Last reviewed 7 July 2022

Staff recruitment and retention for both teachers and school leadership has long been a problem, but things seem to be reaching a crisis point. Michael Evans looks at some of the issues that are currently being faced by school leaders.

In November 2016, the Guardian carried out a report that by 2022, “England could be facing a shortage of up to 19,000 senior teachers” and that almost one in four schools across the country could be affected by a lack of headteachers, deputy heads and assistant heads.

Who wants to be a school leader?

Fortunately, that dire prediction has not come to pass, but the situation remains serious. A survey published by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) earlier this year indicated that only 30% of school leaders felt that they could recommend leadership as a career goal, and 53% of deputy headteachers said that they had absolutely no desire to seek future headship.

An increase in the numbers of school leaders retiring and leaving the profession early, along with rising demands for senior staff to work at academy trusts, means that more people are needed to fill the top roles.

Traditionally, following the retirement of a headteacher, a deputy headteacher will usually fill the place, but in many cases, this is just not happening.

So, what is putting them off? Four main issues have been identified.

  • Many applicants are put off by what they see as the daunting challenges of the job.

  • Others feel that the profession lacks a culture of development and feedback.

  • The recruitment process for headteachers is often inconsistent.

  • Observation of current leaders by potential applicants suggests that they will not get the support that will motivate them to stay in a leadership role.

A soured vocation

Meanwhile, a range of factors have greatly tested the vocational commitment of headteachers. These include:

  • lack of professional recognition and trust

  • unsustainable workload

  • lack of pay progression and a declining real-term pay for school leaders

  • high-stakes inspections.

One headteacher, who is married to a teacher, reported that in the first 10 years of their marriage, between them they had experienced 12 Ofsted inspections.

Of 2000 NAHT members who were surveyed, 75% of school leaders reported that their role was having a negative effect on their mental health. Even for headteachers who have been resilient enough to survive decades at the top of their profession, their experience during the pandemic has tipped them over the edge. For many school leaders the impact of the pandemic has proved to be the last straw.

Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the NAHT, feels that the Government simply doesn’t begin to listen to what the profession is saying to them. There is an ongoing lack of recognition and a failure to appreciate the impact that the pandemic is having on the health and wellbeing of school leaders. His concern is that unless issues of general workload and accountability pressures are considered and taken note of, the system will fall further and further into crisis.

Recruitment and retention of classroom teachers

Another major headache for school leaders is recruitment and retention of classroom teachers. For many years schools have faced a mounting crisis of teacher recruitment and retention, and new research indicates that 71% of schools are currently having difficulties recruiting permanent staff.

Back in July 2016, the Institute of Fiscal Studies was reporting that within five years of qualifying, around 40% of teachers had already left the profession and the situation has clearly not improved. In June 2021, Forbes reported that in 2020 a record one in six early-career teachers left the profession after only one year in the classroom.

Schools are faced with the dual problem of finding the staff they need and convincing existing staff to stay with them. Teacher workload has been seen as one of the key obstacles to teacher retention and after two years of the pandemic, morale is at a seriously low level. It is reported that 91% of teachers are saying that the job has adversely affected their mental health.

An additional worry for headteachers is that school budgets are having to be further stretched in order to provide additional mental health and wellbeing support for staff.

Excessive workloads are a driving force behind the downturn in the wellbeing of teachers. A TES report indicated that 67% of teachers now feel that their workload is unmanageable. The predicted 10% rise in pupil numbers by 2023 is certainly not going to help.

This all adds to the multitude of problems faced by school leaders, but there is a slight glimmer of hope. Traditionally, teacher recruitment tends to mirror the economy and when the economy takes a downturn, people tend to head towards safe professions such as teaching. Based on current predictions for the future of the UK economy, we might soon be seeing an upsurge in teacher recruitment.