Last month, the Royal Society, Royal Society of Biology, Royal Society of Chemistry, Association for Science Education and Institute of Physics held a seminar on teacher retention, which brought together representatives from government, professional bodies, academics and education charities. The seminar followed up a similar seminar held this time last year, which explored the evidence on current teacher retention rates. Building on last year’s findings, this year’s event delved even deeper into the issues surrounding teacher retention through recent research.

Survey work undertaken for TES Global by YouGov presented at the seminar has shown that of six teacher types that can be identified, some 50% of teachers fall into a type that is at risk of leaving. More specifically in relation to STEM subjects, severe teacher shortages in physics and maths (which, to be made up, would require 40% of new maths graduates to become maths teachers), are being compounded by poor retention of early-career teachers. Research sponsored by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation has shown that Newly Qualified Teachers in science subjects, and particularly physics and engineering, are more likely than non-science teachers to leave the profession. So why are these subject-specialist teachers leaving at such a rapid rate? Research presented at the event painted an interesting picture of where the issues lie when it comes to keeping teachers in the profession.

Teachers leaving the profession do so for a range of different reasons: they may retire, decide to quit, move house, take a break from work, among many other factors. The available research suggests that accountability pressures and working conditions are central drivers for leaving, but the evidence around the issue of salary is less clear-cut.

Science and maths graduates are in the unusual position of being likely to earn more with their degree outside of teaching. Research commissioned by the Wellcome Trust comparing teacher and non-teacher median salaries has shown that across all science degree subjects, teachers are earning around £3,000 less than their non-teaching counterparts. A recent study undertaken by Education Datalab predicted the impact of making a small increase to teacher salaries over the first five years of their career on retention rates. The results suggested that if a 5% salary supplement for new science and maths teachers had been introduced in 2010, it would have eliminated the overall shortage of science teachers experienced since 2010. However, other research by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) indicated that pay is not necessarily the primary motivation for teachers when deciding to leave their school. This research found that among secondary teachers who leave, the proportion working part-time increases by 20% after leaving, suggesting teachers are leaving for reduced working hours and flexible working opportunities.

The working conditions within a school can play a key role in teacher retention. Factors including senior leadership, professional development opportunities, scope for progression and workload can all influence teacher retention rates. NFER research commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation clearly shows that full-time teachers work longer hours, on average, during term time compared to full-time nurses and police. Combined with poor senior leadership and few opportunities for effective professional development, for instance, these factors can contribute to low job satisfaction and increase the likelihood of a teacher leaving.

The UK Government is going some way to try and address some of these issues for teachers at the start of their careers, through its recent consultation on ‘Strengthening Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) and Improving Career Progression for Teachers,’ considering ways that teachers can be better supported during their QTS induction period. However, more can certainly be done to improve support for teachers during this critical time in their careers.

While the seminar showcased key data on teacher retention, it was clear that more research on the retention of subject-specific teachers is needed going forward, to enable stakeholders to better understand why science teachers are leaving and what can be done to grow and support the maths and science teaching workforce. The organising scientific learned societies will be gathering feedback from discussions at the event to help inform the government’s work in this area and to consider next steps in the discussion.

Eleanor Kirby-Green, Policy Officer (Education), Royal Society of Biology