Recruitment and retention: Where have all the teachers gone?

Written by: Headteacher Update | Published:
Photo: iStock

The Department for Education tells us teacher recruitment is a challenge, unions describe it as being in crisis. Healthy ITT figures are being circulated and yet primary headteachers tell Headteacher Update that they are struggling to find the staff. Just what is happening to the teacher workforce?

According to official recruitment statistics, initial teacher training (ITT) allocations for the academic year 2015 to 2016 were good. Figures released for ITT courses suggest that, unlike at secondary level, recruitment for primary schools actually exceeded requirements with 116 per cent of their Teacher Supply Model target filled.

However, the teaching unions and an increasing number of primary schools still warn of a teacher supply crisis.“Recruitment is a very challenging problem for heads in primary at the moment,” explained Trudy Cotchin, headteacher at Longwick CE Combined School in Buckinghamshire. “I know of many headteacher colleagues who cannot find a permanent teacher and the quality of supply is very poor, not to mention the exuberant costs. There are simply not enough teachers to fill the vacancies that are advertised.”

Colin Harris, headteacher of Warren Park Primary School in Hampshire, encountered real problems last year: “We had few applications and the quality was not great. We have always gone to a great effort to ensure a ready flow of teachers – we always have students, I do regular talks to the universities and we are a popular school. But no, nothing last year. I think we had three applications for two vacancies.”

So strong has been the message on the recruitment crisis that the Education Select Committee has called an inquiry. Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), is among those to have given evidence to MPs on the committee. His comments were based on a recent NAHT survey.

The NAHT research

The NAHT school recruitment survey showed that schools are struggling to recruit across both the primary and secondary sector and in an increasing number of cases, schools are unable to recruit at all. It suggests that the difference between the official statistics and the perceptions of schools is the result of the timing of information-gathering and interim solutions that are being put into place. The survey found that of those who had advertised vacancies:

  • 79 per cent said that recruitment was problematic.
  • 59 per cent recruited with a struggle.
  • 20 per cent were not able to recruit at all.

The NAHT found that there were particular recruitment difficulties to school leadership roles. Schools that had vacancies for headteachers struggled to recruit in 72 per cent of cases and for deputy headteachers in 64 per cent of cases.

The reasons given by the NAHT for the possible difficulties with recruitment include:

  • Low pay relative to other graduate professions.
  • A language of criticism and failure from the government.
  • A challenging accountability framework.

Fifty-two per cent of schools who struggled to recruit said that it was the result of an overall shortage of staff, while 47 per cent said it was lack of suitability for the advertised role.

Thirty-three per cent of respondents reported that their struggle was down to the number of teachers leaving the profession in their area.

The problem was reported as nationwide and there was no real difference between the issues being faced by academies and maintained schools. There were particular difficulties in recruiting teachers of maths but also for teaching roles with an SEN allowance, which are proving difficult to fill. The NAHT survey isn’t the only piece of research to raise concerns.

Teachers leaving the profession

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) report Should I Stay or Should I Go? states that the number of teachers leaving full-time teaching in 2014 was at a 10-year high of 9.2 per cent – 2.7 per cent higher than in 2010. In June 2015, 20 per cent of teachers were considering leaving teaching according to the study.

The NFER research suggests that, on average, the wages of teachers that left for another job were 10 per cent lower than those that stayed in teaching.

It states: “There was no sign of a significant minority of teachers leaving for better paid positions outside teaching in the state sector. In fact, the reverse was true, with a significant minority experiencing a drop in wages of more than 20 per cent.”

So, if teachers are not leaving to earn more money elsewhere, why are they leaving?

“The pressures on primary school teachers are huge,” said Alex Smythe, headteacher of Newcroft Primary School in Loughborough. “I have spoken to many people who are hugely put off by the workload which simply hasn’t reduced despite the focus the government has placed upon this.”

Workload and the pressures of accountability are raised in the NAHT survey and by the headteachers that we spoke to. The NAHT points out that not only are senior leaders perceiving promotion as a risky business, but so too are teachers considering middle leadership. The NAHT suggests that: “School accountability needs to depend on more than just data, needs to be applied over a number of years, and needs to be coherent among different agencies.”

With the challenging accountability framework, the NAHT points out that more emphasis needs to be placed on the CPD of teachers to help them meet the very high expectations that are being set. Mr Harris considers that the responsibility is shared: “We professionals must also take some blame. Why is it that so many leave in the first two years? It’s also because managers put unrealistic pressures on the staff. They have to be brilliant from day one. How stupid is that?”

Lack of suitability

In the NAHT survey, 47 per cent of those struggling to recruit NQTs put this down to a lack of quality of applicants and 40 per cent said it was due to an overall shortage.

“Headteachers are seeing many NQTs who are simply not ready for the demands of the role,” continued Ms Cotchin. “They are either very weak and need a lot of support or they end up quitting the job as it is too much.”

On the other hand, Samantha Gaymond, headteacher at Stocksbridge Junior School in Sheffield, has been impressed recently with the quality of applications. A situation that wasn’t the case, she felt, when NQTs were applying for jobs in Sheffield a couple of years ago.

This perceived lack of quality led to many of Ms Gaymond’s colleagues opting to offer places for students themselves and focusing on “growing their own” teachers for potential recruitment through different training routes.

The NAHT survey does indicate that schools believe teachers coming through the School Direct route are better prepared for the classroom than those coming through ITT. However, this use of School Direct is likely to benefit schools who are already doing well rather than those in difficulty.

Mr Smythe’s school is a lead school for delivering School Direct ITT from September 2016. He told Headteacher Update: “My experience is that the quality of ITT is improving all the time, but it is still hard to fill teacher vacancies because of a lack of numbers. Recruitment onto School Direct is slow and the quality varied but we insist on strict criteria to ensure that we have the best candidates to bring into the profession.”

The concern about quality isn’t confined to NQTs. Ms Cotchin added: “I’ve interviewed experienced and expensive teachers who are not up to the demands of the job. The old pay system allowed poor teachers to earn more each year for not doing all parts of the job, for example, managing and leading a subject.”

The exact depth and extent of the problem is perhaps being masked by the resourcefulness of headteachers, who ultimately must find someone to take the class, including themselves sometimes.

Schools’ solutions

Nearly half of the schools in the NAHT survey are now using recruitment agencies, which add to the cost for schools. The most common fee paid per vacancy was £1,000 to £3,000, although
six per cent of schools paid more than £7,000 and two schools paid more than £10,000.

Schools are also being more creative and focused on the whole recruitment process.

“We take a lot of time during the school day to show people round individually wherever possible,” explained Ms Gaymond. “It’s not just what candidates can offer the school but what the school can offer them.”

Emma Morrogh-Ryan, headteacher at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in south London, knew that they would need at least four teachers and did not want to employ an agency.

“Both myself and my deputy invested a lot of time to meet with all the applicants and talk about what would be required of them but also what we could offer. We ensure that CPD is high on the list as well as in-house support.”

Headteachers are very much aware of the importance of the recruitment drive, but even these are not always successful in attracting the right candidates.

Roddy Fairclough, headteacher at Newbury Park Primary School in Ilford, offered a good package and salary to attract potential candidates to senior leadership posts. However, they still had to go to a second round of adverts.

“It’s better to budget up front with the potential extra costs involved to get the right candidate,” Mr Fairclough said. “In the current climate, getting the wrong candidate is proving far more costly.”

Some schools try to avert crisis by keeping their staffing levels up and protecting themselves against unforeseen personnel changes: “I always aim to have someone in school in a position to fill that vacancy,” explained Ms Gaymond, “then we look to recruit if we need to without the added pressure.”

Although none of the schools Headteacher Update asked had recruited from abroad, several of the headteachers knew of a colleague who had. Canada and Australia were mentioned as being the most popular targets for recruitment drives.

The way forward

Whether it is a challenge or a crisis, teacher recruitment is definitely an issue for primary headteachers. They are using their resolve and creative strategies to plug the gaps. Longer term, however, something more is needed.

“The role is becoming more challenging and demanding – teachers lose evenings and weekends due to workload,” Ms Cotchin continued. “I believe that the government needs to come up with a solution to this problem which should revolve around professional respect and support.”

Failure by the Department for Education (DfE) to acknowledge the concerns of schools will not help. The lack of tangible action after the DfE’s widely promoted and much-trumpeted Workload Challenge has also exacerbated frustrations. “Of course there is a crisis,” said Mr Harris. “Lack of respect, poor pay, workload – you choose. The biggest in my humble opinion is that by constantly slating the profession we have reached a point whereby those who would have tried teaching are now put off and have found other roles.”

The NAHT and other teacher unions are clear that measures are needed to tackle working conditions and the status of the profession. Schools minister Nick Gibb acknowledges that there are issues to do with the pace of reform.

Whatever the statistics might say, a refusal to tackle the causes of recruitment difficulties will not improve the overall quality of our schools. Looking at the fundamental issues without prejudice or politics just might. 

Further information

  • Recruitment survey shows growing problems in schools (NAHT, December 2015):
  • Should I Stay or Should I Go? Analysis of Teachers Joining and Leaving the Profession (NFER, November 2015):

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is the only magazine delivered directly to every primary school headteacher in the UK. It is published six times a year, at the beginning of each term and half-term, to keep headteachers up-to-date with everything going on in primary education.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.