A high-status, research-informed profession: the foundation for successful teacher recruitment and retention?

Linda la Velle and Alexandra Kendall


As teachers are a fundamental condition for guaranteeing quality education, teachers and educators should be empowered, adequately recruited and remunerated, motivated, professionally qualified, and supported within well-resourced, efficient and effectively governed systems.

(UNESCO, 2016, p. 52)

Retention in the teaching profession is a global and critical issue (Geiger & Piv- ovarova, 2018). In England, it is estimated that approximately one-third of newly qualified teachers will leave the profession within their first five years of teaching (Worth, 2018). Added to this is that pupil numbers in state-funded schools in England are rising and therefore increasing the pupil-to-teacher ratio in classrooms. There is also a decline in recruitment to initial teacher education and training courses: this has been below target every successive year since 2012. The final challenge is that the number of full-time teacher vacancies and temporarily filled posts have both risen since 2011. In the words of the National Foundation for Educational Research [NFER] (Worth, 2018), these issues together create the ‘perfect storm’ of teacher supply.

In the last two decades, a number of government initiatives and interventions have been proposed and some put into operation, including: the introduction of bursaries for shortage subjects such as physics, computing and modern foreign languages; incentive schemes for returning teachers; encouragements for overseas teachers; opportunities for flexible working; introducing early career retention payments for maths teachers; piloting a student loan reimbursement scheme for science and language teachers working in schools in certain local authorities in their third and fifth years of teaching; and, finally, a commitment of £84 million up to 2022/23 to upskill 8,000 computer science teachers (Foster, 2019). Other initiatives that were piloted, such as the proposed National Teaching Service, which aimed to place teachers in underperforming schools in areas that struggle to recruit teachers, did not get beyond the pilot stage (Hazell, 2016). Additionally, recent evidence suggests that over £22 million has been spent on bursaries for student teachers in England, many of whom do not go into teaching (Vaughn, 2019).

In spite of these various inducements, and possibly because of their comparative lack of success in improving the situation of teacher recruitment and retention, the UK Government has the stated aim to strengthen the status of the profession by the provision of structured continuing professional development and career development. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss in detail the various policy initiatives that have recently been implemented. While acknowledging that raising the status of the teaching profession is a long-term aspiration, it can be argued that to date there is little sign of much difference having been made to the status quo. This chapter will argue that the provision of attractive, motivating and progressive initial and career-long professional development for teachers is the first step in raising the profession’s status. It is also central and crucial to the ultimate aim of ensuring that all pupils have a well-qualified and motivated teacher to enable them to achieve their educational potential.

Strengthening the status of the teaching profession

To consider how the professional status of teachers might be strengthened first requires a conceptualisation of the notion of status itself. For teaching, a useful model of status has been offered by Eric Floyle (2001). In short, Floyle proposes that occupational status is comprised of three related aspects: prestige, esteem and status. Fie defines occupational prestige as the public perception of the relative position of an occupation in a hierarchy of occupations; occupational status as the category to which knowledgeable groups (for example, civil servants, politicians and social scientists, etc.) allocate a particular occupation/profession; and occupational esteem as the regard in which an occupation is held by the general public by virtue of the personal, rather than technical, qualities, such as care, competence, conscientiousness, that practitioners bring to their work. Hoyle goes on to argue that teachers’ occupational prestige is comparable to ‘semi-professions’ such as social work, rather than the major professions such as law or medicine. In spite of having achieved official professional status in the 2001 census classification of occupations, Hoyle claims that teachers’ occupational status is limited by the image that people hold of them, mainly because of the nature of their work with children. Teachers’ occupational esteem, Hoyle proposes, is influenced by people’s own experiences at school. However, occupational esteem is, he argues, the only aspect of their status that teachers can themselves influence, through their own practice.

In many countries, including Ireland, Finland and Australia, teaching is regarded as a high-status profession. Recruitment and retention is relatively unproblematic; teachers enjoy their work and are esteemed for it by society. In the UK, however, and particularly in England, concern about the professional status of teachers has a long-standing and far-reaching history reaching back well into the middle of the last century. A report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s [UNESCO| Special Intergovernmental Conference on the Status of Teachers (UNESCO, 2008) contained an extensive list of recommendations, relating to the most important professional, social, ethical and material concerns of teachers, which aimed to improve the status of the teaching profession. Among other imperatives, and with relevance to this chapter, these included:

  • • initial and continuing training
  • • recruitment
  • • advancement and promotion
  • • professional freedom
  • • supervision and assessment
  • • responsibilities and rights
  • • participation in educational decision-making
  • • conditions for effective teaching and learning.

Strengthening each of the frameworks in which these elements of teacher professionalism can grow and develop is crucial to the reinforcement of the status of the profession and, ultimately, is the responsibility of government and governance.

Taking a wider international view, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation [OECD| in their report ‘Teachers Matter: Attracting, Developing and Retaining Effective Teachers’ (OECD, 2005) considered the preparation, recruitment, work and careers of school teachers from 25 countries worldwide. They focused on governmental policies that contributed to attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers in schools. The report provides a comprehensive international analysis of: trends and developments in the teacher workforce; evidence of the key factors in attracting, developing and retaining effective teachers; innovative and successful teacher policies and practices; teacher policy options for countries to consider; and priorities for future work at national and international levels. That the research attracted participation by so many countries showed that issues concerning the teaching profession are a global priority for public policy. As the OECD forecast, and the recruitment and retention trends discussed have testified, this matter has acquired even more urgency in the intervening years.

Teaching as an intellectual profession

In terms of professionalism, the 1966 UNESCO report stated that

Teaching should be regarded as a profession: it is a form of public service, which requires of teachers expert knowledge and specialized skills, acquired and maintained through rigorous and continuing study; it also calls for a sense of personal and corporate responsibility for the education and welfare of the pupils in their charge.

(UNESCO, 2008, III. 6)

As we have long argued, teaching is an intellectual, critical profession (Totterdell, Hathaway, & la Velle, 2011; Duggan & la Velle, 2019; la Velle & Flores, 2018). As such, associated with this is a vast and dynamic body of academic and professional knowledge, which is informed by research developments. Engagement with this is the career-long requirement and commitment of an effective teacher. Ken Zeichner (2014) has argued that because teachers are professionals, their initial and continuing education requires more provision than just classroom management and administrative skills. The best teachers teach from strength in knowledge, understanding and skills, incorporating, for example, reflection, emotions, beliefs, dispositions, agency, efficacy, values and so on. These elements contribute to a professional autonomy, which is increasingly necessary in the face of externally imposed educational policy because teachers today work within an environment of increasing tension and paradox in terms of accountability, work- life balance, pupil behaviour management and other reported stressors (Worth & Van den Brande, 2019).

The seminal work of Lee Shulman on teachers’ knowledge bases has informed teacher education courses since the 1980s. He proposed a series of areas of knowledge for teachers (Shulman, 1986, p. 9), asking himself‘in which forms are the domains and categories of knowledge represented in the minds of teachers?’ and describing the following categories of knowledge: content; general pedagogic; pedagogic content; curricular; pupil characteristics; and educational context. This led to the formulation of a ‘cycle of pedagogic reasoning’ (Shulman, 1987), which begins and ends with an act of comprehension on behalf of the teacher. A version of this is reproduced in Figure 4.1.

Shulman’s Cycle of Pedagogic Reasoning

FIGURE 4.1 Shulman’s Cycle of Pedagogic Reasoning

Sourer. Reproduced with the kind permission of Inderscience Publishers, from la Velle, Watson & Nichol, 2000.

This should be envisioned as an upwardly spiralling cycle of experience and increased understanding. Beginning and ending in something understood by the teacher (for example, a biology teacher understands about photosynthesis, a geography teacher about plate tectonics, a music teacher about key signatures), that knowledge is transformed into a form that can be understood by learners through an iterative process of preparation, representation, choice of instructional techniques and adaptation (differentiation). The lesson is then taught, the teacher evaluating the effect of her instruction to gauge its impact on the pupils’ understanding (for example, by question-and-answer, observing their actions, listening to their talk), following which she reflects on her teaching and comes to a new level of comprehension in respect of what she originally understood about teaching that particular lesson.

A recently proposed model of research-based enhancement of teachers’ knowledge (la Velle & Flores, 2018), based on the Shulman cycle (1987, see Figure 4.2), argues that the upward gain can be greatly enhanced by teachers’ engagement, as both consumers and producers, with educational research.

In this cycle, new knowledge is generated by research, acquired by teachers to add to their levels of comprehension within the various knowledge domains, transformed into pedagogic content knowledge, used in teaching and subsequently reflected upon to enhance the original level of comprehension. Thus, teachers’ professional knowledge bases as either recipients or donors of research are continuously expanded, increasing their efficacy, effectiveness and confidence. In terms of retention in the profession, this is very likely to have a positive impact not only on an individual teacher’s professionalism, practice and job satisfaction, but also in terms of raising the status of the teaching profession. Both of these outcomes have a potential knock-on effect on recruitment and retention.

Research-based Knowledge Enhancement for Teaching

FIGURE 4.2 Research-based Knowledge Enhancement for Teaching

Sorrrrc: This figure is derived in part from an article (la Velle & Flores, 2018) published in the Journal of Education for Teaching

To become a fundamental element of teachers’ professional practice, it is necessary to embed research-informedness into teacher education courses, both initial and continuing. The role of teacher educators themselves then becomes critical. However, as Duggan and la Velle (2019) reported, teacher educators working within higher education institutions operate under dual tensions of accountability: on one hand, to Ofsted, the UK Government’s education inspection service for the quality of their initial teacher education courses, and on the other hand, as university academics, to Research England, the government authority responsible for the quality of universities’ research. Nevertheless, if teaching is truly to become a research-informed profession, the roles of teacher educators, whether they are working in universities or in other educational settings, as both users and generators of research, is crucial.

In 2014, the British Educational Research Association (BERA), together with the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), produced a joint report, ‘Research and The Teaching Profession, Building the Capacity for a Self-Improving System’ (BERA/RSA, 2014):

to consider what contribution research can make to the development of teachers’ professional identity and practice, to the quality of teaching, to the broader project of school improvement and transformation, and, critically, to the outcomes for learners: children, young people and adults, especially those for whom the education system does not currently ‘deliver’.

(p. 5)

The report identified four ways in which research can contribute to the education of teachers. First, through the content of teacher education courses; second, through the design of teacher education courses; third, through teacher educators as consumers of research; and fourth, through teacher educators as producers of research. The enquiry drew upon evidence to build a case for ‘developing and sustaining what might be termed teachers’ “research literacy’” (BERA/RSA, 2014, p. 12).

Helpfully illustrated in Figure 4.3, teachers’ research literacy can be viewed as a ‘key dimension of teachers’ broader professional identity, one that reinforces other pillars of teacher quality: notably subject knowledge and classroom practice’ (p. 12).

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