Why great leadership is the key to teacher retention

Sept. 12, 2016
James Toop

James Toop

CEO, Ambition School Leadership

In theory, teacher retention is simple. Keep your staff motivated and engaged and they will stay. In practice, it is hard to do.

The proportion of teachers who are considering leaving has increased significantly in over the last year – rising from 17% to 23%, according to research published on Friday by the NFER

The good news is, the majority of teachers are not considering leaving the profession and there is no evidence that levels of disadvantage, academy status or geography has any influence on teachers’ decision to leave the profession. Feeling supported, trusted and engaged are the main motivators for teachers to stay in-post: in short, it’s the environment that good managers and leaders create that makes the difference. 

But with a six percentage point increase in the number of teachers considering leaving their posts, school leaders should take note.  Especially those who line manage the majority of staff: middle and senior leaders.

"The proportion of teachers who are considering leaving has increased significantly in over the last year – rising from 17% to 23%."

- The NFER, 'Engaging Teachers: NFER Analysis of Teacher Retention', September 2017

Line management holds the key to job satisfaction in any profession: as the well-known adage goes, people don’t leave jobs – they leave managers. So it is vital that we develop our middle and senior leaders to be more than just inspiration and vision: they also need to manage effectively.  Good management could be the tipping point in the struggle to retain great teachers in our state education system. 

Recent research by LKMCo showed that the best middle leaders develop strong relationships with their team and are excellent at difficult skills such as giving feedback and having performance conversations.  But they also manage the work and resources effectively so that staff feel they can manage workload, have time to focus on the job of teaching and supported to improve practice. 

Heads and executive leaders have a critical role in supporting this too.  The report states that “many teachers…did not feel valued or reward sufficiently for their efforts by government or leaders in their schools”.  As leaders we are often too quick to spot the things that go wrong or need improvement, but celebrating success and rewarding staff is critical.  A positive comment in the corridor, letters or cards to staff, and taking an interest in them personally is all practical and sends a powerful message to staff about how you value them.

We know that working in schools which Teaching Leaders and The Future Leaders Trust work closely with is where the most impact can be had – where pupils arrive with low prior attainment and a mountain to climb towards GCSEs; or where aspirations are restricted and we need to give children higher expectations for themselves – can be the most satisfying career a teacher could ask for. But they can also be the most challenging circumstances in which to work.  

Today’s report highlights that leadership and management is the key ingredient which makes the difference to teacher motivation and job satisfaction. The challenge is in getting school leaders at all levels to work together to ensure this happens consistently for all teachers in the school: leadership can set the positive whole-school culture but we need strong line management across the school to support teachers with the day to day challenges of the role. 

It’s another reason why I am excited by the prospect of Teaching Leaders and The Future Leaders Trust joining forces this November.  We will focus on leadership at all levels and offer a joined-up solution for leadership development: enabling the leaders of today to improve their people management practice, and showing the leaders of tomorrow the pathway to a rewarding and long-term career in the profession. 


This blog post originally appeared on the website of The Future Leaders Trust. In November 2016 The Future Leaders Trust joined forces with Teaching Leaders to form Ambition School Leadership. Together we will tackle educational disadvantage faster and more effectively, improving the life chances of more of our most disadvantaged pupils. Click here to find out more about Ambition School Leadership.

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