The DfE’s Recruitment and Retention Strategy: The good the bad and the ugly…

28th January 2019

Today’s recruitment and retention strategy from the DfE is a welcome step in tackling a challenge that has cast a long shadow over the sector. It is premised on a suprisingly humble admission that there needs to be “an adjustment of focus, recognising that greater attention must be given to ensuring that teaching is a profession where people are supported to stay and thrive”.

It also finally admits, that although more teachers are being brought into the profession, this influx is insufficient to match the current exodus and increase in school age population.

In her accompanying blog Alix sets out the key elements of the new strategy.

Meanwhile, in this blog I want to look at:
• the strategy’s four key pillars;
• their potential to affect change; and,
• how to maximise the impact of the proposed approach.

The DfE’s Recruitment and Retention Strategy: The good the bad and the ugly… Click To Tweet

Pillar One: Climate

“The wider context in which headteachers operate can create pressure that leads to excessive workload that distracts teachers from teaching”

The impact of workload on teacher retention has been highlighted time and again since our 2015 ‘Why Teach?’ report.

Pillar One is a clear acknowledgement that the climate for teachers in our schools needs to improve and I particularly like the recognition that demands on teachers need to be aligned to their intrinsic sense of purpose:

“Teachers have told us that they like to work hard when they can see the difference they are making. When their efforts align with the moral purpose that brought them into the profession, when the support and professional development they receive helps them do their job better, when they feel their work supports pupils to progress – then teachers love the work they do.”

The commitment to a single trigger for intervention should help with this, reducing the need to second guess where the next threat is coming from and giving school leaders a bit more space to do what they know is right. Maintaining a period of greater stability will also be welcome relief after the Govian years of constant change. However it is hard to see how much stability there can be when a new Ofsted framework is about to be introduced.

It is hard to see how much stability there can be when a new Ofsted framework is about to be introduced. Click To Tweet

On the other hand, it’s a shame to see that the strategy has stopped short of a more bold move that has been gaining increasing traction recently: three year averages in league tables.

It’s a call we made in our Testing the Waters report and which has also been made by the Education Select Committee, the NAHT  and the Head Teachers Rountable .

The move would still allow Ofsted and/or the DfE to look internally for any worrying fluctuations in year-to-year results above a sufficiently high threshold triggering a monitoring inspection if necessary. However, it would ensure that headlines are not distorted by noisy data, cohort effects, small samples, underhand tactics hot-housing of exam year-groups.

Pillar Two: Early career support

“Not enough early career teachers receive the high quality support they need to build the foundation for a successful career.”

It is high time that we improved the development opportunities offered to NQTs.

You cannot stuff everything you think teachers should know into a one-year training programme. Additionally, for many teachers, it’s only once they start teaching full-time with responsibility for their classes that they really start reflecting on and developing what they do.

High quality mentoring and development throughout their first year after qualifying is therefore key and it’s great news that the government has recognised this by committing to:

“an entitlement to a fully-funded, 2-year package of structured support for early career teachers linked to the best available research evidence – alongside funded time off timetable in the second year of teaching and support for mentors “

It goes on to recognise that:

“additional funding is needed to support the roll-out of the Early Career Framework (ECF) reforms – this opportunity will be entirely lost if it is not adequately resourced or it becomes an additional burden on schools.”

It remains to be seen whether the multi-year commitment to £130 million of new funds will be sufficient for schools to take the big steps involved in delivering on these commitments. Furthermore, although the pledge to fund mentors’ time is encouraging, success in this area depends on there being enough teachers available to cover the timetable.

Schools will therefore need to be creative in sourcing support for teachers progressing through the ECF, perhaps from recently retired or semi-retired teachers, or from skilled teachers wanting to progress pedagogy-focused roles. Some MATs already use central, subject specialists in such roles, however the government will have to ensure any new funds can be used flexibly so that this is possible.

Money talks

Money talks, and it’s therefore good to see that today’s strategy pledges:

“a major shift in the incentives for new teachers by introducing phased bursaries – with staggered retention payments to encourage good people to remain in the profession, as well as to join”

Rebalancing incentives towards retention rather than solely recruitment is key, particularly for teachers in their late 20s and early 30s, who flee London in pursuit of better housing and family life. Furthermore, given the important role played by housing, it’s also good to hear the government state that:

“We know that housing is an issue for teachers in areas of short supply. We will explore whether there is demand from teachers for new homes on surplus school land. If there is clear and sufficient demand, we will work with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to explore whether an extension of permitted development rights is needed to speed up such developments.”

We raised this issue and shared examples of solutions in The Talent Challenge but the DfE should now push MHCLG to expand key worker housing/affordable housing schemes.

Curriculum resources

High quality curriculum materials are also part of Pillar 2, something teachers may greet with ambivalence; many enjoy the creativity of developing their own resources and I remember that using anyone else’s materials was anathema to me as a teacher. I looked forward to writing each of my new schemes of work. However, it was a huge amount of work and is not really sustainable. It is also questionable how well-placed beginner teachers are to produce the best materials.

I’d hate to see any teacher thinking they had to use off the shelf materials in prescribed, one size fits all ways. However, having access to good materials, permission to use them without feeling like a sell-out, and the skills to adapt and deploy materials appropriately would considerably reduce workload.

Pillar Three: Building an attractive career offer

“A career in teaching does not always adapt to the expertise and lives of teachers.”
The DfE’s commitment to improving career pathways and flexible working came as music to my ears given that both have been key themes in our recent work. The new strategy includes support for job-share matching and a particular focus on teachers who want to continue as classroom specialists by developing “specialist qualifications to support clearer non-leadership career pathways for teachers that want to stay and excel in the classroom.”

The DfE’s commitment to improving career pathways and flexible working came as music to my ears Click To Tweet

The strategy also states that:

“in order to ensure that all teachers are supported to benefit from the opportunities for career progression, these reforms will sit alongside our significant broader efforts to improve diversity and create opportunities for all teachers.”

If this is going to happen in a fair and accessible way, access to opportunities must not be too dependent on school leaders as gatekeepers. We have found that teachers from under-represented, minority ethnic backgrounds are desperate to access career development but sometimes miss out when managers do not put them forward for opportunities.

Teachers therefore need opportunities to apply for development programmes independently of their line managers opening up progression, beyond ‘the usual suspects.’


Challenging areas sit at the heart of today’s strategy including a commitment to ensuring that:

“the strongest opportunities for career progression and professional development exist when working with the children that can benefit the most.”

This geographical focus is important given that ‘Why Teach?’ showed the highly local nature of recruitment and retention, with teachers tending to pick schools near them, or moving to areas which they have a connection to.

Schools therefore need to think about how to target local potential teachers. Meanwhile those seeking to recruit people from further afield need to sell the area, not just the school. I set out four tips for school leaders on this front here, and I’m really glad to see the government offering to support this by:

“partnering with schools, MATs, and local authorities in challenging areas, to develop attractive “local offer” packages to increase teacher recruitment and retention locally”

Pillar Four: Make it easy

“The process to become a teacher is too complicated and burdensome.”
Last summer, one of my friends asked for advice on how to get into teaching. I know quite a lot about teacher recruitment and ITT and even I struggled to help her navigate the different providers and programmes.

I think it’s a good thing that there are different routes available to suit different circumstances and preferences, but a smorgasbord of options is no use without a clear menu to guide choices.

A smorgasbord of options is no use without a clear menu to guide choices. Click To Tweet

I’m not sure what the government has planned in terms of its “new one-stop application system for initial teacher training (ITT), which will be easier to use and designed to better meet the needs of potential trainees.” However, something of this sort is certainly needed.

Finally, today’s strategy pledges to make it easier to ‘try teaching’ through a “Discover Teaching” initiative. Many teachers were sceptical about this idea when the idea was trailed early in January but that’s a mistake. I was astonished when researching ‘Why Teach?’ just how many teachers had stumbled into teaching by accident and gone on to love it.


With strategies like today’s, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. However, overall I think it looks like a very promising plan.

“The proof of the pudding is always in the eating but today’s DfE strategy has the makings of a very promising plan.” Click To Tweet

I’m also really pleased to see that the huge volume of research that has taken place in the field in recent years has clearly helped shape what the government is doing. This will ensure it is properly evidence informed, and I’m glad that our work has been part of that.

If you haven’t already read it all, please do!
Why Teach?
The Talent Challenge
Building the Leadership PoolThe Talent Challenge
Why Do Long-Serving Teachers Stay in the Profession? (peer reviewed article in the British Educational Research Journal) 
• We will also shortly be publishing a report focusing on flexible working, housing and the under-representation of BAME teachers in the capital.