Teacher turnover and high performing school systems

Teacher recruitment and retention is a real problem, not just in the UK but in other countries too. The USA for example reports 14% of teachers leaving after their first year and 46% after their fifth year. In the UK some reports say 50% have left within their first five years. So what can be done to recruit and retain quality teachers to our classrooms?

First of all, let’s debunk a myth. Teachers don’t leave the profession because of poor pay. Teachers discuss pay, walk on the streets carrying placards if pay rises run behind inflation, but they don’t leave the classroom because of pay. I’ve already discussed my belief that the solution to teacher recruitment and retention lies in managing teacher workload and removing some of the unnecessary external pressures caused by observation and grading. (Read my article “5 facts about reducing workload” for more information on this issue.)

So, the UK, the USA, and no doubt many other countries, have problems with recruitment and retention of teachers and yet Finland which regularly comes out on the top of comparative tables has only 3% of teachers leaving the profession in the first five years. Let’s assume that the 3% is indicative of people who either chose the wrong profession or for whatever reason were not right for the role. That means that for every 100 teachers the UK train, 3 don’t hit expectations and 47 leave for other reasons. So, if it isn’t pay, why do they leave?

Before we continue let’s debunk another myth. Finland appear to play PISA tests quite honestly. I have my opinions on Shanghai but Finland really seem to play by the book. Regardless of whether we think PISA a reliable way of judging an education system, Finnish students ace these tests.

So what is different between Finland, which has mastered recruiting and retaining teachers, and countries including the UK and USA that are struggling to get any value for money out of initial teacher training? Here is my ‘Top 5’ of how Finland succeeds in keeping the best teachers in classrooms.

1: Average student:teacher ratio is 1:12
I’ve read Hattie (Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning), I understand what EEF produces but without doing research or making observations, there is a difference here. This isn’t a promise of infant classes below 30, this is a ‘throughout education’ average of 12. As a mean that must also indicate many children are in classes smaller than 12. A parent wanting that teacher:pupil ratio in the UK is almost certainly going to have to choose an independent education.

2: 1 in 3 Finnish students receives some sort of special help in school
That seems an outstanding intervention rate. In a class of 12 then, there could be up to four pupils receiving an intervention. Again, we aren’t looking at infant or even primary education. This is an average across the education system.

3: Homework
Finnish students don’t start homework until into their teens. There has been substantial research to show that homework produces small or no benefits educationally and yet still parents in the UK and USA have expectations of homework. Children in Finland, according to one observer, are children. They return home and then go out to play with friends. They socialise, talk, enjoy quality family time and crucially, school doesn’t figure at home until they are approaching the only national standardised testing that takes place at 16 years old. No standardised testing until 16 years old and no homework until approaching the tests.

4: Playtime
Children in Finland have more minutes of playtime in their school day than almost anywhere else in Europe. An average of 75 minutes per day spent playing outside with friends. The tendency in the UK is to combat playtime problems by reducing the time spent on the playground and yet Finland seems to achieve better results by giving more playtime. Something we don’t quite understand is clearly at work here!

5: To teach in Finland requires a masters degree
And there it is. You can’t step in front of a class in Finland without a minimum of four years of degree study. No fast track, no returning heroes, no access courses for degree courses. Four years minimum of academic study and practice before you can take a class. Consequently, teaching is still a profession with public confidence. Doctors, lawyers and teachers are seen as a similar status.

So, what can we learn?
My five point system for improving teacher recruitment and retention without discussing workload is:

1: Remove all fast track to the classroom schemes. One year hops into the classroom are damaging our education system. Access alternatives for courses that negate the need for an academic study are muddying the waters. If you haven’t got an English and Maths GCSE then you need to study for one. Remove the ‘equivalent’ courses that universities run to enable late entrants in to teaching.

2: Allow playtime. Allow it outside at playtime and allow it in the classroom, especially in the early years. Teachers know how to create learning opportunities through play. Remove the teaching by numbers systems of an overly controlling central curriculum and judge teachers not on their delivery of national strategy but on the learning taking place in their classrooms.

3: Stop wasting time on testing and homework. All the research says it doesn’t help attainment. It is only in the system to check up on teachers. We are only checking up on teachers because there is a lack of trust in their work.

4: Provide more interventions when they are needed. When I taught in the UK we had two educational psychologist visits per year and no diagnosis could be made without their advice. Support therefore was delivered by the least qualified staff as pupils were in effect excluded from class for support. Make trained teachers responsible for interventions. Trained teachers in school just to intervene when a child has learning problems and to do so on the back of an extensive academic study of how to help that child.

5: Pupil:teacher ratio
Does it matter? Well, sorry to say this Mr Miliband but reducing infant classes (which are already capped at 30) to 30 is a shameless piece of election headline grabbing. If you promised class sizes averaging 12 pupils from pre-school to 18 years old…now that would be a headline!

One final point regarding what high performing school systems can teach us about teacher recruitment and retention.
Cultural difference are never measured but they really matter. Finnish culture is family focused. Something that is missing from UK and USA cultures. Maternity and paternity leave exceed that given in the UK and the USA. Pupils arrive at school having had breakfast with a parent. They come home to a parent and have time to play with friends.

What can Finland teach us about teacher recruitment and retention? It teaches us that if there is a strong family cohesion then children are more likely to achieve at school. If we erode family and leave pupils to be raised by their schools then we may struggle to compete.

Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? (The Series on School Reform)

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  1. Pingback: Monthly top 5 roundup – February 2015 | Living and teaching in Spain

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