The great escape

21st January 2000 at 00:00
Jaded teachers are looking for a way out. So where can they go? And, perhaps more importantly, how can they be persuaded to stay? Jon Slater reports.

THE disaffected still haunt our schools. Fed up with the education system and disillusioned with authority, their work declines and their disruptive influence starts to affect their friends. It is obviously best that they leave. But where to? The only job they've ever known is teaching.

For teachers who want out, the labour market can be bewildering. The world of work has changed dramatically in the past two decades. The job for life has all but disappeared. Adaptability, flexibility and their flip-side - insecurity - are part and parcel of modern working life.

But large numbers are still taking the plunge. In 1998, over 3,000 teachers in England and Wales left the profession for other employment - half of them for work outside education. In 1993 the figure was just 2,000.

There are now as many people leaving education for other work as there are retiring at normal age or leaving to start a family.

New research by David Thomson at the University of North London, funded by the Teacher Training Agency, looks at 458 teachers leaving their jobs in six London boroughs.

The Teacher Supply and Retention in London Project found that about 15 per cent of all teachers who leave their posts find jobs outside teaching (the others move to other schools or leave the labour market). Many did not stray far from the classroom. Seven in 10 stayed in education, working for inspection and advisory services, as college lecturers or educational psychologists.

But for the really disaffected, nothing but a clean break from education will do. Some of these will have obvious alternative careers open to them. Many information and communications technology teachers, for instance, find it relatively easy to get a job in the computer industry. However, for humanities or arts teachers the road ahead is less clear.

Christa Echtle, operations director for Reed Employment Services, a recruitment consultancy, warns that teachers should think hard before they quit. Those who leave may miss the contact with children or find the private-sector ethos hard to stomach.

"The initial thought, 'I want to get out', may not be the right thing to do. A change of school may be a better idea," she said. "It is very much a matter of personality and the person's mindset. The real problem is how readily individuals are prepared to compromise in terms of culture and expectations."

But that does not mean that leavers have no options.

"In our sample are teachers who are becoming television programme-planners, civil servants, van-drivers, gallery attendants, recruitment consultants, even politicians. They are working in building, publishing, nursing, pubs, public relations and the travel industry," the University of North London report says.

"Teachers therefore have a wide range of skills which can be used in a wide variety of industries. Many teachers lament the amount of paperwork they have to complete as part of their job. Yet in many ways, this can help them to develo strong managerial and administrative skills."

Really ambitious teachers might like to consider leaving for a career in Parliament.

More Labour MPs are from the teaching profession than any other. After all the holidays are longer and instead of taking marking home you could take constituency case work. If you do well, like ex-teacher Estelle Morris, who is now Minister for School Standards, you could find yourself in a position to do something about the reasons you quit school in the first place.

But whatever their choice, ex-teachers have found a change of career can reap dividends.

The London project found that over half those leaving teaching cited flexible working hours as an advantage of their new job. And almost two-thirds have more scope for initiative and creativity.

As the report puts it, "For these people being able to use one's initiative, scope for creativity and flexible working hours are key advantages of other occupations over teaching.

"In other words, teaching as a profession is not sufficiently stimulating or creative - and teachers leaving to find alternative employment are doing so to find such challenges irrespective of pay, and to free themselves from stress, paperwork, long hours and perceived loss of autonomy.

"Indeed, it was particularly common for those leaving education to state that they were taking a pay cut in order to recover their social or family life."

Equally worrying for ministers, about half those leaving education are under 40. With the teaching force already ageing and recruitment levels remaining stubbornly low, ministers are well aware of the need to attract new people to teaching.

But golden hellos, Oscars and the "no one forgets a good teacher" campaign have so far had a limited effect. If the Government wants to make teaching attractive to the next generation of graduates and school-leavers it may have to take a fresh approach.

Joe Hallgarten, researcher at the left-leaning Institute of Public Policy Research and himself a former primary teacher, argues that teaching needs to be sold with an exit strategy.

"Graduates select jobs with buil-in marketability - those that are attractive to other employers as and when they choose a career change," he said.

"The route map for teaching is viewed as a cul-de-sac. Teaching urgently needs to be given CV-credibility, a recognition that the organisational and communication skills which teachers use daily are highly transferable to other professions."

He argues that a more fluid profession, with greater numbers of people spending just a few years as teachers, is the key to solving the current recruitment crisis.

It would mean a big change in the ethos of schools. But most of today's young people will have a number of different careers throughout their life. The question is, with growing numbers of the profession looking for a way out, why should those entering teaching be any different?

The report of the Teacher Supply and Retention in London Project will be published next month. For details, contact Dave Thomson, University of North London on 020 7753 3297

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