The Department for Education’s (DfE) 2019 Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy makes for sobering reading.
The teacher retention statistics continue to reveal the challenge to retain teachers early into their career. Simply put, over 20% of new teachers leave the profession within the first two years of teaching and 33 % have left within their first five years (DfE 2018).
The challenge to retain teachers is most acute in disadvantaged areas and the rise in secondary pupil numbers – with 15% more pupils expected to be in secondary schools by 2025 – makes teacher retention an issue of serious national concern (DfE 2019).
In many ways here at NIoE we are bucking the recruitment trend. Recruitment to primary courses remains buoyant, with large numbers of well qualified applicants presenting a real and strongly committed desire to teach.
Most retain the imperative to make a difference for children throughout their training. Our employability figures demonstrate the high regard in which our graduates are held, within our partnership of schools and beyond.
So why, despite the ability to recruit and prepare excellent teachers, is their experience of the workforce such that they leave in huge numbers?
From my standpoint as a teacher educator and former primary school teacher, I suggest that we should turn our focus towards our European neighbours in Finland as a means of halting this exodus.
The Finnish system is one that places equality of opportunity, with professional autonomy and trust in its teachers centre stage. And, guess what, teachers stay.
In Summer 2018, I was privileged to spend a few days in a kindergarten and pre-school in the south of the country with a colleague and two primary education students.
We experienced first-hand the Finnish approach to Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) through observing the interactions of the teachers and children as they played, explored, ate and talked together. The impressions from our brief immersion in Finnish practice were of children who were autonomous in their learning.
Children asked questions which were explored, they developed their own interests and were responsible for their personal learning portfolios. We saw children self-regulating their learning: climbing a large boulder in the forest to sit atop talking with their friends while adults stood at a distance, serving their own midday meal and choosing the resources they wanted to play with as a story was read after lunch. And we saw teachers and children talking together in an atmosphere of openness and respect, in the classroom, when learning outdoors, and as they sat around the table at lunch time.
The goal of the happy and healthy child experiencing the joy of learning is expressed through a child- centred pedagogy where play is central. The intrinsic value of childhood was evident in the practice we witnessed, where the child’s right to be heard and understood as uniquely themselves and as a member of their community was reflected through the day to day practices in the kindergarten and pre-school .
This learning environment is a product of a Finnish approach to the education of its youngest children which has its roots in the principles of a socially just and equitable society.
Crucially, Finland has performed highly since 2000 in PISA studies of international comparison began, and it consistently ranks highly in indices of happiness for its citizens (Tirri 2014).
So, what is not to like?
The professionalization of teachers in Finland is hugely significant in the creation of an education system where, despite short days (by English standards), the absence of standardised testing, an external regulator and league tables, pupils perform extremely well and highly educated students leaving formal education face stiff competition to become teachers.
Teachers are trusted to make the well informed decisions that enable their pupils to thrive, doing so with professional agency and without the external pressures that for too many in the UK, serve to disencentivise.
The Finnish teachers we met were a group of professionals who enjoyed their work and were deeply committed to their young learners. The words stress and workload were not used. Teachers laughed and had fun with their pupils; they engaged in professional discussions as part of their working day and exhibited high degrees of ownership of their pedagogical practice.
If we accept that in England ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’ with a demoralised teacher workforce that exhibits high attrition rates, what can be learnt from our Finnish counterparts?
I suggest that answers might lie in the professionalization of teachers, the culture of schools and perceptions of childhood.
If teachers can be trusted because they are so well prepared and equipped to lead the education of their pupils, they have a degree of professional agency which brings with it job satisfaction. And satisfied teachers are able to create and sustain a school culture and ethos within which people – teachers and students alike flourish.
Looking towards Finland, I suggest that the problem of teacher retention in England could be eased by professionalizing and valuing the teacher workforce with University led teacher education at the forefront of preparing new teachers. Schools would be happier places with the stress of externally driven accountability reduced and teachers able to exercise the professional trust that all too evidently can educate children with the knowledge and skills they need to become the educated citizens of our future.
The DfE and Ofsted need to look beyond the ‘reducing workload’ initiatives and much more deeply at the fundamental issues which create stress and dissatisfaction and follow the Finnish example by putting children and their teachers at the heart of education.
Department for Education (2018) School workforce in England. November 2017
Department for Education (2019) Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy
Tirri K (2014) The last 40 years in Finnish teacher education, Journal of Education for Teaching, 40:5, 600-609