The Wrong Answer to the Wrong Question

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Nathan Bisnouth

Nathan was a teacher at an academy in a disadvantaged borough of London for two years. He took pride in inspiring young minds of the future to take up a love of learning. During his time in class, he witnessed the importance of education for...
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Are teacher shortages a case of a wrong diagnosis and a wrong prescription?

Recently, the Government has looked to offer bursaries to help boost recruitment after teacher shortages. However, is focusing on teacher recruitment the wrong answer?

Why is teacher retention a problem and what effect is focusing on recruitment having on children in schools?

Carry On Teaching: The Real Problem

Year upon year, there are reports of a teacher shortage here in the UK and the Government’s response to this problem has generally been the same. At the Conservative Party conference last month, the Education Secretary, Justine Greening announced that math graduates who teach will receive up to £35,000 in bursaries. Similarly, in Scotland at the SNP conference in October, John Swinney declared that the Government will offer £20,000 bursaries to those who become teachers in key subject areas.

When I started my Initial Teacher Training (ITT) in 2013, similar dialogues were being spouted by the Government. However, is the Government focus on cash bursaries as a drive to boost teacher recruitment the wrong answer to the wrong question? Back in 2003, Ingersol and Smith explored the issues surrounding the teacher shortage and found that teacher recruitment was not the problem.

So, what is the problem and what is the solution?

Should I stay or should I go?

The process which causes a teacher to leave the profession is something which starts a long time before a teacher actually leaves (Lindqvist and Nordanger, 2015, p96). My experience in teaching mirrors these findings. I loved teaching and had an amazing group of children both years. When I decided to leave the profession this year, it was not a decision that I took lightly; it was something that I had thought about for almost a year and was based on several factors. The main one being workload and specifically ‘unnecessary’ work.

Studies into why teachers leave the profession have shown that workload is a key factor and something which has constantly been an issue in education. Smithers and Robinson (2003) found that more than half of primary teachers who left the profession ranked workload as the most important factor in leaving. I went into the profession knowing that it would be a tough job. I stayed late after school, took books home and generally spent most weekends doing some form of work. Still, I felt like I was only just staying afloat, a feeling I’m sure many other teachers can relate to.

Doing essential things like planning and resourcing your lessons is a given, and to provide stimulating exciting lessons takes time. However, when you add other time-consuming duties to this workload (which you are often told won’t take long at all), it can start to look unmanageable. For example:

  • Constantly inputting assessment data on numerous platforms.
  • Reproduction of data in different formats for the use of governors/academy/school heads.
  • Excessive unnecessary ‘in-depth’ marking to adhere to the ‘school policy’.
  • Unnecessary administrative/paper work

After getting through my first year, I remember recalling a piece of advice from my tutor during my training year: ‘ask yourself, how much of an impact is this going to have on my children’s learning’.


Of all the additional things I was expected to do each week, I asked myself: how many of them were necessary? How many of them were going to impact on my children’s learning? My children made good progress each year, though at times I felt inadequate because I was struggling to manage this excessive ‘unnecessary’ workload. As a professional, if you spend your week working late or bringing your work home and part of your weekend working, it will undoubtedly have an affect on your social life and even your health. This is a problem facing many teachers, especially younger ones or those new to the profession.

An unmanageable workload is clearly having an affect on teachers causing them to leave the profession, even after just a term. But, what affect is it having on children?

Why Focusing On Recruitment Can Be Problematic

Focusing on teacher recruitment as opposed to looking at the real issue, teacher retention, can also have a damaging affect on students. Research into the effect of teacher turnover in London schools found that high levels “can be shown to have a detrimental effect on pupil progress and achievement” (Dolton & Newson, 2003).

When judging schools, poor pupil progress is often linked with a high teacher turnover, so what effect is this nationwide high teacher turnover having on the students? If recent reports are to be believed, this issue of teacher retention is only going to get worse; almost half of teachers are predicted to leave in the next 5 years.

Rather than a constant cycle of enticing new people to fill the shoes of those who have left, why do we not hold the Government / school leaders to account and address the problem of retention?

What Can Be Done?

Head teachers, school leaders and governors have the power to ease the strenuous workload. Here are three things to start:

  1. Review marking policies to get rid of ‘unnecessary’ marking.
  2. Think about what your teachers are there to do and minimise or abandon the amount of administrative work they do.
  3. Remember that teachers are humans as well and a lighter work load will make for happier teachers. A shift in this workload would allow teachers to have more time and to focus on what they are there to do – teach and stimulate the minds of the future.
  4. Use authentic and genuine recognition to feed positive professional identities. Praise from school leaders can make the workload can feel lighter when you are motivated. Research suggests that “teachers who had quit and those who were considering it in the next two years said that the thing that would most encourage them to stay is receiving praise and recognition.” (Lindqvist and Nordanger, 2015, p101)
  5. Remove the top and lower tier OfSTED gradings from school inspections.

Until something significant is done to ease the workload and pressures surrounding the job, more good teachers will continue to leave and it will continue to have a negative affect on our children’s education.

6 thoughts on “The Wrong Answer to the Wrong Question

  1. Lots of good old common sense in here. We could also address the issue from other perspectives. For example, while most teachers would probably say they teach because of the sense of purpose one feels as the motivational driving force, lets not forget teachers had lost the equivalent of approximately 15% pay in real terms by 2016. ( A little more in your pocket would definitely help. Allied to this add the deliberate break up of local accountability through the debacle which is acadmisation/free schools (I only wish they were free); the deliberate under-funding of the system; the ridiculous changes to exam systems and gradings; and external accountability (not forgetting the internal through poorly managed performance management) and what we have is the most direct attack on our profession …. ever. Not even Thatcher the milk snatcher would have thought she could get away with what this bunch of conniving Goveites and Gibbites have achieved.

    We desperately need to get on with fighting for our profession and taking the education agenda back from political forces and their Twitterati voices. They talk about ‘no excuses’ quite a bit so let’s adopt the mantra when it comes to defending our most precious resource – teachers – in ensuring children get the best education possible.

    1. Yeah, agreed- policy changes to address: salary issues, underfunding, accountability, exam systems and gradings could definitely go some way to addressing some of the issues regarding teacher retention. However, with education policy being kicked around like a political football at the moment, any substantial changes like those would take years to address. In the short term, Head Teachers/SLT must do their best to ease the work load/pressures on teachers.


      1. Absolutely! Workload is a huge issue and much buck-passing of ‘priorities’ is still going on alongside schools who are STILL judging lessons! I believe the College of Teaching has a role to play but needs far greater numbers to sign up before it can wield real influence. To be frank, in many ways we have allowed this to happen but it’s way too late for a blame game so, I agree with you Nathan – attack workload now and maybe also take down the ‘outstanding’ banners? It’s actually an advert (and tacit approval) for Ofsted!

  2. I have just read this having spent 49 hours marking last week in preparation for my Yr 11s doing their mock speaking exam. Unsurprisingly, I have come down with a cold and feel completely and utterly worn out. Coming hard on the heels of an Ofsted inspection in October, followed by a team review (basically an internal Ofsted) in November, I am feeling that I cannot go on. I love teaching but I have been looking at job adverts for other posts because this job will kill me if I don’t get out. I have been teaching for 20 years and am generally fairly resilient but things have just got out of hand. I read ‘Mark, Plan, Teach’ the weekend after it came out – if my school would stick to this book’s principles then I would not be feeling like this. I would say roll on the Christmas holidays but my students do their mocks on 18 December and the deadline for their reports is within days of returning in January, so my holidays will be taken up by marking and doing their reports. So much for work-life balance!

  3. Sorry for being pedantic but affect and effect have been used interchangeably in your piece. Other than that fantastic…sorry, I’m still a teacher despite the odds.

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