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Teacher retention – Stop the exodus of school leaders

January 4, 2021, 16:59 GMT+1
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  • The government should be concerned about a ‘post-covid exodus’ of school leaders, says Nick Brook...
Teacher retention – Stop the exodus of school leaders

In November, the NAHT published some worrying new research alongside a report calling for a radical shake up in the way leaders in schools are supported throughout their careers.

A survey of NAHT members, school leaders across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, in October 2020, revealed that nearly half of them (47 per cent) are now less likely to remain in school leadership for as long as initially planned as a result of the pandemic.

School leaders have shown exceptional determination, courage and optimism in leading their teams to support pupils through these extremely difficult times. So it is deeply concerning that many school leaders are considering leaving the profession prematurely, once they have guided their schools through this crisis.

But it is perhaps unsurprising given the sleepless nights they have been faced with and how little support they have been given by government. They have been left to figure out for themselves how to balance their budgets with no promise of reimbursement for all the additional costs they have faced due to Covid.

They have had to navigate last minute U-turns and guidance issued on Sunday evenings, hours before it needed to be implemented in schools.

They have stayed up until the early hours of the morning trying to make the government’s failing free school meals voucher delivery system work to make sure children didn’t go hungry during lockdown and the holidays.

Only to be thanked with a pay freeze.

Covid-19 teacher dissatisfaction

The Covid-19 pandemic has compounded the sense of dissatisfaction with the state of education that had begun to grow among some leaders before the crisis hit.

It has highlighted the importance of community, reaffirmed the importance of supporting students’ wellbeing as well as academic progress, and it has demonstrated that schools are not islands.

Without question, education standards in this country have transformed over the last 25 years. By all measures, we have the best cadre of professionals that have ever worked in our schools. But we have to go further.

The rising tide of school improvement has not lifted all boats. Even before the pandemic hit, annual improvements in pupil outcomes had started to slow, and the wide gap in attainment between children from poorer backgrounds and their more affluent peers had stopped closing.

It is abundantly clear that current approaches are not driving improvements in education in the way the government hoped or intended.

When we emerge from the pandemic, there can be no sense of merely flicking a switch and returning to the way things were, with all the same fault-lines as before. And we cannot wait until the pandemic passes before considering how education must change in the future.


That’s why NAHT brought together the School Improvement Commission, a report from which was published alongside our survey findings in November.

Launched at an event being jointly held with the Wellcome Trust and the Teacher Development Trust, the Commission was made up of educationalists, school leaders and academics, as well as taking evidence from senior government officials, researchers and thought leaders in education.

The Commission met on five occasions between November 2019 and March 2020.

Commissioners considered the effectiveness of the government’s school improvement initiatives over recent years, reviewed research evidence on effective improvement strategies, from both home and abroad, and explored the barriers that can prevent schools from improving.

It found that a revolution in professional development for teachers and leaders is needed to unlock pupils’ potential.

How to create great teaching conditions

Schools are only as good as the people that work in them. In order that every child has the chance to achieve their full potential we need every pupil to be taught by an expert teacher.

We need to create the conditions in which every teacher can be the very best that they can be. We need schools to be geared up to be effective learning organisations, not just for the pupils that attend them but for the staff that work there. Great teachers are made; they are not born that way.

Yet access to high-quality training and support for teachers and leaders is variable, at best.

To raise standards of education in this country further, the school improvement commission concluded that the next phase of education reform should focus on transforming the quality of training and support for teachers and leaders, including a commitment to a minimum entitlement to professional development and a new bursary fund to widen participation in such activity.

Greater support and professional development is needed for teachers and leaders, throughout their careers, to make sure schools are well set up to respond to future challenges and continuously improve the quality of education provided over the next decade.

Without this revolution in support for school leaders, the government risks a post-Covid exodus from the profession.

Teaching in areas of deprivation

The last few months have been challenging. But, there is an urgent need to do more than just restore the factory settings of education. We need to seize the opportunity presented to make changes to the parts of the education system that simply aren’t working as well as they should.

We need to make it easier and more attractive to school leaders to work in the most deprived areas of the country. It has always been the case that leaders who make this choice are accepting some exceptionally ‘high-risk’ posts.

An enhanced package of support for these leaders would help spread their expertise more widely and reduce the risk for them professionally. It is my belief that this kind of transformation in the way we approach education is not only advisable, it is essential.

The best response to the damage inflicted by covid-19 on learning is to ensure that every pupil is taught by an expert teacher, someone who is continually improving their skills and is properly supported to do their job, in whatever circumstances they work.

Now is precisely the time to invest in the ongoing development of professionals throughout their careers so that teachers can thrive and pupils can succeed.

Not only is it increasingly clear that prioritising high-quality staff development is the key to sustainable school turnaround, but, critically for the current context, it is also a means of successfully navigating the complexities and uncertainties of covid-19 and keeping teachers in the profession.

What should be done?

NAHT’s School Improvement Commission brought together internationally renowned education experts to consider how to better support all schools to improve further, and found that a revolution in professional development for teachers and leaders is needed to unlock pupils’ potential, as well as enhanced support for school professionals working in the most deprived communities.

The commission’s report makes several recommendations, including that the government should:

  • Extend the commitment to funded support for new and recently qualified teachers to all teachers and leaders by 2025.
  • Develop a fully-funded support package, to provide structured support for all new head teachers.
  • Create a new bursary fund to facilitate and incentivise participation in NPQs
  • Create a more compelling proposition to encourage the most successful leaders to become National Leaders in Education.
  • Create a national network of high-quality teacher development providers.
  • Provide more support and incentives for leaders working in the most deprived communities.
  • And refocus the work of Ofsted to provide stronger diagnostic insight for schools that are struggling.

Nick Brook is deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT.