Teacher retention

Teacher retention as a marker of ITE quality: What do we know about teacher retention in Scotland?

Any post looking at teacher retention is inevitably prompted by the negatives. In this case, it was a BBC video where a teacher with over 20 years’ experience described how she considered deliberately crashing her car to avoid going back to class. Other clips linked from that page tell a similar story of teachers made ill by stress. These individual accounts are supported by larger-scale research, such as the Teacher Wellbeing Index from the Education Support Partnership which shows 76% of education professions experiencing symptoms of stress (higher than the 60% UK employee average). In terms of retention, a particularly worrying statistic is that 57% of education professionals reported considering leaving the profession due to pressures on their health. This study included 100 participants from Scotland – 8% of their sample – but did not separate responses by region, nor is the underlying data available. This is a shame, because teaching in Scotland has some key differences from other UK jurisdictions such as initial teacher education being entirely university-based, fewer pupil exams, and a contractual limit of 35 working hours per week.

Even here, however, it is difficult to see how this reality compares across different regions and countries or what the reality even is within a country. If we start with contracted hours, the national contract for teachers in Scotland puts a maximum of 22.5 hours of teaching time per week and 35 working hours overall, although there is some vagueness in that this refers more to the expectation that work “should be capable of being undertaken within the 35 hour working week”. This gives 855 teaching hours per year (4.5 hours per day, 190 days per year), which is also the figure used in the OECD’s Education at a Glance comparisons. A study by the Educational Institute of Scotland put the reality of what teachers do at around 11 hours higher, so even if the work might be capably done in 35, the reality is that teachers are spending 46 hours doing it.

Holyrood Magazine claimed this as “the longest hours of any in the developed world”, which is simply not true for statutory hours (e.g. Australia at 873, Netherlands at 930, Ireland at 915) and requires such a selective reading of the figures that I am unable to figure out what combination of figures they have used to reach this conclusion. Taking a simple average of the four levels of education (pre-primary, primary, lower secondary, upper secondary) for statutory hours worked puts Scotland 6th out of the 37 countries which have statutory hours, just ahead of Germany at 1006 hours. The OECD stats do not have actual hours worked recorded for Scotland, but even just using the figure for England as the UK average results in 3rd place at 878 hours, ahead of the US at 987, Latvia at 1130 and Columbia at 1250. Certainly, using a figure of 46 hours from the Educational Institute of Scotland would put Scotland top of the table (1748 hours annually), but this is mixing up working hours with teaching hours as well as comparing surveys with different methodologies.

Hours worked, or even taught, is a fairly crude measure anyway which says little about the intensity or demands of those hours. Most importantly, it tells us little about how well teachers are able to meet those demands. Teacher retention and attrition rates offer some insight here. Before we get to the figures, a little housekeeping in terminology. The concept of teacher supply and teacher shortage is what gets modelled by government, and tries to take into account teacher retention as well as fluctuations in birth or immigration rates for particular age groups (McIntyre, 2010). This tells us how many teachers we think we need in the system at a particular time, and if there’s a shortage. A vacancy rate is more subtle than this, and takes into account the different types of teacher – for instance, we may have enough teachers in total but have an oversupply of history teachers and an undersupply of geography teachers or headteachers. Using vacancy rates can also show whether recruitment and retention is a national or regional problem, with vacancies unfilled after 3 months generally taken as a sign of shortage (See, Gorard, & White, 2004). We might also zoom in on which types of teachers are unemployed or underemployed, such as a recent study in Scotland highlighting problems faced by recently qualified teachers (Hulme & Menter, 2014). If we just focus on retention, that’s how many teachers of working age are still teaching in state-funded schools. This slightly over-represents the numbers of teachers out of teaching since it does not include those teaching abroad, in the private sector, or in state schools, pupil referral units, or other educational institutions with disregards only for those who retire, die, are on maternity leave, or who are barred from teaching (Department for Education, 2014, p. 7). This is known as the “wastage rate”. The most recent figures for England (National Statistics, 2018) indicate that, as of March 2016, over 250,000 qualified teachers aged under 60 are now classified as out of service, including a remarkable 104,000 who never entered teaching after qualifying.

This can be more complicated still when we include Initial Teacher Education in the figures. For university programmes, there is a clear end result (graduation within an expected timeframe) so there is a more common measure of drop-out or non-completion. For instance, around 75% of those who drop out of university study in their first year typically return to study relatively quickly, drawing a distinction between those who ‘drop out’ and those who ‘stop out’ (Yorke, 1999; Yorke & Longden, 2008). Combining ITE and in-service figures can be particularly helpful when comparing ITE routes since it tells us something about the number of those who started a programme who then went on to remain as teachers (and thus giving an inference about the level of “teacher resiliency” developed on these programmes). England has some good data on this, so we can see that Teach First has a programme completion rate of 95%, which is reported as “uniquely high” compared with a PGCE average of 86%.

Confusingly, Teach First call this a wastage rate, but it’s simply non-completion. Post-qualification, retention can be reported in various ways: 42% “long-term retention”, 54% who “remain teaching in the UK”, 57% “still in teaching 5 years” after training, or 68% who “remain employed in education” (Parliament UK, 2012). Rather than estimating course completion, the most recent Government statistics report the number of student teachers who are awarded Qualified Teacher Status in England. This shows Teach First at 91% and university-led postgraduate programmes at 90% and undergraduate programmes at 93% – a different story from the “completion rate” claimed in the Teach First parliamentary answers.

All of which means that teacher retention or attrition figures are susceptible to invalid comparisons and need to be treated very carefully. Nevertheless, the heart of the matter is that they tell us how many of those who set out to become teachers qualify to do so and then how many of those stay in the profession. Some of this tells us about the quality of teacher education in recruiting and developing suitable students, developing their resilience and the skills they need to teach well. Some of this also tells us about the state of the profession, and whether teachers are being tempted to other professions or to teaching outside of state-funded schools. This ultimately requires a qualitative understanding of retention to know whether someone left their state-funded school to write a novel, take up a post in special school, or because they burnt out from stress. For instance, a recent Wall Street Journal article about the teacher crisis in the US uses a measure of teacher resignations to see if the private/public sector pay gap or general health of the economy is a factor as teachers learn their market value. We might also want to look beyond the limitations of just counting those teachers who work in state-funded primary or secondary schools. For example, Lynch et al.’s study of teachers in England found that more than half of teachers leaving state schools actually stayed in the education sector, most commonly “teaching in private schools, becoming teaching assistants and taking up a non-teaching role in school” (Lynch, Worth, Bamford, & Wespieser, 2016, p. 4).

In trying to navigate all these problems, the 2018 MQuITE survey asked newly-graduating teachers to consider where they might be in 5 years’ time. We will then track as many of these teachers as possible to see what actually happens to them over 5 years. This should help us to better understand how teachers experience their early career in terms of their “vocational maturity” as they “become more clear about their assets and liabilities as well as about the opportunities and limitations of their job” (Chapman & Hutcheson, 1982, p. 94), and how well their ITE prepared them. As a measure of quality, this should get closer to what success means to each individual and avoids counting as wasted any teacher who does not fit the expectation of teaching in a state primary or secondary school within the same country in which they trained (see our next blog post for details on all the responses). Already, one of our surprise findings was that 25% of respondents thought they might be teaching outside Scotland in the next 5 years. This would immediately count them as ‘wasted’ in all of the measures discussed previously, so it is important for us to recognise that this could be a desirable career move – indeed, it could reflect positively on the quality of Scotland’s ITE that teachers are in such high demand internationally.

As a ready comparison, we requested figures from the STSS pension scheme since there is a transfer arrangement with England’s Teachers’ Pension Scheme. They told us that 3126 teachers registered with the scheme from April 2012 to March 2013, of whom 2194 remained to date and a further 426 transferred to TPS. It’s a rough figure that only includes those paying into pensions, but it’s perhaps a better measure of how many teachers are still teaching than the other figures we’ve seen so far. This puts 5-year retention at 70.2% in Scotland, with a further 13.6% going to teach in England. This seems a fairly encouraging figure compared with the 50-60% figures reported above. If we figure in those teaching overseas, in the private sector, teaching but not in the pension scheme, or in other education-related jobs, then the actual number of teachers putting their ITE to good use may be much better than we thought. As MQuITE tracks our 2018 graduates through their early careers, it is hoped that we will learn more about the best way to measure how many of them get where they want to be. Focusing more on ITE, we might also start looking earlier in the journey to consider entrants to ITE programmes and what happens to those who get part-way through a programme too. Suggestions for what we might call such a measure are very welcome!


Chapman, D. W., & Hutcheson, S. M. (1982). Attrition from teaching careers: A discriminant analysis. American Educational Research Journal, 19(1), 93–105.

Department for Education. (2014). 2015/16 Teacher Supply Model User Guide. London: Department for Education.

Hulme, M., & Menter, I. (2014). New professionalism in austere times: The employment experiences of early career teachers in Scotland. Teachers and Teaching, 20(6), 672–687.

Lynch, S., Worth, J., Bamford, S., & Wespieser, K. (2016). Engaging Teachers: NFER Analysis of Teacher Retention. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.

McIntyre, J. (2010). Why they stayed: a study of the working lives of long serving teachers in inner city schools. University of Nottingham.

National Statistics. (2018). School workforce in England: November 2017. Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/school-workforce-in-england-november-2017

Parliament UK. (2012). Education committee: Further written evidence submitted by Teach First. Retrieved from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmeduc/1515/1515we31.htm

See, B. H., Gorard, S., & White, P. (2004). Teacher demand: crisis what crisis? Cambridge Journal of Education, 34(1), 103–123.

Yorke, M. (1999). Leaving early: undergraduate non-completion in the United Kingdom. London: Falmer Press.

Yorke, M., & Longden, B. (2008). The first-year experience of higher education in the UK. York: Higher Education Academy.

MQuITE blog posts are co-authored. This post by Dr Mark Carver (@themarkcarver), Dr Paul Adams (@pauladams40), and Dr Aileen Kennedy (@DrAileenK). Project update tweets are @MQuITE_Ed.

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