The ‘what, why and so what’ of an MBA project based on teacher retention

Teacher With Mature Female Adult Student Sitting At Table Working In College Library

The words ‘teacher recruitment and retention crisis’ are bandied around in my office on a weekly, if not daily, basis. For most, this enduring crisis might be enough to put them off working as Head of Recruitment and Talent Management for a large multi-academy trust comprising 31 schools based in Kent, but not me… I genuinely thrive on the challenge.  Since the start of my employment with Leigh Academies Trust (LAT) circa 2013, the teacher recruitment crisis has worsened to also encompass the retention of teachers, with the eye of the storm predicted to be back in 2020 – pre-COVID. 

This perfect storm is a result of numerous external factors that, by conducting a PESTLE analysis, sheds light on the worrying trends this sector is facing.  Increased pupil numbers meaning a greater national headcount of teachers required, fluctuating/disappearing financial incentives to train as a teacher, increased teacher workload resulting in declining mental health, ongoing educational reform, uncertainty of the impact of BREXIT on overseas teachers considering the UK as an employment location… Hopefully this information helps paint a picture of the severity and scope of the CRISIS!

With approximately 461,000 state-funded teachers currently qualified and working in the UK (Parliament, 2021), LAT employs 1,200 of these.  This cohort accounts for 40% of LAT’s workforce.  With an industry turnover of up to 30% in some UK locations (compared to the general UK average employee turnover of 15%), it is essential, now more than ever, that we put more emphasis on retaining our teachers.  

My project focuses on the HR function’s strategic responsibility for solving this teacher retention challenge.  The general reasons why teachers leave the profession nationally are well researched and documented – namely workload and stress.  However, why they are leaving our organisation at LAT to seek employment with another education provider is currently unknown.  Here, I am referring to the teachers who have the tenacity and motivation to keep teaching, but feel strongly enough that the grass is greener to change employers.    

Choosing this organisational context and topic is of huge value.  LAT invests the vast majority of its state-funded resources into staffing, but acknowledges that the attrition of our teaching staff is not an area we as senior leaders know enough about.  If we can uncover the real reasons our teachers are leaving, not only can we better align our staff engagement strategy across the organisation but also alleviate the ever-increasing burden on the recruitment function.  I see it as a chicken and egg scenario; we can’t hope to retain staff until we fully understand what drives them to leave in the first place.

As I delivered an overview of my proposed research project topic – teacher retention – in a recent HR management annual review meeting, there was unanimous support that we urgently need to understand why our teachers leave as we only have anecdotal evidence.  With an annual teacher turnover of roughly 15%, that’s over 200 qualified teachers who leave the organisation every year.  This attrition is unsustainable given the decreasing numbers of entrants to the profession each year. 

The conversation digressed into LAT’s employee exit process, i.e our key opportunity to gather company-wide attrition data, and we established our exit process is currently under-resourced and under-managed.  The data above is based on very small data given that only 11% of leavers complete the exit form.  Of these, one third cite ‘better job prospects’ as the reason for leaving, and another third cite ‘need for change’ as their reason.  

So, after that whistle-stop-tour of the enormous challenge the UK education sector is currently facing, the impact it has on LAT, and the HR-verified need to address why and how our teachers leave the organisation, I can summarise the key questions of my research topic as follows;

  1. Establish why teachers leave LAT; what needs are we not meeting / what needs do they feel will be met better by another employer? 
  2. Review our existing exit interview process and associated resources – i.e. exit interview survey – by conducting primary, qualitative research with key stakeholders. 

To be continued…