How can schools and governments improve teacher retention and recruitment?

Teachers are the backbone of any society. As educators, teachers have a far-reaching and lasting effect on their students. A recent survey suggests that teachers can influence their students’ choices of college majors and careers. On a more urgent note, good teachers can raise the quality of education, which directly translates improvement in PISA scores and assessment results. Long term, an improvement in education directly correlates to employability and progress. It’s no wonder then that many high-performing nations have strict selection processes for recruiting new teachers. Singapore, for example, recruits only the top graduates, and even then only one in eight is actually selected.


Teacher recruitment, however, is facing a huge setback at the moment. A 2016 report showed that nearly 30% of teachers were considering leaving education within 12 months. This included early-education teachers, teaching assistants and Special Educational Needs (SEN) teachers. The reasons cited ranged from plummeting morale, poor work/life balance and heavy workloads to a narrow and uncreative curriculum. In 2017, another survey of more than 3000 teachers under the age of 36 suggested that more than 4 in 10 (45%) could choose to leave within five years.


How does this affect other sectors?

A crisis within teacher recruitment and retention can have a domino-like effect on a nation. To start with, a decrease in teacher retention and recruitment means that existing teachers are faced with greater workloads. It also means more secondary school teachers are forced to teach subjects they aren’t qualified to teach. For example, in STEM subjects such as physics, the proportion of those teaching without a relevant qualification rose from 21% to 28% between 2010 and 2014. This means that the future STEM workforce is being taught by overworked and exhausted teachers with no expertise in STEM.


So what can governments and schools do to overcome this crisis?

On the face of it, the solution seems straightforward. Most surveys conducted to explore this issue have teachers citing poor morale and salaries, heavy workloads, rigid curricula and poor work/life balance as the predominant reasons for wanting to quit their jobs. The Department for Education’s most recent teacher workload survey found primary school teachers with less than six years of experience were working an average of almost 19 hours per week outside school hours, with most teachers citing administrative duties adding to their workload.


Funding seems central to solving most teacher-recruitment and retention problems. Despite the UK government’s recent decision to invest £10 million into recruiting foreign teachers to help with the teacher-recruitment crisis, teacher pay rises stay capped at 1%. Poor pay, coupled with poor management and time pressures, leads to a sense of being undervalued. More and more teachers also face mental health issues for these reasons.


The first step in helping teachers is to stop blaming them. Most schools want to help their teachers but find themselves unable do so due to limited funding. Over the years, some schools have taken to applying for private funding from alumni and parents; however, most schools are forced to make do with public funding. How schools can help, however, is by better management. This extends towards the curriculum. Schools can give teachers more flexibility in preparing and delivering their lessons, as well as keeping administrative work to a minimum. This might help to reduce teacher workloads and encourage a better work-life balance. Another practice is to provide continuous professional development for teachers, keeping them updated about the latest teaching technology and techniques that might help them reduce workloads. Much has been said about technological resources for teachers. However, it’s important that schools take the time to figure out which resources might suit their budget needs. For example, a school with a modest budget might profit better through a digital teaching resource that can be accessed via a variety of devices, rather than one that requires investing in a product geared towards learning. Also, teaching resources that are adaptable to a variety of pedagogies offer more value than those that need to be constantly upgraded or expanded depending on student groups.


Governments can also support schools by implementing less stringent curricula, allowing teachers to choose the best pedagogies and techniques to teach their students. For example, Finland gives its schools a great deal of autonomy over the use of curricula and assessment, compared to other countries. Most Finnish teachers hold master’s degrees, with knowledge and experience in research and practice-based subjects. More importantly, they are given a great degree of freedom in designing and delivering lessons. They also clock the least amount of working hours in comparison to their colleagues in other countries.


If governments can’t afford pay rises, they need to compensate for this by offering reduced working hours and more freedom in delivering lessons. Experts have also suggested increasing pay rises, where possible, within poor districts that usually suffer the most in terms of funding and quality teaching.


As with most important things, there is no single or simple solution to the crisis surrounding teacher recruitment and retention. However, it is essential that steps are taken to properly address the issue, at least on a smaller scale initially, in order to preserve a valuable national workforce.