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How you can address the retention challenge before it becomes a crisis


James Toop, CEO of Ambition School Leadership discusses how effective leadership and line management can be the tipping point in retaining the great teachers

In theory, teacher retention is simple. Keep your staff motivated and engaged and they will stay. In practice, it is hard to do.

The publication of last week’s School Workforce Census figures by the Department for Education (DfE) show the number of teachers entering the profession to be down from 45,120 in 2015 to 43,830 last year. It is yet another reminder of the staffing challenges we face in today’s schools. We need great staff if we are to provide every child with a great education.

Despite the negative headlines, we can see that the number of teachers leaving the profession actually fell from 10.4% in 2015 to 9.9% last year. Focusing on the ‘crisis’ narrative makes it easy to forget that the majority of teachers are not considering leaving the profession. But that’s not to say school leaders should be complacent about retention: working to keep staff engaged and positive should remain high on the agenda for middle and senior leaders.

As the well-known adage goes, people don’t leave jobs – they leave managers. Feeling supported, trusted and engaged are the main motivators for teachers to stay in-post. This was emphasised by Amanda Spielman in her speech at the Festival of Education, in which she highlighted that a management team is just as important as a headteacher in driving improvement. As leaders we are often too quick to spot the things that go wrong or need improvement, but celebrating success and rewarding staff is also critical.  A positive comment in the corridor, letters or cards to staff, and taking an interest in their personal life are all practical ways to send a powerful message to staff about how much you value them.

Research by LKMCo showed that the best middle leaders manage work and resources effectively so that staff feel they can manage workload, have time to focus on the job of teaching and are supported to improve practice. They also develop strong relationships with their team and are excellent at difficult skills such as giving feedback and having conversations about performance. Good managers also develop their colleagues, and this is a big contributing factor in retaining high-potential staff. We’ve seen this in our participants: 89% of Teaching Leaders from our 2014 intake are still in the school that supported them through the programme and 98% of Future Leaders are still working in state schools five years after completing the programme.

In a recent NAHT podcast from James Bowen of NAHT Edge and some middle leaders from our Teaching Leaders programme, coaching was described as one the most positive aspects of the programme. The leaders praised its tailored approach and its focus on you and your goals, enabling greater impact in school.  Such development is a great way of making staff feel valuable, cared for and supported because it gives them the opportunity to discuss their challenges and grow professionally. In the words of another participant, “My coach never told me how to fix an issue or to get around it, but empowered me to think of the solution myself.”

If developing individuals and managing teams is a vital first step, the next challenge is to get school leaders at all levels – from middle leaders to CEOs - to work together and ensure it happens consistently across a school, a group of schools and the entire sector. Heads and executive leaders can set a positive whole-school culture and communicate the high expectations that line managers must support teachers with the day to day challenges of the role. 

That’s why we focus on leadership at all levels at Ambition School Leadership, offering a joined-up leadership development pathway to tackle educational disadvantage, and thus ease the retention challenge within schools. We enable the leaders of today to improve their people management practice, and show the leaders of tomorrow the way to a rewarding and long-term career in the profession. 

We know that working in schools where pupils arrive with low prior attainment or low aspirations can have a mountain to climb towards GCSEs - this can be the most satisfying career a teacher could ask for. But they can also be the most challenging circumstances in which to work.  It is therefore vital that we develop our middle and senior leaders to be inspirational as well as focused on process and outcomes, and on their staff. While the sector has its challenges, effective leadership and line management could be the tipping point in retaining the great teachers working with children who most need a great education.

The final deadline for applications to the Teaching Leaders programme is Friday 7 July. Follow this link to nominate a high potential colleague.

About the author

James Toop is CEO of Ambition School Leadership, a charity working with leaders at all levels, from aspiring middle leaders to multi-academy trust chief executives. It provides technical training and leadership development to help leaders and schools transform the lives of the children who need it most. Teaching Leaders, its programme for high-potential middle leaders, is open for nominations until 7 July 2017.


First published 05 July 2017