Why are so many teachers quitting the classroom?

Recent figures reveal that almost four in 10 new teachers quit within a year of qualifying, and record numbers are giving up mid-career. So what is behind this mass exodus? Rachael Pells spoke to six educators about the pressures they are facing in the classroom

Rachael Pells@rachaelpells
Wednesday 15 April 2015 21:53
At the chalk face: teachers march through central London during the 2008 teachers’ strikes
At the chalk face: teachers march through central London during the 2008 teachers’ strikes


Anonymous, 30-year-old English teacher working at an all-girls comprehensive school in central London. She has been teaching for nine years and is a member of the NUT

"The main problem is exam results, mostly due to the A*-C measure, which has very little give and means that every child is expected to progress and achieve high standards.

"There is an insane amount of pressure to keep improving and achieve better results year-on-year, but sometimes circumstances are out of your control. The pupils are not robots that can churn out grades. Some people are not going to get a C, but it is a C that is the only measure of success.

"Grade boundaries increase year-on-year and it is a system based around success and failure, with no real alternative for people who are not academic, so they become unhappy. Last year I taught the lowest ability set and it was a two-year charade of telling them they might get a C, as that was the only thing that motivated them. It was a horrible experience operating towards an output, rather than learning for the sake of learning.

"There is so much focus on measuring success on grades and numbers, but very little measurement of children's happiness and of them enjoying learning. I think the Government has got it wrong. Are we building happy, engaged, excited and opinionated people? Or are we building a future generation of wage slaves? We need qualitative rather than quantitative teaching methods. Under the Coalition, it has become all about numbers and evaluating performance, while issues like children not eating, self-harming or experiencing depression are often forgotten."


Robin Bevan (pictured above), 48, has been headteacher of Southend High School for Boys for seven years

"As a head, instead of being focused on the quality of teaching, care and pupil experience which should be top priorities, you are diverted by external pressures that are entirely avoidable.

"Ofsted's behaviour causes huge difficulties for headteachers. Outcomes to inspections are uncertain and unreliable and there is a very significant pressure that in many schools can ripple down to classroom teachers.

"The coalition's tendency to declare policy without preparatory discussion or forethought about implementation also causes numerous issues. To be a headteacher of a secondary school is like being the CEO of a medium-sized company with around 150 employees, but you don't receive proper budget forecasts. A CEO would expect a three- to four-year forecast, and it's almost impossible to run a school without one.

"Almost every type of school is seeing the same amount of money coming in while costs are going up, so you have to make savings somewhere. What is madness is that you also don't know about your funding for the next financial year until a couple of months before, after you have already been forced to make most of the employment decisions.

"There is no strategic plan at a national level to oversee teaching supply, with insufficient amounts of young people entering the teaching profession. On many occasions we have placed adverts without receiving applicants. The low supply of teachers, combined with a deregulated salary structure, also means you have to pay more to get tutors."


Rachel Jones, 37, is head of history at a secondary school in southwest London. She has been teaching for 10 years

"I work in a challenging school because I want to make a difference – even if it's just in a very small way. And there are times when kids come to see me and I'm irritable. I hope I don't let it show, but it's difficult to be there for them one-on-one when I've got an observation the next day or things to plan. It takes time away from the really important stuff and a lot of it is quite meaningless.

"There have been times when the challenges have made me reconsider my career. My school is very reliant on good results, so if we have a dip it's going to have a consequence for us – particularly as they're opening an absurd number of free schools in the area.

"Coming up to exam time I've often thought, 'This is just ridiculous. The pressure is just too much', but I'm happy and have accepted that this is a lifestyle choice – but I know teachers with families find it very difficult to manage.

"The hysteria that government policy causes among senior managers is a big problem. I've got no objections to monitoring; I think that's a good thing. But there's a constant fear of Ofsted descending and reaching in and making what I think is often a very misinformed judgement on the school.

"There's definitely an understanding in each school as to which teachers can be relied upon to pull off a good Ofsted observation. And unfortunately that seems to be, in a lot of ways, how teachers are judged.

"The pressures teachers face have definitely increased over the past 10 years. When I started, of course there was pressure, but it was more accepted that there might be all sorts of reasons why results have dipped or you might have a difficult year group. Now it's not like that. Our management is pretty sympathetic, but we must still go through every single child and if they're underachieving there needs to be an explanation for that. Life isn't that black and white."


Rachel Whyld (pictured above), 23, is in her first qualified year of teaching history at the Morley Academy, Leeds

"During term time the workload can be relentless – planning, marking, behaviour management, observations, parents' evening and data tracking. I am fortunate to have a very supportive school with a clear and consistent behaviour policy, which slightly takes the pressure off behaviour management: a common NQT [newly qualified teacher] issue.

"With regards to the high dropout rate, I feel it is down to unsupportive schools, personal motivation and time management issues. The stress is undeniable, but I still get a buzz from planning lessons I love.

"With all the rigorous changes that are going on with GCSEs, A-levels and the national curriculum, it means that we are having to completely overhaul our schemes of work. We have a lot of pressure over the summer to prepare for September.

"I think the government changes that have been implemented are definitely increasing the pressure. Ofsted is always looming over schools, but the senior leadership bears the brunt of it and supports the teachers going through it. I am on edge when I do experience observations and direct criticism, but to put it into perspective, some other professions can have surprise inspections all the time. We only have to face it once every four years. Perhaps I am being naïve, but I think there is a lot of pressure in most jobs.

"I think the next government needs to make sure there is clearer guidance from Ofsted as to what they expect schools to be doing, because at the moment it is a bit open to interpretation, which leads to schools desperately trying to cover all bases."


Anonymous, biology teacher at an east London school

"If I do two hours marking a night on top of everything else, I'm barely hanging on. It's very time-consuming and Ofsted is looking for the record books to tell a story, so a lot of the judgements now are based on how well you mark.

"My school does a marking scrutiny every half term. If your books don't match up, you get called into the head or deputy head's office and you've got to explain why and promise never to do it again – you get treated like a kid who has not done their homework.

"I'd say it takes 50-60 hours' work a week to keep on top of everything. Observations are the worst – I go to pieces every time under the pressure. My school doesn't have an on-call system for destructive students, so teachers often have a problem with aggressive kids who we can't deal with. I had one student go for me the other week. I had to organise mediation, but there was no exclusion or anything. She threw a textbook at my back and when that didn't hit me she flew down the classroom to try and punch me, but luckily some other students caught her.

"A lot of the kids have problems at home and we do need help managing them sometimes. The main thing teachers don't have is time – for marking, but also to sit and reflect and see what is and isn't working.

"Have I ever had a moment where I've wondered if it's all worth it? All the time. But during my second and third years of teaching I thought it was the best job in the world. And it's not as if I had any more time to spare then either, but I've definitely noticed the pressure increasing over the past 10 years."


Ian Bauckham is headteacher of a secondary school in west Kent. He was president of the headteachers' union, ASCL, from 2013-2014

"Teaching is always going to be hard. To look back and say there was some sort of nirvana in the past where teachers didn't face pressure or work very hard would be completely deluded – it never existed. There's no other way of doing the job but to work hard.

"When Ofsted was introduced there was a huge increase in pressure. It's now much easier to find out if a teacher is underperforming – but in terms of hours worked I'm not sure I could agree with the perception that there are more hours worked today than there were 10 years ago.

"The experience of being at school oneself is very different to working in a school and being accountable for students. I think a lot of people go in to the profession naïvely. Some dropoff during the first year of teaching is a good thing, and also essential, because not everyone who thinks that they want to teach is going to be right for the job. Getting good exam outcomes and teaching a full curriculum does require a sophisticated set of techniques.

"Another concern is that some of the smaller rural communities have a real challenge holding on to decent teachers for more than a year or so. It's really difficult to get young NQTs to move out to these quieter places.

"Micromanagement from Ofsted also needs to stop. I think we need to foster the school-led system, empowering head teachers to take the lead on professional development, decision making and setting targets."

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