Train long, plan smart, teach less, teach deep – tackling teacher recruitment and retention

The problems and pressures of recruiting teachers have been well rehearsed. If anyone was in doubt about the scale or reality of the challenge the recent report by the National Audit Office should torpedo any complacency[1]. The government has missed its recruitment targets for four years in a row – though there are some signs that this year’s numbers may be more encouraging. However, fewer secondary classes are taught by teachers with a relevant post-A level. In addition the proportion of qualified teachers is down and teacher vacancies have doubled – from 0.5% to 1.2%.

As worrying are the statistics on teacher wastage:

  •  around 10% of teachers leave teaching each year (higher for secondary than primary) – and the rate rose between 2011 and 2014;
  •  the proportion leaving for reasons other than retirement rose from 64% to 75%;
  •  an estimated 100,00 teachers trained in the UK are working in the international sector, says Ofsted chief Inspector, Michael Wilshaw[2];
  •  Over a quarter (28%) of newly qualified teachers leave teaching within five years – and if all those who started teacher training are included the figure rises to around 55%[3]; and
  •  since 2000 more than 55,000 teachers have never taught after finishing their training – and the rate of non entry is rising[4].

These headline numbers reveal the scope of the problem but they don’t tell us the cause. Of course, teachers’ pay is lagging behind the private sector and is becoming less competitive but that is far from the full story. There is a deeper malaise affecting the teaching profession. I would suggest we are contending with the following factors:

  • a fragmented initial teacher training (ITT) system. The forecasting model is clunky. There is a lack of clarity for potential applicants surrounding the diverse routes into ITT and the multiple funding options. Universities and schools are competing when they should be collaborating. We are shoehorning into a single year’s training both pedagogical and subject knowledge as well as classroom skills and practice. Not surprisingly trainees’ fitness to teach at the end of the year is variable.
  • pupil behavior – just because the teacher unions argue this point does not make it invalid. Surveys consistently show that low-level pupil disruption saps teacher morale.
  •  workload – many jobs are demanding and many professionals work long hours. So in that sense teachers are no different from many of their peers. So we need to beware of special pleading. However, the combination of preparation, assessment and extra curricular activity alongside the intensity of engaging with young people in the classroom for five or six hours a day is undoubtedly demanding – though arguably no more so than a junior doctor or social worker dealing with child protection issues. However, I suspect that what tips the workload factor into being a burden is the relentless treadmill of constant change coupled with an accountability system that continues to raise the stakes. The recent example of the late changes to the assessment of writing at Key Stage 2 is a classic example. Too much of the change feels like teachers and schools are being ‘done to’, with too little space for ‘bottom up’ innovation and reform.
  • teachers in England get less time for professional development, networking and group or individual research than elsewhere[5]. A feature of those education systems that are performing strongly is the time they give to their teachers to develop their knowledge, prepare their lessons and improve their practice.
  • the introduction of the EBacc is arguably leading to some subjects being sidelined or seen as second tier and this may be affecting applications for subjects such as geography, music, business studies; and
  • there no unifying sense of what it means to be a teaching professional – while we should never go back to the days when education was a secret garden and teachers kept their doors closed to other practitioners we need to develop a sense of teachers having a collective autonomy over their own practice. This was meant to be the mission of the College of Teaching but progress on that front seems very slow.

So what we should do about this situation. Here are four big reforms we might consider.

Reshape the way we recruit teachers. We need to end the artificial distinction between university and school based teacher training and streamline the routes into teaching and the means of financial support. There should be a rolling allocation of places based on a combination of national modeling and sub-regional analysis. Universities and schools should build on the existing sub-regional networks to jointly recruit and select ITT trainees, deliver the training and assess trainees’ progress. All schools should be part of such a network (even if they are not directly involved in delivering the ITT package)

Remodel how we train teachers. There are two dimensions to this. First, as the graphic below summarises, a core curriculum for trainee teachers should embrace key 21st century competences. These include building and teaching subject knowledge, understanding the principles of great pedagogy, knowledge of child and brain development at different ages, effective assessment and classroom practice, developing independent learners and research and learning impact skills.

Revised system for training teachersRemodelled ITT

The second linked reform is to move away from trying to cram all this content into one year and instead conceive of acquiring qualified teacher status over three years. Throughout that time trainees would mix classroom practice with theoretical learning and research. They would continue to have placements across the sub region (so building their experience of teaching in different contexts) but after the first year they would, subject to satisfactory progress, have a licence to teach and be paid a starting salary (at the current level). The revised three-year training programme would account for a substantial proportion of credits for a Masters. Trainees could, if they wished, acquire a full Masters, by writing a thesis either during their training or after acquiring the revised Newly Qualified Status at the end of the third year.

Redesign the way that teachers work in schools. We know the huge difference that good teaching can make to the progress of pupils – particularly those from a disadvantaged background. And we know that within many schools there are big variations in the quality of teaching. That surely points to making teaching much more of a collaborative practice both within and between schools– as Michael Fullan has written: “Good collaboration reduces bad variation”[6]. So we should be making:

  •  joint curriculum and lesson planning the norm;
  •  coaching an everyday experience for teachers and leaders;
  •  knowledge-building and sharing a habit;
  • more time for collaborative inquiry-led learning to create new knowledge;
  •  pupil voice, self-evaluation and peer review the go-to tools for assessing and reflecting on teaching and learning practice; and
  • teachers and staff confident participants in randomised control trials and skilled users of effect size data in order to evaluate the impact of teaching and learning interventions.

If school leaders take this approach seriously it will result in teachers spending more time out of the classroom. Many schools will see this as impractical at the best of times and completely barmy at a time of budget cuts. But if the evidence from other education jurisdictions is that giving teachers more time to prepare, learn and evaluate is what makes for a more effective outcome then we would be crazy not to reconfigure how we organise schools in order to achieve this. Some approaches that would help to generate more time for teacher learning, research and reflection include:

  •  using the practice of marginal gains (borrowed from sports and business management) to reduce the time teachers spend on administrative issues;
  • reviewing homework and assessment polices with a view to improving feedback to students while reducing time spent marking;
  •  adopting smart timetabling, including more intensive teaching for four days;
  •  practising online teacher-to-teacher collaboration across schools as a way of sharing lesson plans, classroom practice (by posting video clips), feedback on interventions and peer review;
  • introducing reading clubs for groups of teachers as a way of generating ideas and discussion about pedagogy and improved classroom practice;
  • holding common insets days across schools and hosting teach-meet style sessions;
  • combining sets and/or classes for some lessons to make the best of a particular teacher’s expertise and free up a colleague either to observe or have time on other learning tasks; and
  • training support staff to oversee in a disciplined and effective way students’ individual and group learning time.

It may be not easy to achieve this cultural shift. But to those who say that it is cloud cuckoo land for teachers to have up to a day a week for planning, coaching, learning and inquiry-led research, I would remind them that we had similar objections when the 10% PPA entitlement was first agreed. Redesigning the teaching week is possible.

Rethink how we lead teaching and learning. There are three important principles here. First, the career options and pathways towards being a subject or curriculum specialist, expert classroom practitioner, pastoral leader or school leader should be clearly set out. Below is a chart that adapts an idea that the Education Select Committee first proposed in 2012. Whether it is this model or a variant of it, teachers embarking on their career should aspire to be expert professionals and they should understand the different options for becoming involved in leading teaching and learning.

Routes in to teaching leadership

Second, we need to develop a greater focus on what, in the United States, is called instructional leadership. The graphic below shows what that looks like for leaders of schools in different contexts – i.e. those leading learning in an individual school, those leading learning across school groups and those leading learning across a local authority, sub-region or region.

Leading learning in different contexts

Different roles of teaching leadershipSource: Graphic adapted from an idea developed by Joanne Quinn, Three keys to maximising impact, 2015

Third, we need to put resources into facilitating teaching and learning between teachers to enable them to work together across schools. Coaching and modeling and inquiry-led learning won’t develop in a systematic way between schools unless it is orchestrated. As more schools become part of multi-academy trusts, teaching school alliances, federations and other school partnership groups there is a great opportunity to reprioritise instructional to support inquiry-led learning and empower teachers to be the professional learners they should be.

 Facilitating teaching and learning across school groups

Leading teaching and learning

Schools and school groups have to use the new school structures to focus on learning together and moving learning around. That is the role and purpose of executive leaders and directors of teaching and learning. Unless they are focused on this they are little more than an expensive on-cost in a school’s budget. But if we can develop a cadre of leaders committed to developing their staff and learning with them about how to improve practice and outcomes, we will be well on the way to refining what it means to be a teacher in the 21st century. And that in turn is the long-term answer to tackling teacher recruitment.

[1] National Audit Office, 2016, Training new teachers, 2016, based on DfE data


[3] DfE, Statistical First Release 21/15, School Workforce in England, Main and Additional Tables

[4] DfE, Op cit

[5] OECD, 2013, Key Findings from the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), England

[6] See


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