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Gone and never coming back?

What happens to teachers who leave the profession? Micheal Heafford and Brenda Jennison found out what it would take to get them back

The widespread belief that the teacher-recruitment crisis could be solved if former teachers could be enticed back into the profession rests on rather shaky foundations. The so-called Pool of Inactive Teachers (the PIT) may be much less well-stocked than one might imagine.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge school of education examined the whereabouts of 165 former post graduate certificate in education (PGCE) students 16 years after they qualified in 1978. They found that only 45 per cent of the group had remained in teaching throughout the period. However, a further 30 per cent had followed a career which combined teaching with other education-related posts.

The remaining 25 per cent were divided roughly into two equal groups: those who had started in teaching but subsequently left education, and those who did not enter teaching after completing their PGCE. As the evidence indicated that only a tiny proportion of those in both categories returned to the classroom, the researchers focused on these groups.

The majority had made a deliberate decision to seek a career outside teaching. They indicated that it would require a fundamental change in their new career (eg redundancy) and in the teaching profession for them to consider returning.

For many, feelings of unhappiness and lack of success in teaching had contributed to their decision to leave. It is therefore doubtful whether there would be a good return on time and money spent seeking to persuade any of them back into teaching. The research did, however, provide pointers to possible ways of retaining teachers. Schoolteacher respondents were asked to indicate the factors which most contributed to or detracted from their enjoyment of their job. In the first category, the five most commonly-mentioned factors were, in order of popularity: "working with pupils in the classroom", "use of subject knowledge", "teaching able pupils", "working on the pastoral side" and "participating in out-of-school activities".

More revealing are the five factors that detracted the most. These were, "the administrative aspects of the job", "teaching load", "provision of resources", "status", and "physical working conditions".

Lessening the impact of these factors would no doubt involve some expense, but would lead to more effective lessons delivered by more confident, contented teachers. Interestingly, teachers did not regard an increase in their salaries as a top priority.

Another area examined was movement by trainees within the UK. If it could be shown that teacher-training establishments either attracted many local recruits andor played an important part in supplying local schools with teachers, a strong case could be made for distributing such institutions evenly over the country.

The researchers found that the Cambridge school of education selected its trainees from a very wide area with only a small local intake - less than 12 per cent came from within a 40-mile radius and more than 15 per cent from beyond a 150-mile radius. On completing the PGCE, just over 20 per cent of those entering teaching took a post within the 40-mile radius.

Our findings are, of course, based on one group of PGCE students from one institution. Whereas there are no obvious reasons to suppose that this cohort was very different from that emerging from other departments at that time, further studies would undoubtedly throw additional light on these issues.

In particular, it would be interesting to compare the experiences of Cambridge PGCE graduates with those of a large city department of education which might recruit a much higher proportion of mature and local trainees.

Similarly, more information is needed on the way that teachers' careers develop between their 15th and 30th year of service and on how they perceive this development. After all, the premature loss to the profession of an experienced teacher is much more serious than that of a young trainee who decides he has chosen the wrong career.

In view of the importance of such information to the recruitment and maintenance of a high-quality teaching profession, one must ask why such studies into career patterns are not more vigorously promoted and supported.

Michael Heafford and Brenda Jennison are lecturers at the School of Education, University of Cambridge. A fuller version of the research can be found in the "Journal of Education for Teaching," Vol. 24, No. 2, June 1998, pp. 147-164).

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