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Powerlessness, not workload: is this why secondary, but not primary, teachers are leaving teaching?

The secondary teaching crisis

On 27thJune 2019 the Education Policy Institute published this chart derived from DfE school workforce figures:

To be clear: the fall in number of secondary teachers doesn’t reflect a fall in the number of secondary students. According to DfE figures, the number of secondary students in England’s schools fell from 2010 to 2014, then rose by 2018 to a similar number as in 2010. The number of primary pupils rose throughout the whole period. [PDF document]

There is clearly a crisis in recruitment and retention of teachers in secondary schools – the number of teachers is falling while the number of students is rising.

This seems to be the first time that the different resignation rates of primary and secondary teachers have been made clear. Strangely, no-one seems to have pointed this out before. All the analyses of why teachers leave teaching treat primary and secondary together, yet clearly the experience of the two sectors is very different.

Is excessive workload the cause?

The most common reason given for teachers leaving is excessive workload, but another recent study shows this isn’t so. In September 2019 the UCL Institute of Education published the longest ever study of teachers’ working hours, from 1992 to 2018, and found that their hours haven’t significantly changed in 25 years:
Working hours trends graph [PDF document]

Secondary teachers’ hours of work are, if anything, slightly less than primary teachers’ and this hasn’t changed for 25 years. Yet secondary teachers are currently leaving the profession in droves while primary teachers are staying.

These two charts explode two common myths. The first is the teacher unions’ belief that teachers are leaving the profession because of excessive workload. This is obviously untrue when hours of work have remained largely unchanged for 25 years and primary teachers, though working longer hours, are increasing in numbers. The second is that teachers entering the profession these days will no longer accept such long hours. Again, the charts, taken together, show that this is untrue – primary teachers, though working longer, stay. The causes of the secondary teachers’ exodus must lie elsewhere.

Is pupil behaviour to blame?

One possibility is that secondary teachers find adolescents harder to manage. After all, younger children are mostly obedient while adolescents often test the boundaries of what is acceptable. But there is no evidence that this is a major feature of most teachers leaving the profession.

In 2017 the DfE completed an analysis of the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) findings in 2013 on teacher retention and reported that the most significant factors in teachers’ job satisfaction are (in descending order):

  • supportive leadership
  • effective professional development
  • teacher cooperation
  • scope for career progression
  • feeling sufficiently prepared for teaching.

Admittedly the analysis didn’t distinguish between primary and secondary teachers, but pupil behaviour scarcely registered. [PDF document]

This is supported by a DfE in 2017 study of teachers’ reasons for leaving the profession the previous year.
Reasons for leaving teaching chart

Pupil behaviour comes eighth, far behind other factors.

The problem with surveys like this is that they rely on teachers ticking boxes for the reasons they are leaving, not on in-depth interviews, and it’s clear that some of these are proxies for other dissatisfactions. As we have seen, workload (given first) hasn’t changed in 25 years and Government policies and Ofsted (2nd and 4th) affect primary schools just as much as secondary ones.

To find the real reasons why secondary teachers are leaving while primary teachers aren’t, we need to explore two of the other factors rated strongly in Figure 4.1: feeling undervalued (3rd) and lack of support (5th). This ties in with the DfE TALIS analysis mentioned above which found that, for teachers’ job satisfaction, the quality of interpersonal relations and sense of personal autonomy within a school outweigh all other considerations including workload and challenging circumstances.

Primary and secondary experience

There has been no formal investigation of why secondary teachers, but not primary teachers, are leaving in greater numbers, but the following differences are evident.
In primary schools:

  • teachers teach almost the whole curriculum to a single class which they come to know very well
  • classes are usually mixed-attainment so teachers develop expertise in simultaneously teaching children of all abilities; this requires a child-centred approach responding to the varied needs of each of the children
  • teachers therefore become experts in their class’s learning at individual pupil level; they are the ‘go to’ person for any issues relating to one of their pupils
  • to teach the whole curriculum, co-planning with colleagues is the norm
  • as schools are small, the SLT are usually physically nearby and professionally supportive.

The typical pattern in primary schools is that teachers are both autonomous as experts in their class’s learning and used to close cooperation with colleagues in planning varied lessons across the whole curriculum.

In secondary schools:

  • teachers usually teach a single subject to a range of classes
  • classes are often setted by prior attainment in English and/or Maths
  • as a subject specialist, the teacher is responsible for their pupils’ attainment in that subject
  • however, although they are subject specialists, teachers may not be able to teach according to their preferred pedagogical style; they may be expected to deliver a particular model of teaching and learning by their Subject Lead, SLT or MAT adviser (the last two not necessarily specialists in their subject)
  • in these circumstances, co-planning is more likely to be unavailable; as subject specialists, teachers are expected to be able deliver the specified material in the required way
  • in large schools, teachers may be chiefly confined to departmental bases with limited personal contact otherwise; SLT members may be physically remote and mostly encountered in an administrative or judgemental role
  • some secondary academies are run on a business-orientated model which teachers, who usually enter teaching to help young people grow intellectually and personally, may find uncongenial.

Secondary teachers are therefore more likely to feel unsupported and professionally undervalued – though subject specialists, they may not be regarded as experts in their students’ learning, but rather chiefly as deliverers of lessons designed by others. The EPI report cited first in this blog also tracks the resignation rates of graduate NQTs with 10 per cent leaving in the first year, a further 10 per cent in the second and a continuing steep slope thereafter. Put briefly, young secondary teachers seem often to find themselves in a high-demand profession in which they have great responsibility but in which, in professional matters, they are powerless. They find this intolerable and leave, either for a school which allows greater autonomy and professional self-worth or for other work.

The pressure of preparing pupils for public examinations is clearly a factor. In primary schools, teachers prepare pupils for low-stakes tests in phonics and Key Stage 1 English and Maths. The high-stakes Key Stage 2 tests are the responsibility of Year 6 teachers who are either highly experienced or, if not, are strongly supported by SLT and colleagues. It is also the case that, while the KS2 tests are important for school accountability, parents have less interest in the results than GCSE because their child’s future doesn’t depend on them in any way.

In secondary schools GCSE results are seen as important by pupils and their parents and by the school as vital for reputation and recruitment. Many schools therefore have detailed assessment systems for tracking students’ progress in relation to GCSE even from Year 7. This in turn puts pressure on teachers constantly to demonstrate student progress.

Further, the current search for evidence-based methods of raising attainment may lead to a range of relatively mechanistic approaches recommended or required by department, SLT or MAT: repetition/re-presenting of material (up to 85 per cent of a lesson); knowledge organisers; interleaving; quizzes; and low-stakes multiple-choice tests. A teacher who enters teaching for the satisfaction of helping young minds to grow may find such an emphasis too functionalist and emotionally unsatisfying.

It would need further research, but it seems at least possible that some schools’ requirement of a particular kind of pedagogy which some teachers find impersonal and overprescriptive may contribute strongly to their decision to leave the school or even the profession. It may be at this point that long working hours, which are otherwise acceptable, become less so. Without the satisfactions of teaching according to one’s own personally preferred style, workload may be felt as a problem.

What should be done?

Certainly something other than workload is causing increasing numbers of secondary, but not primary, teachers to leave the profession and the DfE needs to investigate this. So far, the DfE has commissioned various investigations into teacher workload and made various well-meaning recommendations for reducing it which have had no effect. If the flow of secondary teachers leaving the profession is to be stopped and hopefully reversed, something else needs to be done.

An immediately helpful development would be for Ofsted to include teacher turnover in its inspection reports. The OECD, Education Policy Institute and DfE are all clear that high staff turnover harms the quality of education in a school and parents presumably have a right to this information as potentially affecting their child’s education. Where turnover is high, Ofsted should take a view on the causes and include this in its report and, if appropriate, grading.

In the longer term, the DfE should commission independent research on the deeper reasons why teachers leave high-turnover schools, using confidential exit interviews by independent researchers. This would be more accurate than using questionnaires which, unless they are very carefully designed, may enable teachers to avoid giving the true reasons for their leaving.

It may be that that a requirement to deliver a particular pedagogy may be found unsatisfying and unacceptable and/or that the school’s leadership style is felt as abrasive or even repressive. In either case, a sense of powerlessness may be the deciding factor in teachers’ decision to leave. Until this is investigated, the haemorrhage of secondary teachers is likely to continue.

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