How to tackle the college teacher retention crisis

In order to retain talented teachers in FE, the DfE must invest time, money and effort in middle-leader development, writes Nigel Keohane

Nigel Keohane

Outstanding college leadership: all staff are capable of it

This week, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) published research on the public sector workforce. Within it, was some disturbing news for the further education sector: one in five FE teachers leaves the profession each year and that the sector has the worst retention rate among higher-skilled professions.

This is at least in part a consequence of policymakers’ wider neglect of the further education sector, which has seen its budgets reduced severely. Colleges struggle to offer attractive salaries to staff and to compete with schools and industry. The retention crisis is also a direct challenge to the sustainability of the sector and its ability to retain and develop its next cadre of leaders.

Growing your own

First, we know that the most common route to develop leaders is from within the sector, with two-thirds of principals previously working as a teacher, trainer or lecturer in FE.

Second, past research has shown the importance of effective principals in driving improvements in teaching standards and student outcomes. Compared to studying in a college led by a low-performing leader, a successful leader can improve the likelihood of a student achieving a level 2 qualification by 16 percentage points and a level 3 by 14 percentage points.

This is the context for analysis being published today by the SMF identifying measures that would strengthen further education leadership. These fall into multiple categories, many of which speak to the retention challenge discussed above – whether that is supporting current principals, encouraging middle leaders to stay in the sector and develop their careers, and seeking talent from outside in an appropriate way.

Building a pipeline of talent

Unlike many sectors, FE does not have a graduate programme for bringing in and developing talent. Dual professionalism (the concept of teacher and occupational practitioner) makes this difficult, leaving a vacuum to be filled. Although individual institutions have an incentive to develop leaders for their own purposes, this motivation is weakened by the fact that individuals may move to different institutions and, therefore, colleges could lose the investment they made.

Schools experience a similar challenge, and it is worth then thinking about some of the policies adopted in that sector. One idea we put forward is establishing an independent staff college (similar to the National College for School Leadership) to promote the status of FE as well as to be responsible for system-level initiatives to retain and develop leadership talent in the sector.

More generally, the paper argues that the DfE should significantly increase investment in middle leader development, expand participation in the middle-leaders' programmes and reimburse colleges for the time taken off to train by middle leaders.

Supporting current leaders

Current principals need better support as well. There are already some impressive development programmes – what should sit alongside these are better-resourced networks for leaders. Such networks can enable dissemination of ideas and best practice in an era of rapid technological change and innovation. Just as important, they can act as sources of support for leaders when they confront challenges. Other groupings could also help – why couldn’t the sector convene a network of retiring principals to help the sector hang onto their experience and expertise as a resource for existing leaders? Could colleges establish better networks of development for public service leaders in their localities?

A further answer to the retention challenge is to source more leaders from outside. There has been a long-standing debate in the sector about whether this should happen. More useful would be to think about “how” and “when”.

Bringing in external talent

Our report argues that college governors could look to other sectors that share similar values to FE, such as local government, the military and the wider public sector for candidates. It should also be a norm for external candidates to go through a proper induction process which would last a minimum length (say a year) and be tailored to the needs of the individual and the college.

These steps alone won’t be enough. A deeper cultural shift is needed to improve the status of the sector and its resourcing. It feels like we may just be on the cusp of change. Further education has featured in pitches from many of the Conservative leadership candidates, as well as being highlighted in reviews by Augar and the Social Mobility Commission. We would also like to see a shift from a blame culture to a learning culture, where successes are praised, where accountability is firm and where the sector learns from failures that occur.

Nigel Keohane is research director at the Social Market Foundation

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