Renewed optimism - Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy

From Leader Magazine Spring Term 2 2019 issue

In January, the DfE unveiled its long-awaited Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy. Carole Willis, Chief Executive of the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), provides her thoughts on the renewed focus on retention.

England’s schools are facing significant challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers. Rising secondary pupil numbers, below-target recruitment and the increasing number of working-age teachers leaving the state sector, mean that tackling the teacher supply challenge has become a top priority for the education system. It is putting a significant strain on school leaders, particularly in secondary schools, and threatening the quality of education.

It is vital that we do more to attract and, critically, retain great teachers before the situation worsens. This issue has risen up the political agenda and the government’s recognition of the seriousness of the challenge in its first Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy ( has been widely welcomed. The question now is: does the strategy have the potential to make enough of a difference?

The importance of teacher retention

The issues relating to teacher supply are complex. The NFER has been exploring these issues for several years, gaining a deeper understanding of the dynamics within the teacher workforce in England ( Previously, policymakers have paid far less attention to retaining teachers currently employed in state schools than to recruiting new ones. In September 2017, the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted the £555 million spent by the DfE on recruitment and initial teacher training (ITT) compared to only £35.7 million on retention ( However, the number of teacher trainees has fallen short of the government’s targets for the past six years, placing even greater importance on retaining teachers in the profession. NFER, and indeed ASCL, have called for more attention to be given to retention to ensure we have enough skilled teachers that can provide the high-quality education our children deserve.

Since the Education Secretary announced plans to develop this strategy, we have published further research drawing out a number of key factors influencing teacher retention ( We also set out recommendations for policymakers and school leaders to help respond to these challenges. Our research highlighted that both the rate of teachers leaving the state sector and the rate of teachers moving between schools have increased since 2010. The combined impact of this has meant that school leaders have had more vacancies to fill each year, more staffing uncertainty to deal with and higher costs of recruiting replacements.

A step in the right direction?

Our evidence shows that focusing on retention is crucial. In order to keep good, experienced teachers in the profession, there must be systems in place to nurture, support and value teachers to keep them engaged.

So, we strongly welcomed the DfE’s strategy when it was finally published. The general consensus amongst the education community, in the press and on social media, was that this new strategy was a positive step forward in tackling the teacher supply challenge. Leading sector bodies including ASCL have also backed the document.

The DfE has listened to and engaged with teachers, education unions, including ASCL, and leading professional bodies, developing an important and coherent strategy with practical policy solutions. This is a welcome step and the strategy echoes many of the changes we have all been calling for – reducing workload, more opportunities for flexible working, creating a healthier and more supportive working environment and restructuring financial incentives to promote retention, not just a focus on recruitment.

A supportive culture for new (and experienced) teachers

The strategy identifies four key barriers to ensuring that “careers in teaching are attractive, sustainable and rewarding”. Three of those priorities focus on teacher retention, particularly for early career teachers (ECTs). Our research shows that it is getting harder to retain ECTs, especially in subjects such as maths, science and modern foreign languages (MFLs). Last November, our research for the DfE ( suggested that new teachers often experience ‘practice shock’ at the start of their careers, and that the reality of life in the classroom can take them by surprise. Therefore, it is important that they are supported and developed during this early part of their careers.

The DfE launched its Early Career Framework (ECF) alongside the strategy to ensure that ECTs are supported and that schools have more guidance about what they should be offering their new teachers. It is encouraging to see that the development of this framework has been based on evidence and comes with a commitment to continue to review the evidence base as the programme evolves.

And there are measures in the strategy for more experienced teachers, too – the promise of clearer career paths and new qualifications; measures to facilitate more opportunities for flexible working; and the promise of a more proportionate accountability system (and a new ‘hotline’ for heads), which includes judging schools on how they address teacher workload. Our latest analysis shows that teachers work far longer hours than other professionals during term time. But it is not the number of hours they work that is driving people to leave teaching; it is when their workload becomes unmanageable that teachers leave for a better work–life balance elsewhere.

Will the strategy deliver?

Overall, these measures should contribute to improving retention, and by making teaching a more rewarding and manageable career, improve recruitment, too. The new ECF should also strengthen teacher quality – the most important school-based factor affecting children’s outcomes. However, there are questions over the speed at which it can deliver. Pupil numbers in secondary schools are rising now, and the centrepiece of the strategy, the ECF, isn’t due to be rolled out nationally until 2021. There are also questions over whether there will be enough teachers to cover the time needed to allow ECTs this additional development and support, and for their mentors to be trained.

When school budgets are so constrained, there is no quick fix for the teacher supply challenge. However, progress with other measures in the strategy will need to be made quickly in order to address the immediate challenges facing the profession. Focusing on improving job satisfaction and tackling unmanageable workload could be vital for improving teacher retention.

The government must continue to collaborate with school leaders to ensure they have the support and funding needed, if they are to make a lasting difference. Making teaching an attractive and rewarding profession to enter as well as to stay in, is the key to building and maintaining a pipeline of motivated and skilled teachers.

Find out more

For more on NFER’s research on the recruitment, retention and development of teachers, visit

Carole Willis
Chief Executive of the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)

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