Recruitment and retention: Keeping teachers teaching

Written by: Colin McLean | Published:
Photo: MA Education

The recruitment and retention challenges for schools are well known. Colin McLean asks primary head Helen Middleton what leaders can do to encourage teachers to stay in the profession

Concerns about the number of teachers leaving the profession led Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw to comment on the issue at the launch the inspectorate’s annual report in early December.

He said: “Retention in many ways is more important than recruitment. I don’t know what the figures are in terms of teachers leaving the profession but it is sad if the numbers really are higher than they have ever been.

“I think that’s because teaching is becoming a tougher and tougher game. Ofsted wants higher standards, the government wants higher standards, the pressure is going to increase. But if you’re in a school that is well led, you will continue to do well.”

Whatever the statistics – and the true picture of how many teachers are leaving the profession is still unclear – Sir Michael’s assertion that good leadership has a central role to play in encouraging teachers to stay in the profession certainly rings true.

Professional development programmes for aspiring and established leaders will give access to the best practice in this area. It is also useful to hear about the teacher retention strategies used by established leaders. Helen Middleton, headteacher of John Randall Primary School in Telford, shared her approach to teacher retention with me.

Relate to your teaching experiences

“I started teaching in 1978 and became a headteacher at my current school 11 years ago. Before that time I worked for a number of headteachers and I knew what motivated me as a teacher and what did not. When I became a head staff morale was low because staff felt that they were being done to rather than asked for their views on how to improve the school. I thought it was important not to go in and try and change everything. It’s important, especially as a new head, to acknowledge all the good practice that goes on and use that as the basis for improvements.”

Be democratic

“I’m a firm believer in mutual respect. You get the best from people when they feel valued. Our staff turnover is very low because our team feels valued. They are consulted on any changes in teaching and learning, for example. We always try to trial new initiatives. This may involve one or two members of staff who go away to test a new teaching approach or resource and then report back to the rest of the group at a staff meeting.”

Give teachers a chance to air concerns

“At the moment there is pressure on our team to achieve highly despite the end of levels for assessment. Teachers will have issues and concerns with aspects of this major change. We have what we call ‘airing and sharing’ sessions that give colleagues an opportunity to get their concerns out there so that we can then develop solutions as a team. People feel comfortable about sharing any concerns in this open forum.”


“Professional development is crucial. We try to match the needs of the school with staff skills. It is important that teachers don’t feel ‘done to’ by being compelled to go on CPD without their input, and that they recognise that their development is linked directly to the needs of the school.”


“We have a student staff mentor who works with trainee teachers as part of our work with the Severn Teaching School Alliance as well as NQTs. She observes their lessons and gives them the opportunity to observe hers. She develops action plans with them and is there to discuss any problems and challenges they may have. New teachers are sometimes left to fend for themselves but this approach is a bit like giving a new driver a P plate after they have passed their driving test. We classify them as recently qualified teachers and they can rely on this support for as long as they feel they need it.”


Parent relations are so important and they can sometimes be part of the external pressures that teachers are put under. I think it is important as a head to step in and work with parents, especially if there is a major problem. The teacher then feels that I am batting for them. They know that if there is a problem and they have done all the right things that I will back them to the hilt. Knowing that they are not on their own is a big confidence booster.”

  • Colin McLean is chief executive of Best Practice Network, a national provider of training and professional development. More advice on staff development for leaders is available in a Best Practice Network guide, available as a free download at

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