bag, book, man-1868758.jpg

Mass staff exodus – what will make us stay?

Headline upon headline paints a picture of post-pandemic direction changes; people have questioned their existing roles and decided enough is enough. Teacher retention was a big enough issue pre Covid, now we are facing a staffing exodus. So how do we attract staff into roles and how do we keep them?

In times of economic uncertainty, the trend is often a surge toward stable careers, such as teaching, and there has been an increase in ITT applications. Data suggests that the application surge since the early summer of 2020 has continued into this year, with the number of applications 42 per cent higher than the same time last year. Although, on the flip side we have 1 in 6 teachers quitting after a year of teaching. With only 84.5% of teachers sticking with the career, more needs to be done.

The issue does not only lie with teachers. I know I am not alone in my ongoing battle recruiting skilled teaching assistants; we advertise for at least 2 teaching assistants every half term, and I hear the same from other school leaders. Not only that, but the field is becoming more narrowed. I began my career as a teaching assistant…it was no walk in the park, but I was valued, given training, supported and respected by children and staff alike. So, what has changed? At a time of economic insecurity, when a secure role in the public sector is impossible to fill, when there are so many leaving education and so few applying, things must be bad.

Flicking through jobs pages, it is also clear there are many leadership positions advertised. My own 15-year journey from TA to Headship is ending, having made that choice to step away. There are far too many Headship vacancies advertised for the candidates (with the appropriate skill and experience) ready to take those roles on. Anecdotal evidence suggests there are very few applications for Headship roles, with sometimes only 1 or 2 candidates applying for prestigious leadership positions. We are heading towards a crisis in education unless things change. Support staff, teachers and leaders are leaving in droves.

Should I stay or should I go?

What is the tipping point for staff? Of course, it is different for each role within the sector, but there are certainly parallels between them. A basic living wage is a good start. Teaching Assistants are often on, or close to, national minimum wage. There is no secret about that when applying, but is that why applications are dropping? Being a teaching assistant can be hugely rewarding, but it can also be demanding, both emotionally and physically. There are only so many doughnuts I can put in the staff room to recognise how TAs go above and beyond daily. Many other jobs that pay minimum wage are demanding, however we think of TAs as paraprofessionals…does the pay acknowledge that responsibility and accountability for pupil progress? Does TA pay recognise the varied challenges and the demands of difficult behaviour? Rewarding teaching assistants with the remuneration they deserve would make the role competitive in the job market; right now, it is not the most attractive of prospects.

However, school leaders and teacher’s pay are, in the main, considered to be fair; £25,714 a year is a good starting salary with the opportunity to swiftly work up the career ladder, should you wish to. So, why are 1 in 6 new teachers walking away within a year? If it isn’t money, what is it? The demands of Covid have certainly upped the ante for both teachers and leaders: developing policy; remote learning; keeping people safe; supporting staff and families have all played their part in adding to the stress of being in education, at whatever level. I sometimes feel like I powered through that first year of Covid, firefighting, moving from day to day and hour to hour not knowing what would come next, but just dealing with it. I think a lot of staff in school felt the same way. Once we had a few minutes to breathe we realised it had all been too much. That, coupled with the challenges of being an educator brings, have tipped people over the edge and led them to look at other career options. Turning away from a secure career and income is a big choice and a big risk for staff to take. How can that tide change?


5 ways to attract staff and keep them

How can leaders, including school governors and, ultimately, government shift the direction and avoid the exodus? Okay, so there are “big ideas” and then there are the “quick fixes” this is a bit of both…things that have worked for me as a school leader and things I think Nadim Zahawi might want to consider.


  1. This is golden. If there are any opportunities leaders can give staff more time, this is the golden ticket in the Wonka bar. Time gives people the headspace they need, it feels precious, and we can do it. It may not be feasible to build extra time for all teachers or TAs into a timetable, but there are ways we can do it flexibly. In the summer term I gave every teacher an extra afternoon, I did not direct how to use that time, it was spent in school doing what they needed to do. I led a Forest School session to cover for every class. Believe me, it was hard to find the time to do it, but it was worth it; I spent more time with the children and teachers felt cared for. We also set up an afternoon tea for all TAs, senior leaders supported 1:1s and in class where needed. Again, staff felt valued. In another school I gave everyone a duvet day, to take at any time in the year, agreed and planned for…this was not easy to get agreement from governors on and it became “expected” so perhaps lost its potency…but what do the staff still talk about? The time I gave them! PPA at home is an easy win, you can get into your pyjamas and that always helps.


  1. Leaders at every level expect more and more from their team. High expectations are vital in moving a school forward and ensuring children reach their potential, however, we must be realistic. I have seen leaders who snarl if someone leaves school at 4, leaders who are in and out of classrooms every second of the day, late night emails, late night phone calls, monitoring schedules that leave no time to breathe…this places stress on staff and lacks professional trust. When asking any member staff to do something, ask yourself “so what?” “How will this help our children to progress?” It is amazing how many things can drop off the list when you stop for a second and ask that!


  1. Be kind. Recently, I was reading a blog post about “the perfect headteacher”, or something like that (I can’t help but read those things!) I missed out on some of those attributes (not sure I have ever made the hairs on someone’s neck stand on end in an assembly!) However, the one aspect I whole heartedly embrace is being kind. There is a lot of unkindness in this world and it isn’t hard to be nice. Potential candidates looking around your school will feel if it is a kind place, where staff are respected and cared for. This is not only modelled and driven by leaders but woven into the fabric of the school. Empathy is key to staff retention. Listening, properly listening, listening even when you know you have a million things on your “to do” list. Asking how people are, buying 2 for 1 tins of chocolates and putting them in the staff room – anyone can do that from time to time. Little things. For a whole school I made every member of staff an aromatherapy roll on “relaxing” oil and gave it to them in a goody bag…it took time, but it was so worth it. Kindness needs to come from the top and permeate through everything. “Wellbeing” is a word we hear a lot, for good reason, we need to take care of each other.


  1. Training and opportunities. I am not talking about the dreaded performance management (don’t get me started…there is more to say on this another time). I mean specific, considered opportunities to give your team CPD that aligns with your school improvement priorities, whilst also acknowledging the strengths and passions of your staff. Budget does not always need to be a constraint; there are amazing courses and open-source content out there to tap into. Not only are you making sure your team are equipped with the skills they need, but you are also valuing them. Spend time doing some research on what is out there, seek the member of staff out and offer the opportunity. Don’t forget the leaders too…we all need to keep learning and sometimes those in leadership roles are assumed to have all they need; learning keeps us interested, inspired and ready to inspire.



  1. Reform at Levels. Okay, so this is a big one. Education is archaic at points, a Victorian model ripe for change. We need to shift and move and be dynamic in how we teach children, what we teach children, how we structure learning and how schools are managed from the very top down. Budgets must be improved to support children effectively. We must pay staff fairly and budgets must be increased to support this, the expectation to increase wages from existing budgets is unrealistic. Buildings are crumbling, IT hardware does not meet need, SEND needs a serious overhaul and an injection of funding to ensure proper support and inclusion for every child. Leaders need to be brave and take these issues up with governors and unions; we can do the “little things” but it’s the big stuff that will really make a difference in staff retention and recruitment. Education should be an exciting and enticing career to pursue, but it is a little broken, it needs love and attention and the focus of government to make some serious changes.