Following the recent OECD figures, David Weston, Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust explores why teachers are leaving classrooms early. This article first appeared in The Guardian, and can be found here.

With England having one of the youngest teaching workforces in the OECD, especially at primary level, it is hard to know whether to celebrate or despair.

Clearly things seem to be going well with recruiting new, young teachers into the profession, yet it is strange that so many of our more experienced teachers are leaving in such large numbers. We need to act urgently to eradicate some of the causes of high turnover and ensure that wisdom and experience is not being lost but being effectively spread around the school system.

When you look in detail, the figures for the 31 OECD countries are stark. With 20% of our secondary teachers aged under 30, we have the second youngest workforce after Indonesia. In the primary sector we have a massive 31% of teachers in this age bracket, way ahead of second-ranked Belgium with 22%.

The positions are similar if you look at the proportions of teachers under 40. At the other end of the table we see Italy with a staggering 85% of primary teachers aged over 40 and 92% of secondary teachers. Amazingly, two out of three Italian secondary teachers are over 50, a proportion that must terrify the authorities. Clearly it’s better for us to have a workforce with a good supply of new entrants but it is striking just how unusual our workforce is.

So where are all of our more mature teachers going? According to a 2009 study by researchers at Durham University into recruitment and retention in teaching, the top reasons given for leaving are stress, excessive workload, bureaucracy and behaviour issues.

Broadly speaking, the majority of teachers in England who leave the profession tend to be either in their early careers (within the first five years) or toward the end (over 50s) – according to earlier Department for Education research. Notably, a significant proportion (around three in 10) of the younger teachers are leaving with an intention to return, for example going on sabbatical, travelling or starting a family.

The fact that such a large number of more mature teachers are citing stress, workload and bureaucracy as a reason to leave is worrying. It suggests that not only are some teachers burning themselves out and leaving, but that some may be burning themselves out earlier in their career and yet remaining in the classroom in order to retain their salary.

Indeed, the TUC recently reported that teachers put in more overtime than any other public sector workers and Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the NUT, has said that teachers are “manifestly overworked” and that their jobs are becoming “increasingly stressful”.

This can’t be good for the young people in our schools nor for the colleagues of these teachers who have to support them and potentially pick up the slack. Worst of all, it is the schools in the most challenging circumstances that experience the highest rates of staff turnover and this has been shown to be damaging to the quality of education.

Michael Barber’s much-vaunted message that “the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers” is a powerful one that has led many school leaders and policymakers to throw more initiatives and training at teachers in order to make them better. The irony is that this approach leads to a loss of professionalism and autonomy, which simply fuels stress levels, reduces motivation and makes it less likely that teachers will have the capacity to improve themselves.

It’s also ironic given that we know from Viviane Robinson’s research that focusing on “making teachers teach better” is only half as effective as a leadership activity than modelling and leading teacher learning and building capacity for professional collaborative development.

High-quality, collaborative professional development and teacher learning (as distinct from low-quality cultures of one-off CPD that are “done to” teachers) has been shown to raise young people’s engagement and attainment, as well as raising the motivation and confidence of teachers.

I’ve witnessed this myself with teachers who have participated in our National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN) Lesson Study pilot reporting greater teamwork and engagement in their work.

This is a triad-based approach to collaborative professional development where teachers plan a lesson and predict the effect of specific teaching activities on specific pupils. They then teach and observe the lesson and follow this with brief pupil interviews and then reflect on their predictions in order to plan the next lesson in the sequence.

When collaborative teacher enquiry approaches, such as this, are embedded in a culture where teachers are empowered to take charge of their own improvement then we see improved morale and retention for staff and greater depth of learning and engagement for the young people in our classes.

It’s this approach, along with a supportive leadership that reduces bureaucratic burdens, that actively supports effective behaviour management and prioritises teacher learning. This can work towards ensuring that we are able to not only keep our most experienced professionals in the classroom but also ensure they keep improving, year-on-year.

The National Teacher Enquiry Network (NTEN) is a collaborative partnership of schools and colleges focused on innovation and improvement through highly effective and evidence-based staff professional development and learning, supported by rigorous research and development.

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