Just over a year ago, I resigned from my role as an assistant head in a secondary school to try something new as an educational researcher at LKMCo (three-and-a-half days a week) alongside a part-time role as a maths teacher at school (two days a week).
Is the Grass Greener Beyond Teaching? – the latest in a series of reports by Jack Worth and his team at NfER – tracks the thoughts and experiences of a sample of former teachers who have left the profession. As somebody who has partially left teaching, I read the report with interest.
The report argues that “teachers’ decisions about whether to leave the profession are not primarily motivated by pay differentials, but are strongly influenced by teachers wanting to change their working hours and improve job satisfaction”.
My own experience has been that my reduction in pay has been offset by a more flexible approach to work on my non-school days (I can now work two days a week from home). This has allowed me to have one morning a week where I take my children to school, but it has also provided space for me to follow personal projects such as writing a book.
Earlier this year I co-authored a report for Oceanova and LKMco entitled The Talent Challenge: the looming teacher recruitment crisis in England’s state schools and what to do about it. At that time, the percentage of teachers leaving, according to the School Workforce Census, was the highest it had been for five years in both primary and secondary. While researching the report, I remember thinking that it would be interesting to track those teachers who had left. The NFER’s report helps do exactly that by using the Understanding Society longitudinal survey and draws three key conclusions that every school leader and policymaker should pay close attention to:
1. Pay is not the solution to the teacher retention crisis
I was not alone in taking a pay cut to leave teaching. On average, teachers take a 10 per cent cut when leaving. This report suggests that the majority have still not returned to their previous level of pay within three years of leaving. Any attempt by the government or schools to improve retention that focuses solely on pay is therefore very likely to fail.
2. Secondary schools need to do better with flexible working
In the Talent Challenge, we outlined the fact that 23 per cent of secondary schools reported an unfilled vacancy or temporarily filled post. This is three times the rate of 6.9 per cent found in primary schools. The NFER’s report further highlights the striking divide between phases. The percentage of secondary school teachers who leave teaching and then work part-time increases by 20 percentage points, whereas the percentage remains roughly the same for primary school leavers.
Interpreting current school workforce data for England gives 26 per cent of primary teachers currently part-time, compared with 18 per cent of secondary teachers (by head count). This suggests that primary schools are doing a better job of accommodating part-time or flexible working requests. It is important to add here that these requests are not only from parents or those with caring responsibilities. I know of teachers who have wanted to work flexibly because of national/international sports commitments or because they wanted to grow their own business.
3. Increasing job satisfaction will help with teacher retention
Reported job satisfaction declined in the years leading up to the decision to leave teaching but increased after leaving. This is consistent with the findings from our 2015 report, Why Teach? The national survey of teachers that we conducted as part of our research found that 59 per cent of teachers had considered leaving teaching in the previous six months. Factors associated with increased job satisfaction, in the NfER’s research, included teacher autonomy, quality of management and feeling supported.
Autonomy is an area that school leaders can really have an impact on. As Dame Sue John, executive director of Challenge Partners, told us when we interviewed her for The Talent Challenge, leaders need to “establish non-negotiables for their particular set of circumstances. Beyond that you have to give people autonomy to develop their own lessons or teaching.” That’s why we thought it was important to look beyond schools to see what lessons we could learn for education.
The proportion of teachers who report that they are planning to leave teaching is often much higher than the proportion who actually do, and clearly people in all sectors consider leaving their jobs. Thought and action are not the same and it can be scary to leave a profession, especially as it may mean a drop in your material comforts. However, having large numbers of employees who want to leave but stay-put is not necessarily healthy.
Is the Grass Greener Beyond Teaching? gives an invaluable insight into departing teachers’ motivations, as well as their experiences once they have exited. As such, it has some valuable lessons for any school, system leaders or politicians looking to stem the tide of teachers turning their back on a profession they once loved.
Iesha Small is senior associate at youth think and action tank LKMco. She is also an educational researcher, teacher and writer. She tweets @ieshasmall