Teachers in England have the second-lowest levels of autonomy among the country's professions, a new study has found.
The only workers with lower levels of autonomy than state-sector teachers were state healthcare professionals. Both private doctors and private school teachers were found to have slightly higher levels of autonomy than their counterparts in the state sector.
The report, published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) today, is the first large-scale quantitative study exploring teacher autonomy.
The other professional categories teachers were compared to were business and statistical; librarians; research; ICT; engineering; lawyers; architects, town planners and surveyors; scientists; public service professionals; and health professionals.
The analysis was based on findings from 2018 UK Household Longitudinal Study and data from the NFER’s nationally representative Teacher Voice survey from 2019.
It found that giving teachers more autonomy was positively related to retention and job satisfaction, at a time when the profession faces severe staffing shortages.
The report also cites the 2013 Talis (Teaching and Learning International Survey) study, which found that, out of 34 participating countries, England’s secondary teachers were the least likely to agree that “this school provides staff with opportunities to actively participate in school decisions”.
However, Talis also described teachers in England’s secondary schools are characterised as having an above-average level of autonomy.
The report notes that the proportion of working-age teachers leaving the profession in England has risen from 5.8 per cent in 2011 to 8.3 per cent in 2018.
It finds teachers are 16 percentage points less likely to report having “a lot” of influence over how they do their job compared with other, similar professionals.
“The average teacher in England also reports a lower level of autonomy over what tasks they do, the order in which they carry out tasks, the pace at which they work and their working hours, compared to similar professionals,” the report says.
It also finds that time spent in the classroom does not increase levels of autonomy, with teachers who stayed in the profession after their first five years seeing no difference in their level of autonomy – only those who entered leadership roles reported higher levels of autonomy.
This is “in contrast to those in other professions, for whom autonomy increases between their 20s and 30s”, the report says.
The study found that 38 per cent of teachers reported having “a little” or “no” influence over their professional development goals.
While teachers reported having relatively high control over aspects of their job such as behaviour management, classroom layout, lesson planning and teaching methods, they reported low levels of autonomy over areas such as pupil data collection, assessment, and the curriculum of their subjects.
The report found that increasing teachers’ control over their professional development goals led to a nine percentage-point rise in their intention to remain in the profession.
It calls on the Department for Education to produce guidance over how teachers can be more directly involved in their professional development, as well as calling for the DfE to embed teacher autonomy into the Early Careers Framework.
“When rolled out, the framework should act as a ‘menu’ for early‑career teachers’ professional development, rather than a ‘prescription’,” the report said.
The report found that greater teacher autonomy was associated with lower job-related stress.
“Our analysis finds that autonomy is also strongly correlated with the proportion of classroom teachers intending to stay in the profession in the next 12 months. Only around half of those with the lowest autonomy are intending to stay in teaching in the short term, compared to more than 85 per cent of those with the highest autonomy,” the report says.
But while teachers in England with more autonomy were more likely to say their workload was “manageable”, all teachers were likely to work around 50 hours per week on average, regardless of their reported level of autonomy.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools are highly structured working environments because of the demands of timetables and consistency in the delivery of the curriculum, and this can create a tension with teacher autonomy.
“However, this report shows that giving teachers a greater say and more influence over their professional development may pay dividends in terms of improved job satisfaction and teacher retention.
“This would be a useful insight at any time, but it is particularly important now because schools are experiencing a severe shortage of teachers which is likely to become more acute over the next few years with a projected increase in the number of pupils in secondary education.”
Leora Cruddas, Confederation of School Trusts chief executive, said: "However, we are concerned about the use of the word ‘autonomy’ as a driver of teacher engagement.
"We believe it is better to think about ‘agency’ and ‘self-efficacy’ and understand how these relate to capacity and professional development.
"We would not expect a doctor to want autonomy if that was taken as meaning they could choose any course of treatment for their patients, regardless of medical guidelines and good evidence."
The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.