'Let's be honest about why so many teachers quit'

Only then will we be able to start to tackle the retention crisis facing the teaching profession, writes John Blake

John Blake

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Last week’s new data on teacher recruitment did not make pretty reading for anyone involved in education. A series of increasingly-pale bar charts revealed decreasingly popular subjects for new teachers: biology, PE and English were going strong, with at least as many recruits as places, while geography achieved only 85 per cent of its quota, maths 71 per cent and its sister physics only 47 per cent, while design and technology came in lowest of all with only 25 per cent of places filled.

Bad as this looks, it is worth bearing in mind that our recruitment issues are so acute in part because our school system is not keeping enough of the teachers it has trained already. The draining of teachers out of the profession over the half-decade from the end of their training onwards is creating gaps which new recruitment alone is struggling to plug: it has been suggested that were the retention levels of a decade ago still current today, there would be little to no systemic recruitment problems at all.

Thinking about it this way, it is clear that, whilst the job of work on recruiting new teachers must carry on, there is also serious work to be done on retention. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Now Teach, the charity founded by former FT journalist Lucy Kellaway to recruit and support experienced professionals who have decided to change career into teaching, was because it offered a chance to bring in new people and also learn more about how the whole system can keep the teachers in does train.

Many of Now Teach’s trainees hold degrees in precisely those subjects that the system is finding it difficult to get trainees for. This is not much of a surprise – I often think that one of the reasons history (the subject I hold QTS in) never has much trouble filling its training places is because, if you want to carry on working with your degree subject, teaching it in schools is one of the best and most rewarding ways forward. It takes nothing away from the subject to say that that isn’t true of every other discipline: there are lots more ways to be a physicist or a mathematician or a geographer in the wider job market (many of them, it must be said, more lucrative than teaching). But, like lots of people, Now Teach’s trainees’ thoughts have turned to teaching in later life and having recruitment specialists to guide them through the process and into a school where they can learn and thrive is a real boon.

Flexible working in teaching

But that thriving is not just accidental – Now Teach does not only have some excellent recruiters, we have also employed a programme team who provide both practical and emotional support for trainees whose past life experience, and therefore current trajectory through training, is not the norm.  

From that, we get a lot of honest feedback about what could be different in schools to help ensure our Now Teachers stay in the profession, and what we hear consistently from the 122 teachers (trainees and NQTs) – all with many years’ experience in other jobs – is that options like flexible working, part-time teaching and other approaches already commonplace in most other sectors and professions need to be made realistically available to teachers.

You don’t need to think for long to realise that, while Now Teachers might have a different perspective from their years in other professions, those aspirations are ones shared by a lot of teachers, whatever route they’ve taken to get into the classroom. Now Teach is currently engaging in work with the charity Timewise to understand and solve the challenges to flexible working in education because we want to help our own network and all those teachers who want to stay in the classroom, and need change in the wider system to help them do so.

Recruitment matters, but so does retention, and to solve that, we need honesty about what is causing teachers to leave and courage to change our schools so that those who’ve joined the profession can do the job they’ve dreamed of.

John Blake is director of policy and strategy for Now Teach, and was previously a teacher for 10 years


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