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Free article: Improving teacher recruitment and retention: part 1

Published: Wednesday, 27 June 2018

In the first part of a two-part article, Matt Bromley looks at ways to improve teacher recruitment and retention.


  • The shortage of teachers is due to a combination of: increasing pupil numbers, a lack of new teachers going through initial teacher training, and teachers leaving the profession.
  • More than one in ten teachers left the profession in 2016, with an increasing proportion leaving the profession for other sectors rather than retiring. 
  • Not enough new secondary school trainee teachers are coming into the sector. 
  • In 2016–17, the only secondary school subjects where the teacher supply model (TSM) recruitment target was met were biology, geography, history and PE. 
  • The greatest problem areas for recruitment, according to a recent survey, are in maths, science and English.

There is a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention in England’s schools, and tackling it is proving an increasingly urgent task for school leaders. Before we explore some ways of solving this crisis, let’s first examine its causes.

The problems

1 Pupil numbers are growing

Previously this created a problem with teacher shortages at primary school level, but now a large number of pupils from primary schools are moving to secondary schools, causing a large increase in pupil numbers at secondary level. The secondary school population, not counting Year 12 and 13 pupils, is projected to rise from 2.72 million in 2017 to 3.03 million by 2021, a rise of 11.5% over four years. What is more, by 2025 there are projected to be 3.3 million 11–15-year-olds in English schools, which is an increase of half a million compared with 2015.

If we are to ensure that these children are properly educated, we will need an extra 26,500 teachers in the classroom.

2 There are too few secondary school trainee teachers

Not enough new secondary school trainee teachers are coming into the sector. Previously there was a shortage of teachers at primary school level due to an increase in pupil numbers, but now those pupils are migrating to secondary school level, passing the teacher shortage crisis to secondary schools.

Initial teacher training (ITT) figures for 2016–17 show a decrease in the overall number of recruits compared with 2015–16, with only 93% of places being filled. The overall contribution to the secondary target was 89%, meaning nearly 2000 places went unfilled. But the reality is even worse than these figures suggest because, since 2015–16, ITT figures have included applicants for Teach First who were previously excluded from these statistics. This therefore boosted the overall figure for 2016–17 by over 1000 applicants. However, despite the inclusion of Teach First applicants in the ITT statistics, the overall Teacher Supply Model (TSM) target was still not met, just as it had not been met for the previous four years.

In 2016–17, the only subjects where the TSM recruitment target was met were biology, geography, history and PE. All other secondary subjects were under-recruited, and some by a significant margin. For instance, maths only recruited 84% of the required number of trainees, physics 81%, and computing just 68%.

3 We are losing too many experienced teachers

Not only are we failing to recruit enough new teachers, we are also losing too many experienced ones. Teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers. More than one in ten teachers left the profession in 2016. Of these, an increasing proportion left the profession for other sectors rather than retiring, suggesting that their working conditions rather than their age were driving them out.

4 Schools are unable to recruit and retain teachers

A survey by the National Union of Teachers (prior to it merging with ATL and becoming the National Education Union or NEU), carried out in March 2016, found that nearly three quarters (73%) of school leaders were experiencing difficulties in recruiting teachers, with 61% saying that the situation had got worse (42%) or much worse (19%) over the last year.

The greatest problem areas, according to the survey, were in maths (36% of school leaders were struggling to recruit in this area), science (34%) and English (23%).

The crisis in teacher recruitment means that while schools are struggling to fill vacancies, large numbers of pupils are being taught by unqualified teachers, or at least teachers who do not have a relevant qualification in the subject they are being asked to teach. In 2016, for example, the NUT found that only 63% of physics and 75% of chemistry teachers held a relevant post- A-level qualification in the subject they taught. For maths and English, these figures were 78% and 81% respectively.

In addition, falling retention rates is costly. An analysis by the Labour Party estimated that secondary schools spent £56 million on advertising for vacant posts in 2015, an increase of 61% from 2010.

But high levels of attrition among qualified teachers is not only costly in financial terms; it also has an impact on the quality of education that schools can provide. In November 2016, for example, there were 500 fewer qualified teachers in service than in the previous year. Conversely, there were 1400 more teachers in service without qualified teacher status than there had been the year before.

So, what can be done to solve this growing crisis?

The solution

What is needed at a national level is a long-term, evidence-based strategy setting out how the government will tackle challenges associated with the supply of teachers, which should include improvements to the teacher supply model.

While recruiting sufficient numbers of new teachers is clearly necessary, the government should also focus its attentions on improving teacher retention, and not solely through the lens of workload. Work–life balance is clearly a problem, but many teachers cite other reasons, such as stress and a lack of autonomy, for leaving the profession.

Not only is improving retention rates a more cost-effective way of tackling the issues of supply and demand, but having greater numbers of experienced teachers staying in the profession will naturally deepen the pool of leadership potential, supplying our next cohort of headteachers.

Meanwhile, at a local level, in schools and academy trusts, leaders need to develop staff autonomy, mastery and purpose if they are to improve the recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers.

In terms of autonomy, school leaders need to understand better what motivates staff, and accept that teachers need to feel valued, rewarded and professionally developed. In terms of mastery, school leaders might wish to review their performance management processes in order to separate any appraisal decisions from matters of professional development, emphasising the carrot rather than the stick. And in terms of purpose, school leaders need to understand and articulate what their school has to offer new teachers and what makes it unique.

In the second part of this two-part article, we will explore more ways of developing autonomy, mastery and purpose, and then examine the types of school leader who enjoy the most sustained success in turning around failing schools and stemming the flow of teachers, as well as the types of school culture they tend to build.

Further information

  • Curriculum and assessment in chaos: a survey of NUT secondary school members, National Education Union, March 2016:


Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

About the author

Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with over eighteen years’ experience in teaching and leadership. He also works as a consultant, speaker and trainer and is the author of numerous best-selling books for teachers. You can read more advice in his latest book, The New Teacher Survival Kit, available in paperback and ebook formats. You can find out more about Matt at and follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley.