How to recruit and retain the best teachers

Attracting and keeping top teaching talent has become a real challenge, particularly in a time of shortages, but there are ways schools can get ahead of the game, explains Nicky Hawkwood

A look at the bulging ‘situations vacant’ pages of any popular teaching journal is enough to tell you that there is a distinct scarcity of teaching staff across the UK.

“Teaching vacancies are at the highest level since records began in 2010 and there’s a 14% increase in job advertisements this year compared with the period before the pandemic,” confirms Sadie Besley, senior director of operations at Randstad UK, part of the world’s largest recruitment agency.

“Experienced teachers are leaving the profession at the fastest rate for more than a decade and trainee recruitment is down, so the shortage of teachers is only going to become more acute,” adds Besley.

‘The Great Resignation’

Indeed, government figures show that 4,000 more teachers quit last year than in the previous year, and half of those who remain are intending to go by 2027, with a quarter making plans to pack up as soon as 2024, according to recent research by the National Education Union (NEU).

No wonder this phenomenon has been dubbed ‘The Great Resignation’.

The largest single reason for the shrinkage of the UK’s teaching workforce is early retirement of the over-55s. “You can see why [this age group isn’t] sticking around,” says Besley. “They’re responding to the economic reality of real-term pay erosion.

Teachers’ pay has already fallen by a fifth in real terms since 2010, leaving average salaries at their lowest level compared to national average earnings in more than 40 years. And while the starting salaries for new teachers is going up to £30,000 over the next two years, salaries for more experienced teachers and school leaders are set to rise much more slowly, by between 2% and 3%, and this is exacerbated by the anticipated increase in inflation.”

The number of independent schools withdrawing from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS) has also tempted teachers approaching retirement age to bring their plans forward, and even younger and recently qualified teachers are being put off the profession, citing financial pressures combined with burn-out as a result of the challenges of maintaining teaching throughout the pandemic.

“Teachers report feeling exhausted and demoralised,” explains Professor Lynne McKenna, Dean of the Faculty of Education and Society at the University of Sunderland. “The challenges of ‘catch-up and recovery’ for teachers post-pandemic have been huge – new assessment and examination procedures, increased workload, more bureaucracy, inspections resuming, pay and conditions have all contributed to ‘The Great Resignation’.”

Ben Evans, headmaster of Windlesham House School in West Sussex


Fewer trainees

Just as experienced teachers are leaving the profession in their droves, trainee recruitment has dropped by 25,000 compared with last year.

“Sadly, teaching at the moment is not the attractive proposition it once was,” concludes McKenna. “Department for Education (DfE) bursaries were drastically cut in 2021–22 as the DfE reduced or removed many subject bursaries based on a surge of applications during the pandemic. This short-sighted decision has had a profound effect on applications for 2022 entry.”

Adverse publicity about the state of the profession has not done anything to help entice trainees either, suggests Amy Fowles, quality of education director at Acacia Training, which specialises in education: “News stories about social media issues in schools, harassment and poor student behaviour are just not encouraging people to go into teaching,” she points out. “And news of teachers requiring time off for mental health-related issues and changing careers does not create the image of a sustainable career that will give people the flexibility they now demand of roles.”

Jon Gray, York House School

“The offer needs to be about more than just pay; the demands of teaching roles and education are widely reported and, as such, there needs to be a different rhetoric” –  Amy Fowles, Acacia Training

Recruitment challenges

Recruiting for teaching posts in certain subjects (where there are more financially rewarding alternatives) and particular areas of the country (which are expensive to live in) are proving particularly challenging.

“The most difficult subjects to fill are still technology, engineering, maths, physics and computer science,” reports Besley. “The area of the country worst hit is probably London and the south-east, where the cost of living is high.”

The number of applicants for roles at York House School, a co-ed prep in leafy Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, has been fewer than usual this year, which headmaster Jon Gray puts down to the hike in nearby house prices. “Recruitment is a challenge for us in our local area because it can be hard for a teacher to find a suitable property if they are the major wage earner in their household,” he says.

Similarly, headmaster Ben Evans recently had trouble recruiting a science teacher for Windlesham House School, a pre-prep and prep in desirable west Sussex. “We had to re-advertise a science vacancy due to a lack of high-quality applicants,” he reports, “but the second round was more successful.”

Evans’ school usually has a relatively low staff turnover rate but the number of teachers choosing to leave at the end of this academic year has been at the higher end of the normal range, close to 10%. “This is due to staff looking to move house,” he says, “a knock-on effect of not being able to move for the last two years because they didn’t want to add to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.”

Windlesham House School


How to attract and keep top teachers

Fortunately, for many, teaching is a vocation and there are always some excellent professionals looking for new classrooms full of young minds to inspire – the challenge for schools is how to attract and keep top teachers.

“The offer needs to be about more than just pay,” reminds Amy Fowles of Acacia Training. “The demands of teaching roles and education are widely reported and, as such, there needs to be a different rhetoric. Schools need to focus on their vision and mission, and highlight how each and every role plays a part in that.”

Sadie Besley, senior director of operations, Randstad UK


Financial considerations

Finances can’t be ignored, however, and schools that pay their staff the going rate and also try to help out with any additional costs are likely to find it easier to encourage good teaching staff to apply.

Randstad job ads offering free car parking, meals and refreshments are popular. Schools offering accommodation at a subsidised rate or as part of the employment package, particularly if located in a pricey area of the country, are also likely to encourage applicants, as are schools either continuing with TPS or offering an acceptable replacement.

“We are considering a parallel (to TPS) Direct Contribution pension scheme,” says Gray at York House. “This sees salary uplift as an option to blend with the level of employer’s pension contribution.”

York House School in Hertfordshire


Training programmes

Independent schools (as well as state schools) are increasingly offering teacher training and thereby developing their own stream of newly qualified teachers. The International QTS qualification is a good option for schools with sufficient budget to draw teachers from overseas.

Professional development

A commitment to continuing professional development appeals to ambitious teachers of any age and can really pay off for the school in terms of teaching quality.

“Research opportunities, chances to contribute to the wider sector and secondments to other areas of education and apprenticeships all make a real-time difference to roles,” says Fowles. Mentoring and help with lesson planning can tip the balance.

Katie Waldegrave, director and co-founder of Now Teach


Staff wellbeing

Staff wellbeing has become a significant factor in the workplace and many independent schools are well-placed to offer their facilities for the use of staff.

“We are trying hard to create a robust wellbeing offering,” says Gray. “Staff may use the school’s on-site pool and take part in yoga and exercise classes. We also provide Friday morning breakfast for everyone, plus free lunches, coffee and biscuits.

To date, we have always been able to attract a few solid applicants for the teaching jobs we’ve advertised.”

“Teaching vacancies are at the highest level since records began in 2010 and there’s a 14% increase in job ads this year compared with the period before the pandemic” –  Sadie Besley, senior director of operations, Randstad UK

Clear communication

Making sure that all of the above is clearly communicated to teachers considering applying for a job at the school is essential to encourage a strong pool of applicants. Prospective teachers – as well as parents and pupils – will look to get a flavour of the school by visiting the website and picking up on the tone of recruitment material and this is key to finding applicants who will be a good fit. Pre-application visits are also recommended.

“We encourage all potential applicants to visit the school and meet our pupils, and this is usually enough to encourage them to apply,” says Evans at Windlesham House. “Our applicants’ pack is attractive, with detailed information, including on our enhanced salary scales and benefits package.”

Attracting and keeping high-quality teaching staff is fundamental to the success of any school, but in the independent education sector at a time when good teachers are in such short supply, it can be the difference between a school sinking or swimming.

Don’t overlook career switchers

More people than ever before are switching to teaching from other careers. Applications to Now Teach, which supports people to retrain as teachers and encourages them to stay in the classroom long-term, are up by 26%, in contrast to a 10% drop in applications to secondary teaching, compared to the same point in 2019.

“We have made 80% more offers to would-be-teachers in comparison to a 9% national decline,” says director and co-founder of Now Teach, Katie Waldegrave. “Now Teachers are all people with successful careers behind them, strong networks and a huge range of skills, and they represent just a fraction of a large, untapped pool of talent that can help school leaders tackle staffing shortages and deepen students’ learning experience.”

You might also like: Supporting staff mental health and wellbeing

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