Early career retention improves slightly, but 8% of teachers still quit

Almost one in 10 teachers quit in 2020/21 and while teacher retention rates have improved slightly for early career teachers (ECTs), they are still worsening for more experienced colleagues, workforce data shows.

Furthermore, experts are warning that there could still be more teacher and headteacher resignations to come as Covid’s effect on recruitment and retention disappears.

For the moment, the latest data from the Department for Education (DfE, 2022) shows that the proportion of teachers quitting during their first five years of teaching has fallen.

For example, the proportion of teachers still teaching after three years at the chalkface now stands at 77% (up from its recent low of 73%), while the proportion still teaching after five years is 68.8% (up from a low of 65.4%).

However, the figures come with a warning – the data was collected in November 2021, a period when retention rates rose due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

An analysis by James Zuccollo (2022), director of school workforce at the think-tank Education Policy Institute (EPI), says that it is likely that we will not see the effect of post-pandemic resignations until next year’s data is released in June 2023.

And the overall number of teachers quitting the chalkface before retirement age has risen after falling due to the Covid effect. The number of teachers leaving in 2020/21 increased to 36,262, up by more than 4,000 on the year before. This equates to 8% of teachers quitting the profession – almost one in 10.

Overall, the workforce has grown by 1% in 2021/22 (to 465,500 full-time equivalent teachers), compared to 1.6% growth during the previous year. However, a sign of things to come might be seen in London, where the jobs market has rebounded more quickly than in the rest of the country. London has not seen the same levels of growth this year in teacher numbers.

Mr Zuccollo added: “In (London) secondary schools, there was only a very small increase and in primary schools the number of teachers fell sharply. It may be that London’s numbers are leading the rest of the country because of the earlier return to economic growth.”

Elsewhere, the data shows that while retention rates for ECTs are slowly getting better, those for experienced teachers are not improving.

Mr Zuccollo writes: “Retention rates have improved dramatically for ECTs in the past couple of years, but there has been less improvement for mid-career teachers, and almost none for experienced teachers.”

On top of this, the DfE cohort-level data only stretches to teachers in their mid-40s, meaning “it is possible that rates have been falling even further for older teachers”.

The data shows, for example, that after 18 years of teaching, 49% remain in the profession – but this figure has been in a steady decline over the last few years.

Likewise, after 15 years of teaching, 53% are still in the profession, but this figure stood at 58.2% around five years ago.

Mr Zuccollo adds: “This is concerning because building expertise takes time, and a young teacher is not a like-for-like replacement for a teacher with 20 years’ experience.”

In his analysis Mr Zuccollo highlights two trends that he says have been evident for the past decade: “A growing number of headteachers resigning before pension age, and secondary heads leaving the profession at a greater rate than primary heads”.

“Neither is due to the pandemic and both are concerning, particularly as many heads report considering quitting due to the pressure of their job,” he added.

The DfE’s figures show that in 2010/11, only 2% of secondary heads quit each year before retirement, but that has now risen to 7.5% in 2020/21.

His analysis also warns that the Covid recruitment bounce seems to be over: “Applications to initial teacher training are now well below pre-pandemic levels and … 2021/22 applications are far below the levels seen in the five previous years.”

Mr Zuccollo added: “Unfortunately, these numbers suggest that teaching is not so attractive today as it was a year ago. If these changes are reflected in the decisions teachers are making right now about whether to continue in teaching next year, then 2022’s retention figures could paint a very different picture and the improved early-career retention of the past couple of years could be reversed.”

Commenting on the updated workforce figures, Sara Tanton, deputy director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It should be of concern to the government that more teachers are quitting the profession before their retirement age, and in particular that the number of headteachers leaving has rocketed.

“This is perhaps not surprising as over the past two years they have worked relentlessly to keep education going throughout the pandemic with little support and much confusion from the government.

“Now they are once again being subjected to virtually the full battery of accountability measures – Ofsted inspections and performance tables – with little recognition of the huge impact of the pandemic. In addition, they are struggling with tight budgets that are being made worse by rising energy costs, while the government blithely insists they have never had it so good. In short, many leaders are ground down, demoralised, and have had enough. It is clear that there is a school leadership crisis brewing and the government should take heed.”

Joint general secretary at the NEU, Kevin Courtney, added: “Almost a quarter of teachers leave the profession within three years and almost a third within five years. This is not a sustainable situation.

“The government plans more real-terms cuts to teacher pay, adding to the cuts of around a fifth since 2010. Pay cuts, and the failure of the government to tackle excessive workload, are bound to intensify recruitment and retention problems that are already critical. The government must protect teachers and other educators by implementing fully funded and inflation-proofed cost of living increases across all pay scales.”