Professor Samantha Twiselton, OBE, is the Director of Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University – a national centre of education research and practice. Sam has also been heavily involved in influencing Government policy on teacher education, recently working with the DfE chairing an advisory group supporting the development of a new framework for ITT, which is designed to dovetail into the DfE’s Early Career Framework.
How can more graduates be successfully attracted to teaching as a profession in such a competitive economy?
Becoming a teacher is one of the most meaningful careers a person can embark upon. As a teacher you have the opportunity to make a real difference. You can transform young people’s lives by opening up the potential they have, and opening doorways to all of the possibilities in their future. First and foremost, I think that fact needs to be made as visible and obvious as possible to graduates. At the moment I think that message sometimes gets lost or diluted, or can end up taking a back seat to the more technical aspects of how to become a teacher, and people lose sight of that bigger reason and purpose.
I also think it’s important that it’s made very clear to people that when they join the profession, they will continue to receive support and development throughout their career. Other graduate pathways are often better at making their professional development opportunities and progression pathways really visible, and the teaching profession needs to ensure it does that too.
The fact is that the opportunities that exist right now in the education profession are immense, and often go far beyond the role of classroom teacher. There are roles that can take you out of your classroom working with other teachers, working in other schools, specialising in particular areas, and changing the age groups that you work with. The variety of different opportunities that are available now in teaching are amazing, but as a profession we need to get the message across, and make sure that these options are made really visible to graduates.
One in three teachers currently leave the profession within the first five years, what do you think are some of the key reasons for this happening?
I think a key reason is that the expectations put on new teachers are often too high, and unrealistic, given that they’ve usually had less than a year’s training (around 9 months) before they get their first teaching job. With the accountability system as it is, there are some schools that expect teachers to be able to hit the ground running in a way that isn’t reasonable. NQTs and RQTs can be made to feel like they’re not living up to expectations, even though it is such early days for them in the job and they’re still learning. This can come about especially in schools where the leadership is toxic rather than supportive – where pressure is put on to NQTs to perform at a good or outstanding level from day one, and where methods such as punitive observations are utilised. These NQTs will invariably not only feel stressed – but also inadequate. This can subsequently lead early career teachers to experience a feeling of personal failure, which can ultimately cause them to leave the profession. However, this feeling of personal failure is almost always unjustified, and if these teachers carried on, and were adequately supported and developed throughout their early career, things would be very different.
Another key reason that is often given for leaving the profession in the first five years is workload. In some ways this ties in with the first point, because early career teachers are often working very long hours planning lessons etc., in order to meet unrealistically high expectations. Research from the DfE has also shown that it’s not only the amount of work that is the problem, but also that a lot of the work that early career teachers find themselves doing doesn’t feel like it’s having a direct impact on the thing which brought them into the profession in the first place: the pupils. For example, if new teachers are spending a lot of their time entering data onto spreadsheets, this may not feel like it is making any direct difference to their pupils’ lives on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, I think there are things that leaders need to consider about the culture in their schools, and stand back and ask themselves; are our expectations realistic? And, are they helping their teachers feel like they’re doing a good job for their pupils – the thing that brought them into the profession in the first place?
Finally, the DfE has now recognised that there has been too much focus on monetary incentives in the past, such as large training bursaries (especially for STEM subjects) to get people into teaching, and that this has backfired in some cases, and could be another contributing factor to the number of teachers leaving the profession within the first five years. This is because they may have attracted some people into the profession for the wrong reasons, or without thinking it through enough, with the realities of the job the coming as a shock to the system further down the line.
What are the DfE doing to try to improve the retention of early career teachers?
The DfE have published a recruitment and retention strategy which contains a number of new approaches. Probably the most important aspect of this is the focus on early career teachers, and indeed training teachers. The Early Career Framework developed by the DfE will help to ensure that schools, as well as NQTs/RQTs themselves, recognise the fact that they are still in the process of learning to be a teacher, even after their ITT, and that expectations need to be adjusted in line with that fact. The Framework does this by setting out a guaranteed entitlement to on-going support and development in the first two years after qualifying.
Alongside this there will be an ITE (Initial Teacher Education) framework which guarantees that people going through their Initial Teacher Training will have the foundation in place to benefit from that Early Career Framework when they get their first job. This means that they will have a minimum of three years guaranteed, ongoing, high-quality support and development, both in terms of the training they’ll have access to, and also the well-trained mentors that will support them in their learning in school. I think this will make a huge difference. Some training which may have been purely theoretical in their ITT year can be developed much further during the NQT and RQT years, at times when it is really relevant in practice. The DfE will also be helping to tackle the workload that NQTs and RQTs currently have by making resources available, so that lessons do not all need to be planned from scratch.
The guaranteed three years of support and development for early career teachers will also, we hope, change the narrative in terms of how schools think of their early career workforce. There will be an increased recognition that NQTs and RQTs are still learning, and that that is not only completely normal, but also a good thing! We hope that as a result, schools will become much more adept at providing ongoing training and development for early career teachers, because it will become an expectation. This means that for early career teachers, the onus will not only be on them to reach the required standards; schools will also be held accountable for looking after and supporting their NQTs to meet these standards, by fulfilling the training and developmental entitlement of their NQTs and RQTs.
I think the Early Career Framework will be good for mentors as well. Of course, we already have mentors in schools, but they don’t necessarily have access to high quality mentor training at the moment. This new framework will give them that, as well as a position of status, and the opportunity to reflect on their own practice. Being a mentor could also be a stepping stone to undertaking one of the specialist NPQs - one of which will be teacher developer - which again will come into place with the new strategy. I think developing teachers into highly trained mentors will also be another way of holding on to teachers, because it provides another pathway for teachers to progress further in their career.
The DfE are also changing their focus in terms of how they market the teaching profession, moving away from financial incentives, to a focus on the positive difference that people can make on children’s lives by becoming a teacher. They are also introducing different kinds of bursaries, including induction bursaries, and bursaries which will only be received after staying within the profession for a certain amount of time, in the hope that this will help to retain teachers through those pivotal first five years, and consequently, long term.
What can schools do to attract the best talent?
First and foremost, schools need to understand the importance of developing and nurturing early career teachers, providing them with the time and space they need to reflect, and also have realistic expectations of what they can manage.
School leaders also need to think about the way all the teachers in their schools are being asked to spend their time, and ensure that the majority of their time is spent completing tasks which will have a clear and direct impact on pupils. If new teachers can dedicate the majority of their time and attention to making an impact on the pupils, which is the thing that brought them into the profession in the first place –this will give them much higher levels of job satisfaction.
Finally, schools need to make the opportunities that are available for teachers in their school visible; including what they provide in terms of support, development, and career progression for early career teachers. This can be highlighted in many ways, including on the school website, within job adverts, when showing people around, through staff testimonials, and at recruitment fairs. If possible, collaborate within Trusts or Teaching School Alliances to create a clear and cohesive marketing strategy.
What are some of the most important things schools can do to retain early career teachers?
I think, first of all, ensuring that they make a strong commitment to supporting and developing early career teachers. Also, when the early career framework does come in, schools need to get behind it, and recognise the importance of making sure that the timetable can accommodate it, that mentors can be released, and that they have the right people in place taking on the role of mentor. I believe that all of those things combined will make a huge difference to retention levels, and will be well worth the investment in the long run.
Another thing that is really important for early career teachers is that they have access to peer support, so schools should ensure that their NQTs and RQTs are able to meet up with other local NQTs and RQTs, (again, that might involve an effort on the school’s part to also be accommodating in terms of timetabling).
If you have several NQTs and/or RQTs in your schools, creating an opportunity for them to come together regularly would also be a very useful thing to do. On top of this, access to things like subject associations can make a big difference, particularly at secondary level, but increasingly so at primary level too. Through subject associations early career teachers can gain access to lots of useful resources, and also get the opportunity to network with peers who are focusing on the same subject. Not all of the support for early career teachers has to come from within school, quite often it is helpful for them to receive support beyond their own school too.
In my opinion, the most important thing a school can do to retain early career teachers is to have the right culture; a culture where people feel like they belong, want to belong, and are supported, developed, and generally feel looked after. One of the most interesting things that the DfE found during their research on retention (which included talking to people who nearly dropped out of the teaching profession, but didn’t in the end), was that the overwhelming factor that kept them in teaching was moving to a different school. Sometimes a school is not the right fit for an NQT or RQT, so before concluding ‘teaching is not for them’, early career teachers should be encouraged to try teaching in another setting first. It could make all the difference.