Turning around teaching: how to boost recruitment and retention
University of Sussex research reveals how low-cost interventions can make the teaching profession more appealing – with huge implications for children’s life chances.
The teaching profession is in crisis: one-fifth of teachers leave within their first two years and the number of vacancies increased by 40% between November 2021 and 2022. Using audio diaries and interviews with primary school staff, researchers from the University of Sussex explored the experiences behind these figures.
Staff described overwhelming levels of responsibility, exacerbated by the pandemic, and important issues of trust between schools and government. Teachers explained how their roles went far beyond teaching – encompassing safeguarding and care of vulnerable children. Headteachers in particular felt enormous levels of responsibility and a lack of structural support for their role. “If people knew how much we’ve been flying by the seats of our pants, they would be worried,” one head said. “We’re that close to not being able to keep kids safe.”
The expanded responsibilities taken on during the pandemic have not decreased, as teaching staff have faced further crises related to funding in schools.
Many staff felt the government did not respect or trust teachers – as evidenced, for example, by a lack of timely guidance and inadequate PPE. This attitude was reinforced through the media and by leaked WhatsApp messages from ministers in March 2023. One teacher said they felt “vilified” while doing “two jobs at once”.
One headteacher described how demands from Ofsted are pushing already overburdened staff to the edge. “This expectation that we are, literally, at the government’s beck and call every minute of every single day just keeps hanging over us. In the early days of the pandemic, nobody minded, we wanted to keep our community safe. But to still, nearly two years on, be expected to work at this pace, I think it’s literally killing people.”
“When a teacher leaves a school, the problem isn’t just one of recruitment,” explains Dr Dinah Rajak, the project’s lead researcher. “There’s a huge impact on the children. This is a particular issue in disadvantaged areas, which face even higher teacher turnover and have more problems attracting teachers. If we can keep teachers in the workforce, we can enable more children to reach their potential and contribute positively to society."
Dr Rajak and colleagues Dr Sarah-Jane Phelan and Dr Jenny Hewitt have three key recommendations for government:
- Establish paid peer support, led by experienced teachers, to allow teaching staff to discuss difficulties and process feelings of overwhelm.
- Build trust by sending a clear message of support for teachers’ work during the pandemic, backed with a commitment to understanding the structural factors that have made teaching so difficult.
- Investigate the scope and intensity of primary school teachers’ roles, with the aim of making teaching an attractive and sustainable livelihood option, and reforming the external assessment process.
The researchers have also produced a toolkit of resources and strategies to help primary schools manage the effects of the pandemic and the current crises in recruitment and retention.
Dr Rajak’s work is supported by Policy@Sussex, which connects University of Sussex researchers with policymakers. To find out more, contact firstname.lastname@example.org, follow @Policy_Sussex on Twitter or visit www.sussex.ac.uk/research/about/policy-at-sussex
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