RETAIN: a research-informed model of continuing professional development for early career teacher retention

Tanya Ovenden-Hope, Sonia Blandford,

Tim Cain and Bronwen Maxwell


In 2018, after the RETAIN pilot programme had been completed, independently evaluated and the findings reported by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), a blog was written by Jones (2018), a lead of a Research School1 in England, asking ‘Has a solution to [teacher] retention been found?’

So did RETAIN work? Well it looks promising. The CPD aspect appears to have increased self-efficacy, confidence and research-use. . . . Are we actually just seeing a model of good practice? ... do we actually need to consider the how of our CPD as much as the what?

(Jones, 2018)

How continuing professional development (CPD) is developed was central to the creation of RETAIN. The RETAIN pilot programme was a research-informed and evidence-based CPD programme for early career teachers (ECTs) in primary phase education that sought to improve teacher retention in schools with high levels of persistently disadvantaged pupils. The independent evaluation of the programme demonstrated that is was the carefully considered how for the CPD that supported the positive outcomes achieved.

In this chapter, we offer an overview of the rationale for developing RETAIN, the evidence for both the content and the delivery, the methodology for evaluation and an insight into the significance and reach of the findings as a potential solution for early career teacher retention challenges. Has a solution to early career teacher retention been found in RETAIN, as Jones (2018) asks? The evidence from the pilot suggests that RETAIN provides a model of high- quality, research-informed CPD that changes how teachers perceive their own self-efficacy and that this model can be applied in any context and in any country. At the time of writing, all ECTs who participated in the RETAIN pilot programme remain in the profession.

Why was RETAIN needed?

In England, as in other countries, there are concerns about the shortage of teachers in schools (Foster, 2019). These concerns are justified: the most recently published data from the British Government (Foster, 2019) show that the overall number of teachers in England has not kept pace with increasing pupil numbers, with around 42,000 full-time equivalent qualified teachers leaving the state- funded sector in the 12 months to November 2018, an attrition of 9.8 per cent; 32.3 per cent of newly qualified teachers in 2016 were recorded as not working as teachers in the state sector five years later. This is the highest five-year attrition rate for early career teachers (ECTs) since 1997 (Foster, 2019).

Teacher shortage has been described as ‘a policy problem’ (Cochran-Smith, 2004) with two causes: insufficient people entering teaching as a career (a problem of recruitment), and too many teachers choosing to leave teaching (a problem of retention). The problem is acute, particularly as pupil numbers are rising, and the number is forecast to continue rising until at least 2024 (Worth, Lynch, Hillary, Rennie, & Andrade, 2018), and elicited a government response in 2019 with the teacher recruitment and retention strategy (Department for Education [DfEJ, 2019a). When RETAIN was being developed in 2015, the ‘challenge’ of teacher retention was evident and looked set to increase, particularly among teachers in their first to third years of employment in England, for the reasons as noted.

There are several consequences of teacher shortages. From a policy perspective, an important one is the waste of money: it is not financially viable to train large cohorts of teachers, many of whom quit the profession within a few years. But it is in schools where the problem is most acutely felt. Despite spending time, money and effort to recruit teachers, school leaders are unable to fill vacancies with properly qualified teachers, increasingly turning to unqualified teachers or temporary replacements in academies, free schools and studio schools (allowed through an amendment in 2012 by the Secretary of State to regulations within the Education Act, 2002) (NASUWT, 2017). Furthermore, a high turnover of staff can affect the school community and make long-term planning more difficult (Brill & McCartney, 2008). In consequence, at the time of writing, the first priority of the Schools Minister is to ‘ensure there are sufficient high-quality teachers in our schools . . . by delivering our teacher recruitment and retention strategy’ (DfE, 2018, Section 2).

The teacher recruitment and retention strategy (DfE, 2019a) recognises that in England teacher supply is in crisis and intends to address this through four key areas where the department believes focus, investment and reform can have the biggest impact on improving teacher recruitment and retention. The four key areas are:

  • 1 To reform the accountability system - this process has started and the schools’ regulatory body in England, Ofsted, introduced a new Education Inspection Framework in May 2019 (Ofsted, 2019) that is intended to ‘have an active focus on reducing teacher workload’ (DfE, 2019a, p. 7).
  • 2 To transform support for early career teachers by developing an Early Career Framework (DfE, 2019b) and phased bursaries with staggered retention payments. The Early Career Framework becomes a statutory requirement in schools in England in September 2021 and will introduce ‘a fully-funded package of structured support for early career teachers time off-timetable in the second year and support for mentors’ (DfE, 2019b, p. 7).
  • 3 To develop and enhance specialist qualification in teaching and leadership. This work has begun with the creation of national professional qualifications (NPQs) that are set to launch in September 2021 and are intended to help teachers ‘pursue the right career opportunities for them’, including progression in teaching as well as leadership (DfE, 2019a, p. 7).
  • 4 To create a new application system for those wanting to train as teachers. It is hoped that the new system, which is preparing for full implementation in September 2020, will ‘radically simplify the process for becoming a teacher . . . [and] make application easier and more user-friendly’ (DfE, 2019a, p. 7). At the time of writing, there is a range of routes into teaching in England that involve different ways of applying, for example, postgraduate accredited and undergraduate programmes through the Universities Central Application System, while an ‘assessment only’ route to QTS (qualified teacher status) means that applicants apply directly to a school via an accredited provider. Under the new system all routes will be supported through one application system.

The recruitment and retention strategy (DfE, 2019a) has generally been well received by educationalists as both an acknowledgement of the problems schools face with teacher supply and for the interventions being made as noted (Menzies, 2019).

The Department for Education invited the RETAIN team to share findings of the RETAIN pilot programme in a meeting in 2017. The importance of high-quality CPD was discussed; evidence for increased self-efficacy for ECTs, through continued skills development and mentoring, was recognised and the constituent elements are embedded in the recruitment and retention strategy (Department for Education, 2019a). The RETAIN model and pilot programme contributed to thinking at government and school level in England on how to solve the challenge of teacher retention.

How was RETAIN developed?

The aim of the RETAIN pilot programme was to improve ECT retention, defined as newly qualified teachers (NQTs) in the first three years of teaching, through a new research-informed model of CPD. Understanding that there was increasing ECT attrition in England, and recognising this as a challenge in many other countries, the priority in developing RETAIN became to understand the causes of poor ECT retention and to create ways in which a CPD programme could contribute to reducing ECT attrition. A review of research literature in this area demonstrated that the reasons why ECTs leave teaching are complex, especially when this is examined at an international level (Veenman, 1984; Caspersen & Raaen, 2014; Hoigaard, Giske, & Sundsli, 2012).

In England, a national survey, commissioned by the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT), found that ‘[a]lmost three quarters of teachers (74%) are seriously considering leaving their current job and over two-thirds of teachers (67%) are thinking of quitting the profession altogether’ (NASUWT, 2019, p. 15).

The number thinking of leaving the profession was up from 69 per cent and 61 per cent respectively in 2017 (NASUWT, 2017). The NASUWT found that the main reasons for teacher and school leader dissatisfaction were the high workload, pupil behaviour, budget cuts, pay and accountability (NASUWT, 2019). However, there is also some contradictory evidence that teachers are ‘not primarily motivated to leave the profession by the prospect of increased pay’ (Worth et al., 2018, p. 5). This study found that teachers who leave the profession are, on average, paid ‘ten per cent less than . . . when they were a teacher’ (Worth et al., 2018, p. 5). The same research found that around 80 per cent of full-time teachers reported being satisfied with their income, which suggests that one major means of addressing the problem of ECT retention lies in enabling them to cope with the demands of teaching. Menzies et al. (2015) suggest that teachers primarily go into the profession to make a difference and become overwhelmed by the parts of their work that appear meaningless in relation to improving the learning of their pupils.

There is a large literature around the demands placed on ECTs; being an ECT can be a professionally challenging role in any school (DfE, 2019b). In schools in areas facing socio-economic disadvantage, these challenges can be multiplied exponentially (Ovenden-Hope & Passy, 2019). This means that the retention of teachers is most challenging in areas of disadvantage; the very areas where the need for continuity of teaching and the support of high-quality CPD are needed the most (Cordingley et al., 2015).

Veenman (1984) referred to ‘reality shock’, a state experienced by ECTs, caused by the heavy personal and professional demands for new teachers, and the unpredictability and complexity of their role. The reality they experience is at dissonance with their expectations of the role and this leads to anxiety, feeling vulnerable and finding it difficult to cope (Feiman-Nemser, 2003; Sabar, 2004). Although they can, and do, seek support from colleagues, often they do not want to be seen as needing support in their schools because they want to be seen as ‘proper teachers’ (Haggarty, Postlethwaite, Diment, & Ellins, 2011, p. 942). Additionally, they can perceive that support is given primarily to teachers who are struggling, rather than being an entitlement to professional development.

A large-scale survey of teachers in Scotland identified what ECTs felt they needed to cope with teaching. In order of priority, these were: ‘Keeping up to date with teaching strategies in order to meet specific pupils’ needs’; ‘Knowing more about [the] Curriculum . . . and how it will impact on my practice’; ‘Subject or topic-specific CPD’; and ‘Behaviour management strategies’ (Kennedy et al., 2008, p. 36). ‘Behaviour management’ is likely to refer to the need for ECTs to manage the behaviour of students, which has been found to be a major concern of ECTs (Barmby, 2006; Kitching, Morgan, & O’Leary, 2009). These findings were used to justify the inclusion of taught workshops in the RETAIN pilot programme. Relevant evidence-based and research-informed resources were created to develop ECT knowledge, skills and understanding, and delivered through expert taught workshops. The RETAIN pilot programme classroom-based workshops were designed to enhance the ECTs’ ability to cope with teaching lessons by understanding both what and how to teach the children in their school context.

However, research findings also identified that there are processes that enable ECTs to cope with the demands of teaching. It is important that ECTs have the time and space for reflection on their experience. As Dimmock (2012) states: ‘A key part of improving the professionalism and performance of teachers is concerned with aiding their reflective skills on past teaching events in order to enhance their future classroom effectiveness’ (p. 43). This is because it is impossible to prepare teachers for every eventuality that they might meet, so it is important for teachers to be able to reflect on their experience, be willing to learn and to take a problem-solving approach to challenges. This remains as true today as it was when argued by Korthagen, Kessels, Koster, Lagerwerf, and Wubbels in 2001.

Developing effective professional reflective practice contributes to improving professional self-efficacy (Korthagen et al., 2001). Reflection is assisted by considering multiple perspectives on teaching and can be assisted by coaching and mentoring (e.g., Swafford, 2000; Blandford & Knowles, 2013; Blandford & Knowles, 2016; Tonna, Bjerkholt, & Holland, 2017). Reflection, assisted by a coach, can move teachers from a concern with routine action, in pursuit of tech- nicist aims, towards a type of thinking in which they question their fundamental assumptions and purpose more deeply (e.g. Ward & McCotter, 2004; Harrison, Lawson, & Wortley, 2005). Schon (1983) describes professional reflective practice as a process where professionals constantly monitor their actions and make decisions based on their accumulated and informed knowledge. Coaching was therefore used in the RETAIN pilot programme as a way of supporting ECT reflection in the application of taught workshop content to practice.

Furthermore, various studies demonstrate the necessity for ECTs to be supported emotionally. In a provocatively titled article called ‘Why Do New Teachers Cry?’, McCann and Johannessen (2004) described the feelings of stress and frustration reported by ECTs, while Johnson et al. (2014) summarised the emotions that ECTs experience as ‘dislocation, alienation, self-doubt, and sheer exhaustion’ (p. 531). Hobson (2010) found that ECTs placed greater emphasis on the need for psychological or emotional support than instructional support, although the distinctions between them are ‘blurred and far from clear-cut’ (Hobson, 2010, p. 306) because a reduction in negative emotions can be achieved through a greater sense of belonging when the ECT feels recognised as a member of a network or team. The addition of a structured professional learning community (PLC) and a school-based mentor was added to the RETAIN pilot programme as a way of enhancing ECT wellbeing, engagement with RETAIN and of creating networks for future support (Bolam et al., 2005).

The RETAIN pilot programme PLCs and professional learning reflected: DuFour’s (2004) analysis of focused and meaningful PLCs; the ‘taxonomy’ of effective PLC approaches developed by Blankenship and Ruona (2007); and the effective development of ‘mature’ PLCs investigated by Owen (2016). In synthesising these perspectives, the RETAIN ECTs were participants in PLCs that intentionally modelled the key aspects of effective PLCs. ECTs were supported by the RETAIN team to critically consider these communities as part of their professional learning and career development planning. A school-based mentor (called a school champion), supported by the RETAIN team, also worked with each ECT as a support in understanding how learning from the RETAIN pilot programme was best applied in the school’s context.

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