Secondary school class (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Too little too late on teacher retention
Yesterday saw the last minute publication of the government response to the inquiry into teacher recruitment and retention undertaken by the House of Commons education select committee earlier this year. The committee’s original report, published in February, highlighted a number of key issues, including that the increasingly complex range of routes into teaching training routes was acting as a barrier rather than a ladder of opportunity.
However, the main thrust of the committee’s recommendations centred round its finding that government should put in place a comprehensive long-term plan with a much greater concentration on teacher retention instead of focusing all its efforts trying to increase supply through initial teacher training. This strategy has clearly failed, as evidenced by a number of authoritative analyses showing that the number of teachers leaving the profession is growing. For example, the select committee’s report points to analysis by the National Audit Office (NAO) showing that between 2011 and 2014 the number of teachers leaving the profession rose by 11% overall. One suspects that if NAO repeated this analytical exercise for more recent years the retention picture would be even more depressing.
Many of the recommendations of the select committee to tackle teacher retention were welcomed by the teaching unions and many other organisations that have published survey evidence showing that declining job quality and excessive job pressures are urgent priorities. More specifically, the committee called on government to put in place measures to tackle excessive workload and to create a genuine entitlement to “high quality continuing professional development”. Needless to say the teaching unions have been making the case for substantive reforms in these two areas for years, including addressing root causes such as a school accountability regime that institutionalises excessive workload in our school system.
But the “elephant in the room” in this whole debate is the real-terms cut to teachers pay as a result of years of pay restraint and how the interplay between this and the increasing pressures on teaching staff is driving more and more people to leave the profession. On this key point the government’s response to the committee’s report is simply to reference a couple of statistical pay trends and to conclude that this shows that pay is not an issue for the majority of teachers. I very much doubt that this analysis and conclusion would be shared by the majority of young people entering the profession and those teachers that have seen their pay level eroded in recent years.
So while the response does include some positive proposals (e.g. relating to tackling excessive workload and supporting more flexible working patterns), the complete disregard of the impact of the real-terms decline in teachers’ salaries means that it completely ignores a large part of the jigsaw. Until the full picture is addressed, including how pay levels are impacting on people leaving the profession early, it is difficult to see any major reversal to teacher retention trends in the immediate future.