Teacher turnover. Part of life.

Image via jamesgeo.com

It’s a busy time of year for recruitment. We’ve been recruiting in most subject areas and, so far, despite the well publicised pressures schools are facing. I’m pleased to have been able to attract good fields for most positions.  It’s been hardest of all for science teachers and I’m still waiting to find out how we’ll do with catering, drama and computer science.   However, I know we’ll be ok; we’re not in the same boat as some other schools where they find it hard to get any applicants at all for some posts.  We’ve already made some stunning appointments.

We’ve been trying very hard to make HGS a school that people want to work in. Recognising that we need people to stay put long enough for them to develop, we’ve made it a deliberate strategy to try to optimise teachers’ conditions.  This includes built-in CPD, a healthy professional culture where we discuss education and don’t go around telling people off, good behaviour systems, creating additional posts for career development, running a zero cover policy, removing lesson grades and individual data targets and keeping loadings to a reasonable level – I don’t know anywhere with lower loadings.

We’re not perfect by any means – there are always stresses and strains – but I think we offer a pretty good deal.  So – why do people leave?  The fact is that  teaching is a very demanding job and living in London is super expensive. But, also, there are other ways to make a living and other places to live.  It’s a feature of our setting that we have a lot of young teachers who, naturally enough, will want to sample different employment fields, seek adventure or, a bit further on, look for somewhere to settle down and plan for family life.  A career, a life, is not a ladder; it’s a journey.  I always understand it when people tell me they are leaving to do something exciting.  I’ve done the same thing myself at different points in my career.

Here’s a flavour of where people are going:

  • Going abroad:  to Japan, China, Spain,  Mexico, Greece; Qatar; or  back-packing in SE Asia.
  • Leaving London:  to Devon, to Kent, to Scotland.
  • One teacher is retiring; another is leaving just to do something different after lengthy service; two young teachers are leaving for the commercial world, one to join a start-up venture, the other joining a global financial services company.
  • One teacher is going to a school in the independent sector and one teacher is going to take up a promotion in another London comprehensive.
  • Two people are going on maternity leave – but, thankfully, will be returning; at least, that’s the plan.

So, out of all of those leavers, only one is going to another comprehensive school in London and he has secured a promoted post that I couldn’t offer.  If people were leaving us just to go to similar jobs nearby I’d be worried.  However, to a great extent, in terms of things I can do at school level, this turn-over is beyond our control.  It’s just the way things are.  We’re probably going to experience 15-20% turnover of teaching staff every year.  So -how do we deal with it?

The first thing is not to see it as inherently problematic.  When people tell me they are leaving, I’m happy for them.  They have a plan, their lives are changing and I want them to feel good about the decisions they’ve made.  It’s only a problem if they leave it late in the day or if I know they will be very hard to replace.  But that’s not their problem; it’s mine.

Then, I think we need to celebrate the fact that teaching as a profession offers the flexibility that it does.  You can try it for  few years, then do something else, dip in and out or stick to it for many years in a row or a lifetime.  You can teach almost anywhere; it allows you to see the world.  It’s a good job to have if you want a family because even after a break you can return.  It’s healthy to have a good mix of people at any one time – a blend of youth and experience – and that’s what we’ve got.

There are implications for how we view our culture-building processes in the school.  A good philosophical question is whether a car that has every single part replaced over time is still the same car is was originally? It is and it isn’t.  Schools can maintain a clear identity and ethos that withstands changes of personnel if the values are articulated strongly enough and enough time is spent on passing on the tacit knowledge that longer-serving teachers share.  At Highbury Grove, I think we could  do more work on this, especially for post-qualification teachers who join us from other schools; those that are not NQTs or Teach First.  We’re closer to a clear sense of ‘this is how we do things’ at HGS and that needs to be shared more explicitly; our ITT provision is great but it needs to continue way beyond that.

I think we also need to make sure our students and parents feel positive about turnover. It’s obviously disappointing to lose a teacher you’ve grown to love; it can be a bit wobbly when someone new takes time to get to know you. However, I do think students can and should have the resilience to take these personnel changes in their stride.  In my experience, students adapt to changes very quickly; a new perspective; a new voice – all adding to the richness of their education.

A degree of turnover is a healthy thing if it brings new blood; new ideas and fresh energy.  To a large extent that is what we’ve experienced in the last year at HGS.  Losing great people can be worrying – for parents and students as well as the leadership team.  But, we mustn’t worry about the fact of turnover itself.  The challenge is to continue to recruit great people or people with the potential to be great and invest time and energy in supporting their induction.

Of course, all of this would be a lot easier if we had confidence that we will replace people.  We’re all happier to have twenty applicants for every post instead of two. Looking at my list of reasons for leaving, I can’t help but imagine what this must look like at a national level if our experience is reproduced across the system.  It adds up to a significant brain-drain with people moving over to international schools, jobs outside of London or out of teaching altogether.  Even if each person is citing specific personal reasons for moving on, it does say something about the demand-to-reward ratio in teaching. It’s a tough job and, in the short-term, it can be stressful; it’s natural for people to look at alternatives.  Without any question, issues with workload and accountability pressure need to be addressed urgently if we are going to reverse this national trend. 

However, my great hope and belief is that, over the long run, it still adds up to being a super-rewarding career. We need to get this message out, loud and clear.  As a Head, accommodating  adventure seekers and family-builders is part and parcel of running a great school.  I’ve been a teacher since 1987; the whole thing has been an adventure and I want my staff to see it that way too.

See also:  10 Reasons to Love Teaching.

PS: If you are an adventure seeker, come and work at HGS. You’ll love it! See our TES page here: https://www.tes.com/jobs/employer/highbury-grove-school-1050263










  1. Thanks Tom this is really interesting insight for those of us not running schools but trying to understand the pressures better. I think getting returners back is also part of the solution and perhaps this needs closer cooperation with other employers in the locality or nationally if that’s at all possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “However, my great hope and belief is that, over the long run, it still adds up to being a super-rewarding career. We need to get this message out, loud and clear. ”

    It isn’t any more. It’s pressure driven and results driven. People are voting with their feet. Too much pressure has led to a marked increase in what can only be called cheating in some subjects, and a ridiculous workload where good teaching is nowhere near enough on its own. \You have to work late, come in during holidays, turn blind eyes, stupid marking policies where there only thing that matters is that you follow the policy, not its efficacy. Pay progression has gone, academies can do what they like etc No, it’s pretty rubbish for a normal teacher now.


  3. Absolutely agree with you, Tom – sometimes good people move on (and sometimes they need to be encouraged to do so for their own progression. I was a better head for having worked in six different schools) The important thing is that we bring in and bring on the next generation of good people.

    James’ comment saddens me. I’m not unsympathetic but I still know significant numbers of motivated, positive and enthusiastic teachers who would agree with your view that it is a rewarding career. To the disaffected who are considering leaving the profession, I would always advise that they try a change of school first.

    Liked by 2 people

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