Why is it so difficult for teachers to remain in the profession?

Written by: Dr Mary Bousted | Published:
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The work of teachers is subject to routine surveillance that has become intensive, excessive and intrusive, robbing them of autonomy and driving the retention crisis, says Dr Mary Bousted, author of Support not Surveillance

Today I have one burning question: Why is it so difficult for teachers to remain in the profession? The numbers jumping ship are alarming. Within five years of qualification, more than 31% have left teaching. Within 10 years that figure rises to more than 40% (DfE, 2022).

No education system can succeed without a good supply of teachers. Successive governments, presented with strong evidence that excessive and intensive workload is the overwhelming reason for teacher flight, have professed teachers should be highly valued but have done little to realise that ambition.

Instead, research, such as the British Skills and Employment Survey, reveals that teachers’ work intensity has soared – so that by 2017, 90% of teachers reported that their job requires them to “work very hard” compared to 52% in other equivalent professions. The researchers conclude that “no other large occupation has shown anything like this degree of work intensification” (Green, 2021).

So, why do 85% of teachers report they are exhausted at the end of the working day, compared with only 45% of other professionals? (Green, 2021)

In a nutshell, teachers in England are subject to routine surveillance of their work which has become intensive, excessive and intrusive, robbing them of the professional choice, discretion and autonomy which should be the hallmark of a thinking, responsible profession.

Compelling evidence from the OECD’s 2018 Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) reveals just how controlled the working lives of teachers in England are compared to their international counterparts.

Teachers in England come second only to Singapore in the OECD international league tables for the volume of feedback they receive – on lesson plans, assessment of pupil progress, lesson observations, etc.

How effective is all this feedback in making a positive impact on teachers’ practice? Unfortunately, quantity does not equal quality. England comes at the lower end of the OECD league tables for teachers who feel feedback improves their practice.

In many OECD countries, teacher representatives have a role on the school senior management team so the voice of the classroom practitioner and their experience can inform collective decision-making. England comes 40th out of 48 in the OECD league table for involvement in the school management team, and third from bottom for inclusion in school decisions.

If there is one finding from TALIS that should alert us to the parlous state of teacher wellbeing in England it is this: 38% of teachers in England, more than double the OECD average, report that they experience a lot of stress in their work.

England comes a shameful second in the OECD league table of teacher stress, a finding that should be met by the government and by employers with an urgent, serious response.

So, what is the government’s response to the epidemic of teacher exhaustion? The White Paper, meant to be the template for our education system for the next decade, refers to excessive workload “where it still exists”, as though it is now a minor and diminishing problem. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.

The burning question is why? There are two main drivers of the monitoring and surveillance culture so embedded in English schools.

One is Ofsted – an inspection agency loathed and feared by the profession it regulates. All professions are wary of their regulator, but teachers hate and leaders fear Ofsted – with good reason.

One poor inspection result is career-ending for leaders and career-shaming for teachers. The shadow of the inspectorate looms over the profession, driving workload-intensive but useless practices.

Leaders admit that they would not choose to engage in this intensive monitoring that increases the excessive workload and stress felt by teachers and creates compliant rather than collaborative education workplaces were it not that they constantly have a weather eye and sometimes an intense gaze on what they believe the inspectors want to see.

The other main driver of excessive workload is the rapid turnover of education ministers, all of whom in an effort to make their mark impose half-baked policies which are often incapable of successful implementation. The dislocation between the government and the profession is evidenced in the startling finding from a recent poll of 1,746 teachers and leaders conducted for the National Education Union in May 2021 that 82% of teachers believe that the Department for Education has a negative impact on teaching and learning.

In a sense it is easier to criticise than construct alternatives to Ofsted and to incompetent governments’ oversight of education. Some considerations could include OECD recommendations for prioritising activities that have the greatest impact on teachers’ practices – building collaborative school cultures, including teachers in decision-making, promoting professional autonomy, strengthening the links between appraisal and CPD, and engaging teachers in educational review and reform. Teachers are, after all, the professionals in the room.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is the joint general secretary of the National Education Union and author of Support not Surveillance: How to solve the teacher retention crisis published by John Catt Educational. For details, visit https://bit.ly/3z7IJgG

Further information & resources

  • DfE: Reporting Year 2021: School workforce in England, June 2022: https://bit.ly/31phkrz
  • Green: British teachers’ declining job quality: Evidence from the Skills and Employment Survey, Oxford Review of Education, 47(3), 2021.
  • OECD: TALIS 2018 Results (Volume 11): teachers and school leaders as valued professionals, 2020.

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