The number of teachers quitting before reaching retirement age has reached a record high, as thousands of staff are driven out by plummeting morale and stiffer pension rules.
Government figures reveal that the number of "early retirements" due to ill-health and teachers opting to leave before their official retirement date soared to 9,370 last year, accounting for almost half the numbers retiring from schools in England. The total was 1,500 up on the figure for 2009/10, and double the number recorded in 1998/99.
However, while the numbers retiring due to sickness over the period dwindled from 2,280 to 490, the number of "premature retirements", where teachers apply to quit early, rose from 2,370 to 8,880.
Details of the exodus came after the former chief inspector of schools Christine Gilbert warned that morale in state schools was at "rock bottom". The NASUWT, the biggest teaching union, disclosed that nearly half of its 230,000 members had considered quitting in the last year.
Officials suggested the rise in people quitting was partly explained by a "bulge" in teachers who joined the profession in the 1970s coming to retirement at the same time.
But teaching unions said the hard evidence of teachers voting with their feet underlined complaints they had made about deteriorating pay and pension arrangements, and government measures, including tougher targets and the possibility of regional and performance-related pay.
Martin Freedman, head of pay, conditions and pensions at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "When we surveyed members in the middle of the pensions dispute, 74 per cent of them said that they would consider retiring early rather than join the Government's proposed scheme. This seems to add support to the theory that the Government's combined actions on pensions and pay freezes and rhetoric on underperforming teachers will drive teachers out of the profession."
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the pressure was being felt higher up the career ladder, with two in every five of his members reporting that they had "accelerated their retirement plans".
He added: "One could take a fairly robust attitude to this, and say 'if you can't take the heat...', but good and outstanding leaders are feeling the same way, and the loss of their talent is hugely damaging."
The Department for Education insisted that "thousands of teachers are doing a good job" – but said that concerns over standards could not be ignored. A spokesman said: "We're undertaking a major reform programme and their skills and experience are vital. We want to make their lives easier – giving them more day-to-day freedom, slashing bureaucratic paperwork and giving them more control over discipline."