBC website and has been recycled across the news cycle this week. Sadly, alas, this ‘story’ is nothing new and it is a bleak tale that has beset the teaching profession for decades now.

Place this poor retention rate alongside issues of teacher recruitment, then add into the mix a steep rise in student numbers, and you are left with a significant problem for us all. It is newsworthy.


After nearly two decades of teacher retention issues, we should aim to root out the causes. The Education Policy Institute (see HERE) have clearly outlined just some of the reasons for poor teacher retention with these bleak statistics:

  • Teachers in England work on average 19% longer than teachers in OECD countries elsewhere. The reported average working week is near 50 hours (48.2).
  • Teacher ins England spend a mere 4 days on CPD annually compared to an average of 10.5 hours in other OECD countries. To compare, Shanghai spend nearly 40 hours on CPD annually!
  • England is ranked 30 out of 36 countries in average days spent on CPD.
  • Teachers in England have a starting pay that is 16% lower than the OECD average.

I could go on. New teachers earn less, train less and work for longer than equivalent teachers in other countries. Let’s not get started on issues with accountability and the like.

You could argue that the pay could be resolved by schools simply utilizing their ‘freedoms’ to raise the pay of their teachers. Well, when budgets are squeezed and 80% of the typical school budget is already spent on teacher wages, there isn’t much money left.

Can we train teachers better? Well, within reason – yes. We could meet the aspirational demands of the new DfE Teachers’ Professional Standards (I written about these here: ‘The New Teachers Professional Development Standard‘), finding teachers time within the working work, in a regular ‘rhythm‘, drawing on robust evidence and fostering collaboration.

With great CPD we can help nourish the ‘intellectual attractiveness‘ of being a teacher, new and old. Most new teachers, fresh out of university, want the intellectual challenge of understanding learning in all its labyrinthine complexity. Working endlessly to input data and marking everything that moves simply isn’t what teachers enter the classroom for and it doesn’t have the emotional or intellectual pull required.

Of course, it teachers find CPD time hard to come by, or they have too little time to plan collaboratively with colleagues, everything takes longer and is likely less effective. It is a vicious cycle. Time for new teachers to train well in the first five years of the profession may just save us a vital 10% of our teachers.

We cannot fix workload overnight – particularly for new teachers learning the ropes (it simply takes longer to plan, mark and more) – but we can mitigate our international increase in teacher workload.

We can better audit teacher time. We can reduce the number of data inputs. We can initiate common sense feedback policies that limited marking madness. We can make planning concise and collaborative, and more. When you list what the power in the hands of school leaders, you realise that we can do a great deal to help retain new teachers.

Increased teacher pay… well, we can dream can’t we? Now, whilst the ‘austerity’ narrative is still dominant when it comes to public services pay, if we don’t have equitable starting pay for teachers then we will be fighting a losing battle for both recruitment and retention. The expense of hemorrhaging new teachers will prove far more damaging.

People can fairly argue that teachers leaving the profession, or going to join the mushrooming number of British schools abroad, is a natural feature of the teaching profession just like any other profession. Perhaps so, but even small issues with teacher retention are made more acute when we need more teachers than ever with rising student numbers. 30% is simply unsustainable.

The solutions, like the problem, will no doubt prove complex, but they aren’t simply in the hands of our Secretary of State. We can start by making a difference in our schools.


Related reading:

You can read the transcript from the ‘Education Select Committee discussion of teacher supply‘.

Read the ‘TES Teacher Recruitment Index‘ document here which presents the data for existing recruitment issues with some potential solutions.



6 thoughts on “The Problem with Teacher Retention”

  1. A thoughtful post as ever. I suspect the % departure is actually much more marked in areas of higher challenge and where other well paid jobs are plentiful.
    Anecdotally, the teaching profession troubles me; known amongst my own adult children’s peer group as the only set of people guaranteed to whinge about their job at evening and weekend socials. As they write, ‘no-one actually enjoys working, it’s a job. It pays for other things we like to do.’
    In many ways, and on most days at work, I see teachers at work having the time of their lives, inspiring and being inspired and making a difference. What drags them down is the hard work needed after hours, paper work and reflection which in many ways shows them that all is not quite as well as they would like. But in my view, teachers sign-up for that asymmetry of hours, so that the considerable benefit of half-terms and holidays can be enjoyed. Teachers who benefit from this most are those with families; you should see the fear and loathing in the faces of non-teaching professionals working out how the heck they are going to get care covered when grandparents have decided to let them down!
    On CPD, my school reserves 12 days outside of school (171.5 contact days) plus a guarantee of at least 3 funded CPD days Your stats are not very helpful, as 4 days in UK is clearly more than 10.5 hours in OECD and similar to 40 hours in Shanghai. You won’t however be surprised that the one big issue within my organisation is why i demand so much reserved time for CPD, and it takes time for new staff to buy in to the collaborative nature of the most effective forms of CPD.
    Without such reserved time, my staff would not learn how to make use of cloud based tools for learning, how to create, construct, monitor and review our question based curriculum, use database tools for tracking, assessment and report writing and such like. In the end, teachers like pilots need to learn how to fail safe, using expert systems to ensure data , knowledge and information is logged, read and understood. We would not accept that pilots could fly by the seat of their pants, but there is more than a smidgen of professional arrogance within the profession that the individual knows best.

    1. Alex Quigley

      Thanks for the reply James. I recognise there is a lot to get under the bonnet with regarding CPD. My concern though is that database tools for tracking take up so much teacher time and a focus on pedagogy, subject knowledge and learning get lost, so that teachers seldom get a chance to improve and instead keep spinning on the hamster wheel. Poor CPD and a focus on accountability and data inputting has seen many teachers sceptical of CPD. We need to ensure it is of the requisite quality so that teachers are compelled beyond simply senior leader compulsion.

    1. Alex Quigley

      I think it is pretty stable for two decades. I think different stats bandied about – half has always been a high estimate, but I’ve heard that too. I’d have to locate the data first.

  2. Alex, I don’t agree that teachers can solve this problem. It is insoluble, given current assumptions, systemic, chronic – ever since the introduction of the comprehensive education. And I think it will continue so long as we rely on a decentralised model of teacher-as-craftsman, depending on his or her intuition and private experience. Until, that is, we systematize our pedagogy, which will start by declaring our objectives explicitly. And that will need a systematic response that needs to start at the Secretary of State. See my Crispin.

  3. Izbela Saeed-Ali

    I think the government is concentrating more on recruiting more teachers, whilst trained teachers are being lost due to the five year limit on supply teaching! There are many teachers working as Teaching assistants or HLTAs through agencies as they were unable to gain a job within the first five years of their career. These teachers are not allowed to teach in mainstream schools despite being qualified as they have not managed to complete their induction. These five years do not even allow you to go off on maternity leave as the time is still ticking. They are given no support in returning. In some cases they have to pay to do a return to teach course. They have the recent and relevant experience and still can’t do supply teaching as the rule is very rigid. What has the government done for these individuals who poured years of their lives into training and working? CPD is important but there should be opportunities given after the five year time limit. Not leaving these talented individuals to work at a lower level.

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