From education to employment


teacher looking stressed at student


Flexible working approaches could play an important role in improving teacher retention, but there is little research looking at their broader impact, according to a new report published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) today.  

The mixed methods review by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) is one of three reports published by the EEF today. The reports were commissioned to identify how best to support the recruitment and retention of high-quality teaching staff in schools with high numbers of socio-economically disadvantaged pupils, in response to current challenges facing the sector.  

Evidence from a literature review, case studies and interviews with expertsconcluded that flexible working could help to improve wellbeing and job satisfaction, as well as teachers’ productivity and motivation. However, the research also highlights school leaders’ concerns around the strain it could put on school budgets, and the lack of consistency for pupils.  

The review also found that some schools are already implementing various approaches to flexible working, such as offering personal days, part-time posts, and giving teachers the opportunity to complete their lesson planning and marking offsite.  

Between a fifth and a third of teachers work part time, with this being more common for primary than secondary teachers. Other types of flexible working are much less common. Findings suggest that a proactive, whole-school approach is key to successfully implementing flexible working. Yet, in a piece of analysis for this review based on a sample of 500 state-funded schools in England, only three per cent had a flexible working policy published on their website.  

A second review published today, also conducted by NFER, focuses on how different approaches to managing workload can support recruitment and retention. High workload is the top reason teachers give for leaving the profession, so reducing workload is a priority for improving retention and making teaching more attractive to new entrants.  

The review finds that most schools are using multiple strategies to manage teacher workload, most commonly giving timetabled time for planning and marking, offering access to existing schemes of work and lesson plans, and collaborative lesson planning. Many schools in the study had changed their policies and approaches recently with the intention of reducing teacher workload. Teachers in schools with more workload reduction strategies in place were much more likely to have positive views of their workload, autonomy and job satisfaction. 

 A third review, conducted by Durham University and University of Warwick, explores the evidence base on school leadership for teacher retention. This review affirms the importance of school leadership in informing teacher retention. It evidences that prioritising teacher development, building an equitable support system, promoting collegiality, and maintaining a positive school climate are effective leadership approaches and strategies to motivate and retain teachers in schools. 

Today’s new reviews were commissioned as part of the EEF’s flagship research theme for 2023: supporting the recruitment and retention of teachers to schools with high levels of socio-economically disadvantaged pupils. New research projects informed by these findings, which will test the impact of specific approaches, will be launched shortly.  

Professor Becky Francis CBE, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: 

“Working out how to improve recruitment and retention rates in our schools is the most pressing priority for our education system.  

“It’s absolutely vital that we have highly skilled teachers in classrooms, particularly in light of the disruption to education we’ve seen in the last few years.  

“It’s our hope that this research sets us on the right path to understanding how we can make teaching an attractive, sustainable career path – one that empowers educators to make a real difference to children’s learning, particularly for our most vulnerable pupils.”

Jack Worth, School Workforce Lead at the NFER, said:

“Recruiting and retaining enough teachers in state-funded schools is a crucial challenge for the education sector. We have seen the challenges intensify since the pandemic and these are particularly affecting schools serving the most disadvantaged communities. 

“NFER research has consistently shown that improving retention is key, and manageable workloads and opportunities to work flexibly, when needed, are vital for retaining teachers. 

“This latest analysis highlights the actions school leaders can take to improve flexibility and reduce workload, but also highlights the importance of external drivers of teacher workload.” 

Sector Response

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“The evidence is clear that the answer to addressing very high levels of teacher workload – one of the main causes of teacher shortages – lies to a large extent with the government.

“The review on managing workload finds that most schools are already adopting most of the available workload reduction strategies and says that attention should now turn to examining the external reasons for teacher workload.

“It says some of the main drivers come from outside the school – primarily from the government and Ofsted – and says that insufficient funding and staff capacity is the top barrier to workload reduction.

“And the ability of schools to offer flexible working opportunities as an approach to staff retention is also affected by financial costs, staff availability and workload.

“It is a vicious circle which always comes back to the same root cause – the government’s terrible record on resourcing the education system over the past 13 years.

“Ministers must accept the evidence and invest in schools, colleges and the workforce.”

Daniel Kebede, General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: 

“Better flexible working arrangements along with better pay and workload reduction will make education a more attractive and fulfilling career. 

“Decades of underfunding by the government, unsustainable high workload and below inflation pay increases are driving teachers, leaders and support staff out of the profession.  A resurging labour market and new ways of working since the pandemic also means education is looking less attractive to graduates. 

“If the government is serious about reversing the current recruitment and retention crisis it should be encouraging schools to have a flexible working policy and to share good practice of flexible working arrangement within education.  If the government is serious about reversing the current recruitment and retention crisis, it should read this report very carefully and improve flexible working arrangements for our members working in schools and colleges.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary at school leaders’ union NAHT, said:

“Flexible working has the potential to support staff retention, but alone it is not a silver bullet for addressing the growing recruitment and retention crisis. 

“The government should be focused on first-order issues including pay, workload and the  impact of high stakes inspection on health and wellbeing, all of which drive not only teachers, but also school leaders from the profession. What’s needed is a positive proposition to support decades-long careers.

“Barriers to flexible working include the pressures of accountability and inspection, higher staffing costs, and the need to find time for handover and collaboration amid already heavy workloads.

“By taking seriously its commitments to fundamentally reviewing Ofsted inspections and addressing unsustainable workload, as well as ensuring schools get the sustained long-term investment they desperately need, the government can help give schools greater scope to consider flexible arrangements. While we agree inspiring leadership can be vital in boosting staff morale, even the most natural leaders need a system which truly supports them.

“We also need to see solutions to the recruitment and retention issues affecting leadership, with government figures showing nearly a third of senior school leaders leave their post within 5 years of appointment, of whom more than half go on to leave the state-funded school system.”

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