School dropouts

Why young teachers are quitting

10th January 2018

January is prime time for making a career change. A reported 47% of UK workers will look for new jobs in 2018 and one in five of those are already on the hunt. This suggests that nearly half of us are unhappy in our current roles which, let’s be honest, isn’t much of a shocker.

But — in a generation where we’re constantly overwhelmed with choice — there’s a bigger issue to be addressed. Young graduates are training for and entering professions simply because they are expected to.

Teaching is arguably at the forefront of this conversation. A profession once regarded as only for people with a talent for educating young minds, teaching is now regularly sold to confused graduates as a sensible, shiny and rewarding career option. In fact, the Department for Education (DfE) injected a whopping £16.6m into recruitment marketing over the last year. Receiving a wage while training, a £28,660 inner-London starting salary, plentiful opportunities around the UK and all those holidays – it’s easy to see the appeal for a debt-saddled twenty-something with no idea what to do next, even if they’d never considered teaching before.

And yet, the number of people training to be teachers is falling rapidly. The number of trainee secondary school teachers dropped by more than 10,000 between 2010 and 2016 – a fall of nearly 5%, according to a report from the DfE. The report also disclosed that of the 34,910 teachers who left a position for reasons other than retirement in 2016, around half of those quit teaching altogether, with quarter of new teachers leaving within five years.

The simultaneous drop in new teachers and rise in resignations is indicative of a huge problem. Perhaps the saccharine gloss of smiling teachers on advertisements and mass marketing campaigns isn’t enough to fool potential students when so many recent graduates who started teaching are talking about the endless slog of data entry and torturous internal politics.

‘Management scare tactics is just one reason why I’m leaving teaching’

Jess, 26, became a primary school teacher five years ago, because she wanted to recreate the enjoyable time she had at school for other kids. She says the reality is that there isn’t enough time to expose children to basic life skills, cultural values and problem solving, because there is so much pressure for children to conform, hit their academic targets and complete “tick box” exercises.

Her reasons for quitting started back in her first year of training when she was attacked by an abusive student who frequently disrupted the whole class. After a few months of talking the situation over with friends, Jess turned to her headteacher for help. “His immediate response was ‘It sounds like you’re failing to cope, perhaps we need to put a support plan in place’.

If I didn’t get the role at the new school, I would not be able to keep my current one

“Worried about going on a support plan, I wanted to continue my NQT year at another school, so I quickly began applying for the next term. On the day of my interview, my headteacher called me into his office to inform me that he knew lots of headteachers in the area and that he had already spoken to the headteacher at the other school I was applying for. He then told me that by going to an interview, I was not showing commitment or resilience and if I didn’t get the role at the new school, I would not be able to keep my current one and would be put on PPA [supply] cover instead.”

It turned out that the headteacher hadn’t spoken with any other headteachers about Jess’s application. She says: “These scare tactics is just one reason I am leaving teaching, as I know from speaking to other teachers that this is normal behaviour from headteachers and management.”

Teaching isn’t how it looks in the brochures

‘People think it’s the kids who cause us to leave – but it’s really not’

Abbie, 30, qualified as an English teacher after temping at a secondary school office eight years ago. She says, despite loving working with the kids, her whole teaching experience was a frustrating one of instability.

“Since starting teaching, I’ve had six different Heads of Department, taught four different exam boards and implemented ridiculous changes by four different Education Secretaries (most notably Michael Gove’s ban of all American texts from the GCSE syllabus – WTF?). This is all as well as knee-jerk strategies implemented by my Senior Leadership Team (SLT) which hinder, not help, their teachers,” she says.

Since starting teaching, I’ve had six different Heads of Department, taught four different exam boards and implemented ridiculous changes by four different Education Secretaries

An example of a recent change having a detrimental effect on student behaviour is that she must teach to groups instead of rows. “‘Collaborative Learning’ is the new thing and research suggests it helps students make the most progress. However, I’ve never had to deal with as much low-level disruption in my career as I have done since using this strategy. If you’re a teenager facing your mate, no matter how enthralling a lesson may be, you’re still going to be distracted. I would be! And my school wonders why our students’ behaviour is deteriorating? There’s really no reason why students can’t work in rows and then move to groups, and this is a good example of why more discourse needs to include teachers.”

Abbie insists that the failure is not down to students: “It’s a domino effect from the very top: the Tory government is causing the deluge with their ever-changing policies and standards; SLT is halfway down, floundering, making sure we ‘get the results’ at any cost; and then there are us standard teachers at the bottom, drowning. My enthusiasm and resilience completely waned, so I eventually left.”

Unions can seem useless in defending teachers

Where do the unions stand on falling levels of retention? Jess thinks that more should be done by the unions to support teachers. “On several occasions, the unions have agreed to come into school and support with matters but after seeing how other teachers have been treated after inviting union members in to help them, it doesn’t seem worth it. They’ve often left without solving the problem, so it seems unions are powerless in some cases.”

Education professionals’ union Voice says a poor experience with one union shouldn’t prejudice a teacher or school leadership team’s view of all unions and that Voice does not take a confrontational approach.

Panning across the bigger picture, Deborah Lawson, General Secretary of Voice, says: “There is some indication that the DfE recognises how significantly teacher workload influences retention, especially in the early career stage, and is looking at further action to remove unnecessary workload.

“While austerity continues to impact the public sector, lifting the pay-cap for teachers, although theoretically possible, will remain impossible if not properly funded,” Lawson adds.

It can’t go unsaid that millennial jobs and careers are more disposable than ever before, which could very well include teaching. This cultural state of mind might be adding to the problem, but, ultimately, the government is spending millions on recruiting bright young things into a failed system.

So how can it make significant improvements? Teachers think that speaking to them about building consistent strategies and giving more time to put them in place would boost the morale of students, giving better results. And those graduates who took a chance on teaching might just thrive, and end up looking a lot like the teachers on the leaflets.

10th January 2018