Blog: Tackling teacher retention

Published: 7 Aug 2019

Author: Paul Middleton
Blog: Tackling teacher retention

The Department for Education estimates that 22% of English teachers leave the profession within their first two years, with the number rising to 33% in year five.* What can be done?

Reasons put forward to explain this trend are wide-ranging, but I am sure you will not find any of them surprising. Increasing workload, poor standards of behaviour and lack of suitable training have all contributed to a teacher retention crisis that has steadily weakened the profession. However, perhaps we can reverse the issue by considering education systems around the globe. Why have some countries managed to bounce back from similar crises and others have avoided them altogether?

Why have some countries managed to bounce back from similar crises and others have avoided them altogether?

As part of my Churchill Fellowship, I am travelling to Singapore, Norway and Switzerland to see whether these countries can provide answers to these questions. I have recently completed the first phase of this project, where I met with policymakers, school leaders and early-career teachers in Singapore. I was intrigued to find out about the lives of teachers in this city state, which is reputed to have the world’s best education system (according to the latest results from PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment). In addition, unlike Britain, Singapore has no problems with recruitment or retention; for every teacher training place there are 14 applicants, and retention is around five per cent. So what is the secret to its success?

Well, the Singaporean government, which is about to celebrate its 54th birthday, puts education on a colossal pedestal that is unheard of in most other countries. At the Ministry of Education, one employee explained to me that, ‘As a small country, it is all about survival for us, and education is at the very heart of this.’ This cultural context is something that we may experience here in Britain; but Singapore classrooms can help us to understand the issue of teacher retention a little better.

Firstly, it is clear that there needs to be a complete shift in our focus when talking about the issues facing British teachers. We need to recognise that workload is always going to be a sizeable burden and that it is a pressure shared around the world. For example, teachers in Singapore may have lighter timetables compared to their British counterparts, but the weight of planning and marking are certainly comparable. Class sizes in Singapore can reach as high as 44, and most teachers I spoke to admitted to working a seven-day week. Surprisingly, student behaviour was also a similar pressure: one newly qualified teacher told me that, ‘In my first school, the discipline was not so good, so I had a hard time.’

Therefore, instead of simply talking about the push factors that are forcing so many teachers to leave the profession, we should also concentrate on the pull factors that might persuade us to stay. Of course, the obvious strategies of competitive pay and performance bonuses, which help to improve retention in Singapore, are unlikely to be possible for cash-strapped schools in Britain. However, there are a number of low-cost alternatives that could provide some solutions.

For example, graduates in Singapore receive greater preparation and support in their first five years, compared to British counterparts. All trainee teachers complete a 16-month programme via the National Institute of Education, ensuring a consistency in expertise and a proficiency in pedagogy that are a complete contrast to the decentralised British system. Here, the government has desperately created so many routes into the profession that the quality of teachers has become diluted, leading to higher rates of attrition. Strengthening teacher training would ultimately aid the transition into the workplace and ensure that early-career retention remains high: 22% of our teachers should not be leaving the profession within their first two years.

The support offered to Singaporean teachers does not end when they become qualified. Once in schools, they meet regularly with experienced mentors who offer informal support throughout the first 18 months. Compare this to many British schools, where there is often not enough time, resources or personnel to create this essential relationship. This strict mentoring system is all part of the Ministry’s commitment to professional development, regardless of how many years a teacher has been in the profession. I was blown away by the culture of life-long learning that has been created in Singapore, with the expectation that all teachers will engage with courses run by the Ministry. A previous target called for teachers to attend around 100 hours of professional development each year, which is simply unheard-of in British schools.

If the UK’s Department for Education (DfE) is going to keep ambitious and talented teachers within the profession, it will need to support a similar level of training, progression and development going forward. The newly created Early Career Framework and Chartered College of Teaching will no doubt help to achieve this; however, it is unknown how they will improve the lives of teachers, if at all. By looking at the education systems of Singapore, Norway and Switzerland, my Fellowship will at least provide some idea for how these strategies could work in practice.

*Data collected by the Office of National Statistics on behalf of the Department for Education. This was part of a school workforce census issued in 2017. 

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