Seven solutions to your teacher retention challenges

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
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More than one in nine primary teachers are leaving the profession each year. Drawing on a range of research, Matt Bromley looks at seven key factors that schools should focus on if they want to boost retention rates

Roughly one in nine primary teachers are leaving the profession each year. The latest figures, from the Teacher labour market annual report (Worth, 2020), show that the primary teacher leaving rate has decreased from 9.6 per cent in 2017/18 to 9.3 per cent in 2018/19 – an improvement of around 85 teachers. However, it means nevertheless that retention is still a challenge for schools.

Furthermore, data from the latest School Workforce Census (DfE, 2019) show that drop-out rates of young graduate teachers are rising and each year’s graduates are more likely to leave the profession than the previous year’s – 85 per cent of 2017 graduates were still in the profession after one year, compared to 88 per cent of 2011 graduates.

In addition, recruitment in primary schools is challenging despite government initial teacher training (ITT) figures consistently suggesting we are hitting are training targets. Indeed, during their inquiry into teacher recruitment and retention, MPs on the Education Select Committee were told that most primary headteachers “are struggling to recruit enough teachers and are doubtful about the teacher supply model suggestion that we are overtraining on primary teachers” (Education Select Committee, 2017).


Although there are many reasons why teachers quit, topping the table in most surveys is workload.

According to a National Audit Office study (NAO, 2017), 67 per cent of school leaders reported that workload is a barrier to teacher retention. Meanwhile, a report commissioned by the Department for Education – Factors affecting teacher retention (DfE, 2018) – found that workload remained the most important factor influencing teachers’ decisions to quit and most solutions to addressing retention were linked in some way to workload.

The theory, then, is simple: reduce teacher workload and solve the teacher retention crisis.

Accordingly, in a previous article for Headteacher Update, I focused on ways of reducing teachers’ workload (Bromley, 2020).

More than just workload

But solving the problem of teacher recruitment and retention is much more complex than this...

The Education Select Committee’s enquiry report – Recruitment and retention of teachers (2017) concluded that workload concerns were not the only reason teachers leave the profession.

Rather, “overall job satisfaction comes out as the biggest driver (for intention to leave), and also things related to whether they feel supported and valued by management”.

This sentiment is echoed in a report from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) entitled Engaging teachers, which says that “it is too simplistic to focus solely on workload as the reason ... teachers decide to leave” (Lynch et al, 2016).

As such, I would like to explore some other possible solutions to the problem of teacher recruitment and retention in primary schools.

Solution 1: The nature of teachers’ workloads

A recent UCL Institute of Education survey of around 1,200 current and former teachers found that it was the nature rather than the quantity of workload that was the crucial factor in driving teachers out of the classroom (Perryman & Calvert, 2019).

Underlying teachers’ decisions to quit, the report concluded, was a perceived contradiction between expectations and reality – in other words, the practice of being a teacher impeded their ability to actually be a teacher.

Many of those surveyed by UCL imagined, before they started, that they could cope with the workload, but once in the classroom, a general lack of support from subject coordinators and headteachers, together with the effects of a high-stakes accountability system, were far worse than they had thought and it was this that led to many leaving, with many more actively considering quitting.

The UCL findings illustrate a link between workload fears and the reality of working within what the report authors – Dr Jane Perryman and Graham Calvert – call “the accountability performativity context”.

They state: “Those who want to be teachers are committed to the profession and yet, somehow, that commitment is eroded in a very short space of time.”

This notion of an “accountability performativity context” is echoed in the NFER report Early career CPD (Walker et al, 2018), which argues that the translation of hopes and expectations to lived experiences of teaching leads to “practice shock”, summarised by one participant as: “When you go through your (ITT) placements, you can’t truly understand how much work there is to do, or how much responsibility comes with the job (which) hit me hard in the NQT year.”

Unless such issues are addressed, the report says, there is a high risk of new teachers walking away from the profession before they might have anticipated doing so.

To help, the report said that early career teachers should have access to:

  • A supportive mentor who is ideally a subject specialist and respected by the mentee as a practitioner in the classroom.
  • A balanced package of support involving a standardised training programme alongside more personalised, teacher-led opportunities.
  • A supportive school culture.

Solution 2: Flexible working

According to the Factors affecting teacher retention report (DfE, 2018), flexible working and part-time contracts are also generally viewed positively by teachers and likely to improve recruitment and retention. Some viewed these as a way to secure a better work/life balance.

A majority of primary teachers are female (75 per cent according to DfE official statistics) and many have young children – 54 per cent according to Teacher Tapp (2020), 40 per cent of which have children under the age of eight.

As such, flexible working could have a particular impact in primary schools. In another Teacher Tapp survey, 42 per cent of teachers said they would like to reduce their hours, with 78 per cent saying they would prefer a four-day week.

The DfE report (2018) also recommends timetable flexibility and says that considerations include how flexibility could be offered to early career teachers who want broader teaching experience, how pastoral responsibilities could be gently phased in, and how these could be managed practically in school.

However, it warns: “It was important to teachers that they were not penalised for taking up part-time contracted roles, in terms of salary or the opportunity to keep responsibility points.”

Solution 3: Leadership support

In a paper entitled Is the grass greener beyond teaching? (Bamford & Worth, 2017) – part of the NFER’s Teacher Retention and Turnover Research – the authors argue that there is a strong relationship between teacher job satisfaction and leadership quality in their school, and that leadership is also associated with the extent to which teachers regard their workload as manageable.

The report concludes that nurturing, supporting, and valuing teachers is vital to keep their job satisfaction and engagement high and improve their retention in the profession. Senior leaders, they argue, should regularly monitor the job satisfaction and engagement of their staff.

And according to the Factors affecting teacher retention report (DfE, 2018), greater levels of support and understanding from headteachers are needed, for example, in terms of the management of pupil behaviour, and the ability to have open and honest conversations. This will help support teachers’ relationships with their senior leadership team and reduce feelings of pressure in terms of scrutiny, accountability and workload.

Solution 4: Clarity of expectations

A Learning Policy Institute paper from the US, entitled Teacher turnover: Why it matters and what we can do about it (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017), says that school leadership, collegial relationships, and school culture are of particular importance to teacher retention.

With controls for pupil and teacher characteristics, their analysis found that the workplace condition most predictive of teacher turnover in the US was a perceived lack of administrative support, a construct that measures how teachers rate an administrator’s ability to encourage and acknowledge staff, communicate a clear vision, and generally run a school well.

When teachers strongly disagree that their administration is supportive, they are more than twice as likely to move schools or leave teaching than when they strongly agree that their administration is supportive.

Solution 5: Teacher professional development

The Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) Peter Sellen told the House of Commons Education Select Committee (2017) that “60 per cent of teachers agreed that one of the key barriers to accessing professional development was their work schedule”.

The pressure on teachers’ time can mean that CPD is squeezed out of timetables and not prioritised. CPD should act as on-going training throughout teachers’ careers to improve their practice, develop new skills and maintain subject knowledge. However, the Education Select Committee argues that the teaching profession in England lacks clear, structured provision for CPD and a number of barriers act to reduce the amount of CPD done by teachers.

As well as struggling to find time for CPD, the current nature of the accountability system – the committee argues – means that senior leaders can be reluctant to release staff from the classroom. As well as CPD being available, therefore, teachers must be given time to attend training.

Analysis by the EPI of the Teaching and Learning International Survey in 2013 (TALIS) showed that the number of days of CPD that English teachers carried out was fewer than most other OECD countries (Sellen, 2016). On average, English teachers spent four days doing CPD in one year, whereas teachers in Singapore spent 12 days and South Korea 15 days.

This is perhaps unsurprising, the Education Select Committee says in its 2017 report, when you consider that teachers in Singapore are entitled to 100 hours of CPD per year, whereas England has no such entitlement. Singapore is not alone with this kind of commitment; closer to home, Scottish teachers are entitled to 35 hours of CPD per year.

The quality of CPD is also crucial to improving teacher retention. This, too, was raised at the Education Select Committee hearings as an essential factor to teacher professionalism.

Experts from the UCL Institute for Education told the committee that “evidence suggests the best CPD is long-term, interspersed with episodes of practice, individually tailored and informed and challenged by external expertise”.

Schools deliver a lot of their CPD in-house, which can be very effective, but, the committee says, external expertise is often beneficial too.

Solution 6: Career progression and professional recognition

In a report entitled Leading together: Why supporting school leadership matters (2018), Teach First argued that nurturing existing talent in schools could help address the leadership shortage and help retain teachers.

The report claims that 88 per cent of teachers say that if their school were to offer excellent leadership development opportunities this would have some impact on their likelihood of remaining at their school, with 34 per cent saying it would have a great impact. Importantly, this rises to 41 per cent of those teachers considering leaving the profession within the next year.

Leadership development provides teachers with an additional incentive to stay in education, rather than seeking progression opportunities elsewhere. Providing teachers with a positive and supportive culture of learning and development could, therefore, support with morale and retention.

The Factors affecting teacher retention report (DfE, 2018) says there is evidence that the availability of wider progression opportunities may also help support retention. This could be supported by communicating examples of how multi-academy trusts (MATs) have developed alternative subject progression pathways, exploring transferability to other schools, and supporting schools to consider job role swaps.

In a discussion paper entitled Why teach?, published by Pearson and LKMCo (Menzies et al, 2015), the authors argue that teachers who stay in the profession do so largely because they consider themselves to be good at it and because they enjoy making a difference to pupils’ lives. Retention, therefore, depends on ensuring teachers feel that they can have an impact: letting them “get on with it” is therefore key in maintaining a motivated and committed workforce.

The Pearson/LKMCo paper draws heavily on research carried out by NFER (Gould et al, 2000) which outlined four reasons why teachers remain in the profession:

  1. Recognition of their work.
  2. Pupil development and learning.
  3. Manager approval.
  4. Family and friends.

Similarly, Priyadharshini and Robinson-Pant (2003) find that job satisfaction depends on providing greater intellectual challenge, autonomy and the opportunity to spend sufficient time with students.

Birkeland and Johnson (2003), meanwhile, argue that teachers tend to stay in post when they can pursue professional growth and development, something particularly important to new or early career teachers.

A deeply rooted culture of professionalism can therefore ensure that even socio-economically disadvantaged schools retain teachers through “supportive administrators and colleagues, clear expectations for students and safe, orderly environments”.

Solution 7: Teacher autonomy

Ensuring teachers felt more respected and valued would have gone some way to retaining them in the sector, according to Factors affecting teacher retention (DfE, 2018), although teachers were unclear on how this could be achieved for the profession as a whole. Their suggestions related to how senior leaders trusted their work and gave them freedom and autonomy to mark and plan.

The NFER and the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) have also published research showing that teachers’ perceived autonomy over their professional development goals has a strong association with retention and overall improved job satisfaction (Worth & Van den Brande, 2020; see also SecEd, 2020).

  • Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with 20 years’ experience in teaching and leadership. He works as a consultant, speaker, and trainer. Visit

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