Children in school class with teacher imparting lesson

Solving the teacher retention crisis: leadership, hours, and pay

Salman Shaheen speaks to Dr Joshua Fullard, Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science at the University of Warwick, on his ground-breaking research which holds the key to solving the teacher retention crisis.

The UK, like many other countries, faces a teacher retention crisis. Every year around one in 10 state school classroom teachers in England leave the profession and with the government missing its teacher recruitment targets, they are not being replaced fast enough. Over time, this means fewer teachers, larger classes, more work and stress for those who remain in the profession and all the more reason for them to quit too in search of jobs with better pay and shorter hours. One man who has made it his mission to solve the problem is Dr Joshua Fullard, Assistant Professor of Behavioural Science at the University of Warwick, who conducted a study with over 300 teachers to find out if they are considering leaving the profession and what factors would convince them to stay. The answers are clear: above all else teachers want to see good school leadership, followed by better working hours and at least a 10% pay rise. Unless the government and schools can address these issues then the teacher retention crisis is not going to go away. In an interview with Elevate, Dr Fullard takes a deep dive into the results of his study, which if acted upon could avert an education crisis.

Salman Shaheen: How did you come to start thinking about teachers? 

Headshot of Dr. Joshua Fullard

Dr Joshua Fullard: My interest in teaching is driven by my family. Everyone who I’m related to is a teacher. My mum’s a teacher, my dad’s a teacher, my sister’s, a teacher, and my wife’s a teacher. And my motivation is this clear evidence that teachers in my opinion, and empirically, are either the most important profession in society, or among the most important professions in society. The role they have in educating young people, and ensuring they have the skills and tools necessary to adapt and face the challenges of both today and tomorrow are vitally important for both our country’s economic success, but also culturally. Because we know education is linked with things like healthy behaviour, voting patterns, and the general behaviour we want in a good functioning society. 

I think probably the best part of my job, if I’m being entirely honest, is actually teaching myself. As an Assistant Professor, I also teach. And I absolutely love teaching. I think teaching is a fantastic job. And it’s something that I’m very passionate about doing myself, and also doing research to help and support and help shed light on the problems teachers are facing.

Salman Shaheen: Well, absolutely. I completely agree. My dad, he’s retired now, but he was a teacher. Both my grandparents on my mum’s side were teachers as well. My own background is in journalism before I came to work for T4 Education, but all roads lead back to teachers. So I certainly commend the work that you’re doing in that field. And specifically, I wanted to ask what led you to look into teacher retention? 

Dr Joshua Fullard: My work actually started looking at teacher recruitment. Does the relative attractiveness of a profession affect the probability that graduates would pursue a career in teaching? So we think that when teaching is relatively more attractive, more graduates are going to want to go into teaching. Well, during this research, one of the things I found really striking was there are actually quite strong capacity constraints in recruiting teachers. Especially from university-led routes, there are only so many places available. And this is because in university-led, each student is required to do a certain number of placements. I think it’s six weeks of placements. But schools are really reluctant to offer these placements. So actually, universities are constrained by how many places they can have. 

So now the question is, well, if we can’t increase the supply of teachers by getting more people into teaching, which would mean radically reforming the system, well, let’s stop them from leaving. Because even when we do bring them in, I think it’s like one in three leave in five years anyway. So actually, it might be better to focus on trying to keep the teachers where they are and understand what are the factors that are causing them to leave. And how can public policy support this? 

Salman Shaheen: One of those factors highlighted by your research is school leadership. How important is that?

Dr Joshua Fullard: When I was trying to figure out what factors I should include in my research, I did some really good qualitative interviews with a range of teachers. And the underlying theme that all them said is that the quality of the senior leadership in their school is probably the most important factor that they face; it can really make or break a situation. It is vitally important for teachers’ workloads and though it doesn’t necessarily mean that good school leaders reduce teachers’ workload, it’s base support, and they help them manage it in such a way that they actually feel comfortable with it. 

Salman Shaheen: Is school leadership, then, the most important factor followed by hours and pay? 

Dr Joshua Fullard: Senior leadership is incredibly important, I go as far to say they are the most important factor that determines whether another teacher stays. I’d probably put it on par with working hours and workload, but there’s probably a relationship between having a good senior leadership and change in working workload as it’s almost certainly true that a good senior leader is able to support teachers better with their workloads than less able senior leaders. 

I think it’s really difficult to weigh up the different factors. Salaries are important, but you have to make a very large change in salaries for it to be as important as changes in working hours and senior leadership. So for example, if policymakers increased teacher’s pay by 10%, so kind of almost reverted to just pay back to 2010 levels, we’d expect teachers’ attrition intention reduce by a similar amount to a five-hour reduction in working hours. So pay does matter. But actually, things like working hours and senior leadership are more important. 

Salman Shaheen: So the sweet spot, then, would be to have a good school leader, decent working hours so you’ve got a good work-life balance, and a significant pay rise. Because if you have a significant pay rise, then you’re probably willing to put up with longer hours and a lack of good leadership. But if you don’t have that significant pay rise, and obviously that’s a big problem in education today, the other two factors become very salient in your decision to quit.

Dr Joshua Fullard: That excellently put. That’s exactly right. We call it almost a compensating differential. So if you’re paid a lot more, so we’re talking about, like 10% plus more, you’re willing to overlook these other factors. So let’s actually make sure teachers are supported, let’s make sure senior leaders are supported and kind of given the freedom to run the schools in the way they want. 

I think one of the really good examples of the government giving to school seniors freedom, but not really, is the way they gave senior leaders complete flexibility to determine teachers’ pay, which you know, in theory, I think this is fantastic. You know, we trust these people to recruit teachers. We should also trust these people to be able to retain the best teachers and they may have given higher salaries. This is a fantastic option. However, on the other hand, the government didn’t adjust school funds to pay for it.

Joshua Fullard with his degree in his hands

Salman Shaheen: Looking at where we are currently in terms of the industrial disputes that teachers find themselves in with the government, do you see this government giving teachers the pay rise that they need to make it make a tangible difference in terms of stemming the tide of teachers quitting professional? 

Dr Joshua Fullard: That’s a really good question. I think it’s important to remember that since about 2010, teachers’ real wages have fallen by 13%. And at the same time, average wages have increased by 2%. So in relative terms, teaching is now about 15% less attractive.

And this is a huge problem, because teachers are vitally important. So we should be treating and paying teachers based on the important role they have in society. So I would hope that the government does give teachers a tangible pay rise. And it could be that there’s a modest pay rise, but I’d be very surprised if there’s an offer around the 10% mark, or higher with this huge pressure on the public purse. 

But I do think, given the important role that teachers have, and how we are really struggling to recruit and retain teachers and this is meant to be a government priority, this is a very serious issue and the government should step up and do something about it urgently. Do I think this is going to happen? We can hope and see. But I feel sorry for everyone involved in teaching and in the education sector in general, because these people do not want to go on strike. They want to be in the classroom, educating the next generation, and delivering excellent education for next generation. 

And yet I read that there are one in five teachers taking on second jobs, while others are using foodbanks, and that shows how poorly the government values education and educators. Where have we gone in a society where the people who will educate the next generation aren’t being paid enough to feed their own children? 

One of the things I find quite striking is there’s this phrase, in teaching, “you steal from home, to give to work”. And I think the average primary school teacher spends about £120 of their own money on resources and items for the children. Things like feminine hygiene products, food and snacks. This stuff is coming out of their already dwindling salaries. And I think this is really a real reflection of the type of people we have in teaching and we are so fortunate that they’re willing to undergo that financial loss because I estimate that in 2019, one in three teachers would be financially better off in a different profession. But it’s almost certainly jumped since – probably around the 40-50% mark today. We are so fortunate to have these people in teaching, but this is not going to last forever. And we really need to make sure these people are adequately supported and treated, or else we could face an education crisis.

Salman Shaheen: We’ve talked a lot about the UK because, of course, your research has focused on the UK. Have you looked at any trends outside the UK? 

Dr Joshua Fullard: I have been fortunate enough to have spoken to some colleagues who do similar work in the US where they have found very similar problems. And this is quite common across most of the developed world. Teachers’ pay relative to other professions is falling, and fewer people are going into teaching. 

I have also worked with some colleagues from Indonesia. And they were telling me that they actually have the opposite: in Indonesia teachers are extremely well paid relative to average earnings and they actually have a significant oversupply of teachers. Which is the dream position, right? So headteachers can have many excellent applicants and they are able to identify the specific teachers that their school needs, rather than just kind of struggling to recruit. 

I think there are other countries, developing countries, where governments have really put a real emphasis on making sure teaching is a well-respected and well-paid profession. And I think this is something that countries like the UK, and certainly other countries can really learn from, because we can also benefit in terms of economic growth from actually paying teachers well, and making sure teachers are appropriately valued.

Teachers evaluating students' work in classroom

Salman Shaheen: Are there any other areas of your research you’d like to draw attention to? 

Dr Joshua Fullard: There’s some really quite striking stuff on teacher diversity. The proportion of schools without teachers from an ethnic minority background is huge. There are some areas even in London where the school workforce needs to become twice as diverse to be representative of the pupil population. And then in other areas it needs to become 10 times more diverse.

There’s also quite large discrepancies with gender diversity. Roughly one in four state schools in England don’t have a single male classroom teacher. A lot of young boys are struggling and they don’t have good male role models. Teachers, for many young people are the most important adult in their lives outside of their family. So actually, the fact that a lot of young boys don’t have male role models or kind of role models who look like them in school is also a problem. And I think this is also another symptom of a school workforce kind of been somewhat neglected since 2010.

Transform your school culture with our Best School to Work programme