Each year roughly one in ten state school classroom teachers in England leave the profession. This is a significant problem when the government continues to miss teacher recruitment targets. Just recently, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak acknowledged that more teachers are needed to implement his policy of maths education until the age of 18.
My research, published in a working paper for the Institute for Social and Economic Research and reviewed by colleagues, explores the reasons teachers leave the profession – and the policies that might stop them leaving.
I surveyed over 300 teachers to find out whether and when they intended to leave the profession. I also asked them how likely they might be to leave teaching in a number of different scenarios, such as a salary increase or an increase or decrease in their working hours, and asked about their expectations regarding opportunities in the job market.
My findings show that policies related to reducing teacher working hours and improving the quality of school leaders would be effective. I also found that increasing teachers’ salaries would reduce their intentions of leaving. However, only a large pay rise – over 10% – is likely to have a significant effect.
Salaries play an important role in the decision to go into (and stay in) a profession. Teaching is no exception. I found that those who earn more report lower intentions of leaving.
But it is unlikely that the government would consider a pay rise over 10%. The latest pay offer, made in March 2023 after talks with teaching unions, was 4.5%. Even a modest pay rise, such as 3.5%, would cost the government almost £500 million a year.
School leaders play a particularly important role in teachers’ decision to leave the profession. I found that teachers in schools with a good senior leadership team have lower intentions to leave. My research also shows that an improvement in senior leadership quality would have a greater impact on teacher intentions than a 5% pay rise.
While school leaders are among the most influential factors in teachers’ decision to leave the profession, there are not any obvious policy solutions. In this context improving school leadership is mostly reallocative among schools. That is, you improve one school at the expense of another by moving an excellent headteacher between schools.
It is possible that the effect of poor school leadership might be mitigated by training and development for teachers. But there is not much evidence to show that this kind of training improves teacher performance.
Another option is reducing teachers’ working hours and workloads. This is likely to be the most effective method of stopping teachers leaving. The teachers I surveyed reported working an average of around 52 hours a week during term time. One quarter said they worked more than 60 hours a week.
I found that a five-hour-a-week reduction in working hours would have a similar effect on teacher retention as a 10% pay rise – and would be significantly cheaper to implement.
As part of my research, I collect data on teachers’ beliefs and expectations about employment opportunities outside of teaching. What teachers believe about the job options available to them outside teaching play an important role in their decision to leave.
On average, teachers expect that if they left the profession for a different job, they would earn £1,500 more each year and work around 10.5 fewer hours each week. But they are actually underestimating how much they could earn in another career. I found that the median teacher underestimated the average earnings of someone the same sex and age as them by £6,000.
I found that teachers who thought that earnings would be higher in a different profession were more likely to say that they were intending to leave teaching. If teachers’ estimations about their potential earnings in other professions were more accurate, we could expect teachers’ intentions to leave the profession to significantly increase.
The government is fortunate that teachers underestimate their opportunities outside of teaching. They might not be so lucky in the future.
The effect of wages on teachers’ intentions to leave the profession is small and expensive to implement. Other factors such as school leaders and working hours play a larger role in the decision to leave. But this does not mean that the government should continue to neglect teachers’ pay.
There are wider benefits of paying teachers higher salaries. It improves teacher motivation and has an impact on recruitment, attracting candidates of more diversity, higher quality and with the ability to fill specific subject shortages.
The government is, at least partially, relying on teachers’ misconceptions about their alternative career opportunities to ensure that schools are appropriately staffed. This is not acceptable. Teachers are highly educated professionals who perform one of society’s most important roles, and their pay ought to reflect that.
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