A look back at NFER research in the past year

by Carole Willis
Chief Executive, National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)

England’s education system has continued to see more changes and challenges this year, and with MPs only just back in Parliament following a turbulent General Election, and with Gavin Williamson continuing as Education Secretary, there will inevitably be more changes on the way for the sector. 

NFER has continued to be a major voice in educational discourse, with research reflecting both the trends and obstacles in the education system.

Our work is broken down into eight key topic areas, which helps us cover some of the most important issues in education, while focusing our expertise and increasing our overall impact. Below are some of the highlights of the year.

School workforce
The year started as the Department for Education (DfE) published its Teacher Recruitment & Retention Strategy in January, which drew on research from NFER.

Teacher supply has long been a focal point of our research. The number of secondary school pupils is forecast to rise by 15% over the next decade, which presents a huge challenge for teacher supply. Over the last few years, we have repeatedly called for more attention to be given to teacher retention, rather than just recruitment. 

We welcomed the DfE’s strategy, as it recognised the urgent need to ensure there are enough teachers in the sector. The strategy addressed many of the changes NFER has been calling for, including flexible working for teachers, more support for early career teachers, and the creation of healthier working environments. 

Previously, policy attention has been focused on recruitment of new teachers as a primary goal, but the DfE’s new strategy repositions retaining current teachers at the centre of the strategy alongside recruitment. It’s more important than ever that we keep our excellent teachers in the classroom. Every teacher successfully retained is one less for the recruitment targets, making them easier to achieve. Retention also builds the system’s capacity for high-quality teaching, as experience is one of the few factors we know is related to teaching quality.

A month after the DfE released its new strategy, we published our first annual Teacher Labour Market in England report looking into the issues teachers are facing in their careers. A key finding showed that teachers in England report more job-related stress than other professionals. 

Despite how important and rewarding teaching can be, this is a profession facing many challenges which are impacting on attracting and keeping teachers in our schools. Focusing on improving job satisfaction and tackling unnecessary workload and long hours is, therefore, crucial in making teaching a more manageable and sustainable profession.

The report also highlighted how the traditional image of teaching as ‘recession-proof’ has eroded, as graduates are finding more job security outside the sector - making it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain early-career teachers.

Later on in the year, our researchers looked into part-time and flexible working in teaching, in light of the challenges around teacher supply. Previous NFER research on the teacher workforce in England has shown that increasing part-time and flexible working opportunities for teachers is likely to encourage more teachers to stay in the profession and may help to attract new entrants, particularly teachers returning to the profession.

In our report Part-time Teaching and Flexible Working in Secondary Schools, we found that around one in six secondary school teachers would like to reduce their working hours, illustrating a genuine appetite in the sector for alternative working patterns.

Interestingly the main barrier to flexible and part-time working found in our study was the perception that school leaders would be unsupportive. This was more common an obstacle than actual incidents of requests for flexibility being rejected. The report found that where school leaders were proactive, creating a culture and working schedules that made flexible or part-time working possible, staff were more able to ask for changes to their workload, with wider benefits for the schools.

T levels
The introduction of T levels has been another big topic in the sector this year, as we approach the launch of the new technical qualifications in September 2020. Our researchers looked at how ready providers are to deliver the new qualifications, in a study published in the summer with an update published this December.

NFER’s research included a series of in-depth, semi-structured interviews with half of the first-wave providers. It found that providers are broadly supportive of the initiative in general, with most feeling reasonably confident that they will secure the requisite placements for 2020 and that they were being kept well-informed about the overall design of the qualifications.

But while providers were confident in themselves and in their staff’s expertise, we found they also felt somewhat under-prepared without the detailed qualification specifications. Additionally, our report showed that while things were looking broadly positive for the 2020 cohort, providers and sector representatives expressed concerns about the future of the qualifications. The providers involved in our research highlighted the need for continued support and funding, beyond the initial cohorts, in order to guarantee the success of these qualifications.

As we start a new decade, with a newly elected government, education will remain a crucial sector in shaping the lives of children and young people in this country. Thank you for your continued engagement with our research and resources into this New Year. Look out for our work, as we continue to support decision makers across education with our rigorous evidence-based approach to education issues.

Carole Willis is the Chief Executive at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). Twitter: @TheNFER

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Posted: 18/12/2019 15:59:28