Apparently 50% of  teachers leave the profession within their first 5 years.

I’ve heard this statistic bandied about for quite a while, and while you can argue the exact figure back and forth a bit (some estimates put the figure at 40%) either way it’s a bloody big number.

Here’s another perspective: 404,600 fully trained teachers under the age of 60 are no longer teaching, compared to around half a million still actively working in English and Welsh schools. So that’s almost half of the qualified teachers in the country not actually teaching. And it’s getting worse: some 47,700 teachers left their jobs in the year 2010-11, up from 40,070 in 2009-10. That’s a lot of teachers.

This begs two immediate questions: what are they doing? And, more importantly, why aren’t they teaching?

As to the first. I’ve no idea. Maybe all teachers leaving employment should be asked to complete an exit questionnaire stating their reasons for leaving and details of what they’re going to do instead – this, I’m sure, would make fascinating reading.

Neither am I sure why they leave. It’s something of a cliché that teaching’s a tough gig: yeah sure, it’s stressful at certain points in the year, and the workload can sometimes seem overwhelming, but is it really that bad? Of course I’ve read some of the horror stories on the TES forums, but are these really representative of most new teachers’ experiences?

Maybe they are: a recent NASUWT survey showed that 84% of teachers felt demoralised and de-professionalised and that over 50% of teachers had seriously considered leaving the profession in the previous 12 months. I’ve heard countless tales of burn out, appalling student behaviour and workplace bullying, but without hard data any solution will be based on the twin devils of hearsay and rumour.

And if these are the sorts of reasons teachers are abandoning ship in droves, this is surely a savage indictment of the profession, and something of which we should be collectively ashamed. This kind of attrition can be ill afforded – training and recruitment surely outweigh the costs of retention? It’s all very well Michael Gove wringing his hands, but if we’re forcing decent teachers out, this is something which needs to be urgently addressed. Gove does at least help himself to a large potion of blame saying, “The Government must take responsibility for driving so many experienced professionals out of the classroom by tying their hands in red tape and watering down their powers to keep order.” Quite so, except that this was an attack on Labour back in 2010!

It seems that the pressure on new teachers to be ‘outstanding’ immediately is enormous and that those who struggle in the early years are all too often chewed up and spat out rather than nurtured and supported. Speaking for myself, I was an atrocious teacher in my first few years; I can’t look back on the bewildering array of all the things I had no idea about without wincing. These days I consider myself to be an at least halfway decent teacher but it took me at least 5 years to get to that point. I had a pretty rubbish experience as a trainee and NQT and put a fair amount of effort into leaving teaching. I spent a year as a supply teacher before landing a job in a school which promptly went into Special Measures. Thankfully, causation is not the same as correlation, and this was the first time in my career that I really felt that anyone was investing anything in my development as a teacher. It was a slow process, but this was the start of my journey towards being good at what I do.

But maybe teachers’ reasons for leaving have nothing to do with dissatisfaction. Maybe they leave because they see teaching as a stepping stone to something better? This certainly seems to be the philosophy behind Teach First, who look to “provide participants with a development programme that will be respected and valued by employers should they decide to move on to work in another area or profession.” In other words, participants can keep their options open. Of course they don’t all go on to bigger and better things after their two-year tour of duty, but how many do?

Are there teachers who leave the profession only to return a few years later? Certainly a lot of women must do this, but does anyone keep any data on teachers returning (or not) from maternity leave?

Possibly many of the teachers deserting the classroom are a bit rubbish, and maybe we’re better off that they’re doing something else? It’s a bit of a long shot but perhaps this level of wastage is a good sign?

I’m afraid I don’t really have any answers and am unable to provide any kind of solution, but whatever the reasons, I’m concerned. It strikes me that if we agree that teacher quality is the most important factor in school improvement and student achievement then it behooves us to do something about it. Maybe the first 5 years of teaching need to have a much more structured approach to professional development with teachers expected to take part in continuous critical reflection of their practice? What if teachers were given opportunities to work in a variety of settings in order to gauge what suited them and where they would be best placed? This is all taken for granted during a PGCE course, but the moment you’re branded a Qualified Teacher, you’re left pretty much to the mercy of school you work in as an NQT. You might be lucky, but then again, you might not. Leaving teachers’ careers to chance in this way can’t be good.

Anyway, I’d be very interested to hear the story of your first 5 years, as well as any suggestions you might have for reducing the turnover of new teachers.

UPDATE 20th Oct 2013 : this has become my most viewed post by far (about 20,000 hits and counting!) so it’s very clearly touched a chord that resonates with many teachers feeling under the cosh. I wrote a follow up a few months later which might also be worth your time: How can we retain the best teachers?

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