Practical Suggestions for Tackling the Teacher Retention Crisis
The quality of teaching matters to how well pupils do at school. So how do we, as a society, encourage high-quality and experienced teachers to stay in the classroom rather than leave the profession or move into management?
This question was addressed by the Scottish Government's recent report, 'Teacher Workforce Planning for Scottish Schools', and also featured in the initial findings from their panel of international advisers earlier in July 2017.
It is becoming a major issue well beyond Scotland, too, with record numbers of teachers leaving the profession south of the border. Teaching unions have spoken of a perfect storm of negative conditions: funding cuts which have reduced (real terms) pay, increasing workload and hours, and the likely impact of Brexit on the availability of teachers from the EU, among other pressures.
This problem is of personal interest and relevance to me as someone who works in an HE education department, as my day job involves preparing and educating new trainee teachers. However, my role also puts me in the category of someone who has left the school classroom! I see this choice as being largely due to my enthusiasm for helping to develop the new generation of Psychology teachers at a key time for the subject's development in Scottish schools, but it's also the case that I was motivated by a desire for pedagogy-related career progression which was otherwise absent.
Both reports mentioned above highlight the need to find ways of motivating experienced classroom teachers to remain in post. This excerpt comes from the Teacher Workforce report:
The Chartered Teacher Scheme was withdrawn in 2012, having previously provided pay increases to teachers who completed a set of academic courses. A number of colleagues attained Chartered Teacher status during my early years of school teaching (my first permanent secondary post began in 2001), and it seemed to me that the view of the Scheme among the staff as a whole was fairly negative. In particular, people who were not Chartered did not feel that it rewarded the 'best' teachers or significantly benefited the pupils.
These issues are tackled by McGeer (2009), who notes that only a slight majority of teachers surveyed viewed it positively, with most thinking that it was not working well and they would not choose to undertake it themselves. Entry to the Scheme was a particular issue; it was essentially open to anyone who paid for the relevant CPD modules, with the prospect of recouping their money over the long term through enhanced pay. As McGreer points out, "there [was] no direct mechanism in the scheme to identify those teachers who could be described as excellent teachers let alone define what excellence actually means" (p. 11).
Nevertheless, it certainly did provide an option for progression outside of management (a route which does not appeal to everyone, which can't be undertaken by all staff, and which inevitably results in reduced classroom time for the promoted teacher). Indeed, the very existence of the Scheme, first conceived of in the early days of Scottish devolution, shows that we have for some time been tackling the same issues of rewarding and retaining experienced teachers.
One thing about the Chartered Teacher Scheme that still looks very positive in hindsight is its emphasis on the importance of CPD and professional learning - after all, teaching should be an intellectually attractive profession. Scotland is keen to emulate other countries such as Finland in making it a Masters-level profession; this is welcome, but is not likely to tackle all of the issues around retention of staff given that Masters qualifications tend to be completed at a fairly early career stage, and are therefore not likely to function as an incentive for more experienced staff to remain in teaching.
It can, of course, be argued that establishing this level of qualification (or above) as the norm will result in teachers being treated as professionals to a greater degree, and that this higher regard throughout society would impact on teacher retention and make teachers less demoralised. I certainly think it could help - though it could be argued that UK teachers already have relatively high status compared to the European norm. Clearly the nature of the job itself also plays a key role, irrespective of career progression; going hand-in-hand with societal respect, we urgently need greater agency for teachers to manage learning and exercise professional judgement in their own classrooms, rather than the more top-down accountability processes which are increasing worldwide. It is also vital to reduce the workload associated with a non-stop round of curriculum updates as well as with the burden of administrative tasks that either don't help learning or just shouldn't be a teacher's job (or both). But again, these things don't apply specifically to the experienced professionals who exit teaching.
Could a Chartered Teacher programme be reintroduced with more success? I don't think the negative attitudes that I mentioned are just due to poor implementation, and nor can they be put down to jealously over colleagues' higher pay; departmental heads, in contrast, tend to be viewed positively by colleagues, with fellow teachers recognising their commitment and hard work. It seemed like Chartered Status struggled because there was no mechanism for ensuring that teachers were actually performing better. In a way, it seemed like money for nothing - the Chartered Teachers didn't actually do anything more for the school on an ongoing basis than their colleagues did. The other side of this coin is that it provided little for a Chartered Teacher to engage with intellectually. The role wasn't any different, and therefore beyond their initial studies there wasn't much to maintain motivation and provide a sense of purpose.
It follows that there is a need for a means of progression for classroom teachers which is linked to a role that benefits the school and engages the staff member - a quid pro quo, where the promoted member of staff is doing something of tangible value, akin to that provided by departmental heads and other middle management, and in doing so gains genuine and meaningful progression throughout their career.
One possibility is to establish a specialist mentor role for those who guide and support trainee teachers during their work placements. This possibility is hinted at in the Teacher Workforce report, which refers to an additional time allocation for mentoring of students:
Having mentored two student teachers last year, I can confirm that it is certainly time consuming (if anyone thinks that the students do all your teaching while you get a break, this is far from the case!), but it is also professionally challenging and very rewarding. The idea that teachers in these positions could have a reduction in teaching workload is interesting, and it would be useful to know exactly what this would involve. To do it well, freeing up time for professional reading, meetings and detailed feedback, something like 20% of contact time, equivalent to a day a week for a full time teacher, would seem reasonable to me. Any less and it is likely to result in increased stress for the mentor, and make it hard to guide students as well as it should be done.
This could provide a specialist route that would allow the most skilled practitioners to not only remain in the classroom, but to make their teaching craft (and perhaps, specific aspects of that craft) a specialism. It would be of benefit to trainees, too, who would be mentored by a motivated expert teacher rather than someone who lacks the time and/or experience to fully support them.
Another possible route for professional progression, via an essentially similar model, would be to create a teacher-researcher role. In my previous school, a number of teachers engaged with research as part of a research centre (see 'Can teachers be researchers?'), and the GTCS and other teaching bodies encourage practical research engagement for teachers (often termed 'practitioner enquiry' - but that's another debate!).
However, the objection that is most often raised by teachers about the prospect of conducting or otherwise engaging with research is that they lack time.
A reduced workload, again of around 20% of contact time while otherwise remaining in teaching duties, could facilitate teacher research engagement very significantly. Most teachers can see the value of research, as it typically links intimately with their classroom practice (for example, research into memory, motivation, etc, or research which develops their specialised subject knowledge). Given time to do it properly and to develop the required technical skills, they are much more likely to engage with the research community more broadly, follow high standards and produce good quality work. It would provide a stimulating addition to their classroom work that might help to motivate staff who would otherwise choose not to remain in a teaching role. What's more, their research projects could form part of a school-wide agenda and the findings shared with colleagues, circumventing the criticism of Chartered Status discussed above, i.e. that they weren't contributing anything extra to the school on an ongoing basis.
I'm aware that a significant number of schools/clusters in England and Wales have established a 'research lead' role, and while very interesting, this is not really what I'm advocating - such a position is essentially unique within the institution (we can't all be the research lead!) - and I'm more interested in a route that any experienced teacher could potentially undertake.
It would also be possible for these specialisms to have different categories or routes within them - sub-specialisms, essentially. As a follow-on from the prospect of engaging more teachers as researchers, any school in which teachers are conducting active data gathering should have an ethical approval process. Again, in my previous role, this was done by volunteers on top of a full teaching workload. Making a position on a research ethics board (which could be run across a cluster of schools rather than one) a specialised form of teacher-researcher role, with the support that comes from enhanced working conditions and a time allocation, seems to me a more sustainable model and one that would encourage those who do it to prioritise it appropriately and to develop the necessary skills and knowledge.
In short, I don't think the answer to the teacher retention crisis is for people to do another qualification and then essentially be handed money for nothing for the rest of their career. I do think that they should be offered one or more pathways for progression that would mean still being in the classroom for the majority of their contracted hours, but would add a stimulating new challenge which was of broader benefit along with increased pay. As well as the prospect of advancement without the need to enter management, such roles would be highly motivating to experienced professionals who perhaps feel that they have developed their skills as far as they can in a standard classroom role. And on the issue of management, both of the suggestions I have made do include elements of leadership and enhanced responsibility, and could potentially play a role as part of an alternative route towards headship.
I have suggested two key types of promoted role - student mentor and teacher-researcher. I'm sure that there are other possibilities that could be suggested, including in the pastoral and extra curricular areas.
McGeer, J. (2009). The Chartered Teacher scheme in Scotland: A survey of the views of teachers. Professional Development in Education, 35(1), 5-22.