Why teach? and why teachers quit


A new research report by the KLM thinktank Why Teach? adds to the picture of a serious crisis fuelled by failing political leadership. As LKM’s director explains:

“Ultimately there is no shortage of passion amongst teachers, but too often the system works to frustrate and inhibit rather than empower them.”

The report concludes that ‘retention depends on ensuring teachers feel they can have an impact – letting them ‘get on with it’ is therefore key in maintaining a motivated and committed workforce. Excess workload ‘needs urgent tackling’.

“Ultimately, if policy makers and school leaders can reduce teachers’ epic workload, build a school culture that teachers believe in and provide opportunities for development and progression, then teachers will be more than willing to give their all.”

Damning statistics

This report assembles damning statistical evidence of political mismanagement: 

  • the majority of teachers had considered leaving the profession in the last six months
  • full time teacher ‘wastage’ rates have increased from a ten year low of 6.5% in 2009-10 to 9.2% in 2014
  • the average secondary school in London placed more than six advertisements for classroom teachers from January to June 2015
  • in November 2014 there were over 1000 unfilled fulltime teacher vacancies, more than two and a half times as many as in 2010. On top of this, more than 3000 were only temporarily filled (a 30% increase in one year)
  • more teachers left to teach abroad last year than enrolled on PGCE courses
  • the proportion of teachers with qualified teacher status (QTS) has fallen.

All of this will be exacerbated in the coming years as the child population increases.

Pull and push factors

The report shows that teachers mainly enter the profession and want to stay because:

  • they are keen to make a difference (whether in terms of their students’ development or in terms of social justice)
  • they love working with children and young people
  • they enthuse about teaching their subjects.

The report includes many quotations from teachers about their love of teaching and the satisfaction of relationships with students and families.

Practical benefits such as pay and career opportunities are less important in attracting people into teaching, but the authors warn government and employers against neglecting these as decent pay is necessary to reduce wastage.

One group of question reveals an enormous ambivalence of teachers towards their work. A majority – though barely a majority, at 52% – do not regret their decision to enter the profession and “would recommend teaching to their younger self”. However, only 1 in 3 would recommend it to their own child and most would not recommend teaching to their own students.

“Don’t go into teaching…(because of) the workload. I’m here at eight o’clock in the morning, I don’t get home ‘til six o’clock at night, I have my tea, sit down and I work ‘til eleven, twelve o’clock most evenings. So it’s not much of a life… And I don’t see things particularly getting easier.” (Derbyshire primary teacher)

“Teaching’s such a stressful job… it encompasses your life completely… it can be quite destructive as well… If my child was very clear they wanted to do it then fine.” (London secondary teacher)

This teacher explains that if his own child wanted to be a teacher, he would “give them some advice” and “tell them to prepare themselves”.

Though some teachers find the pace of change and new challenges exhilerating, others experience constant frustration:

“Higher up the kids are seen as numbers and not children and it’s become quite stressful, a lot of pressure, there’s too many targets and it’s not as fun.” (Derbyshire primary teacher)

Alarm bells should be ringing for Government

59% had considered leaving teaching in the last six months, and for this majority group workload was the greatest reason: 76% of them said the workload is too high.

Large numbers complain of being “unhappy with the quality of leadership and management” (43% overall and nearly half in secondary schools). Such data suggests a systemic problem relating to the accountability and surveillance culture, not a problem of individual headteachers’ personalities.

43% of those who have considered leaving complain of insufficient pay, 29% of a lack of quality support and 24% of school culture.

Whilst 27% mention pupil behaviour – which could itself be partly a consequence of curriculum standardisation and accountability pressures – this is clearly much less a problem for teachers than workload and management.

The report attempts to distinguish different groups of teachers according to motivation: however, even among the ‘idealists’ 58% have considered leaving teaching in the last six months!

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