NFER Report: Teacher Autonomy (January 2020)
Retaining more teachers is crucial for the education system when there are not enough teachers coming in to the profession to meet the growing need from rising pupil numbers. Unmanageable workload and low job satisfaction are significant factors determining teachers’ decision to stay in the profession or leave. Our research is the first large-scale quantitative study to look at teacher autonomy and its importance for retention in England. We find that teacher autonomy is strongly correlated with job satisfaction, perceptions of workload manageability and intention to stay in the profession. We also find that the average teacher has a lower level of autonomy compared to similar professionals. Teachers’ autonomy over their professional development goal-setting is particularly low, and is the most associated with higher job satisfaction. Increasing teachers’ autonomy, particularly over their professional development goals, therefore has great potential for improving teacher job satisfaction and retention. School leaders and the Department for Education should consider how to adapt policy and practice to harness the benefits of teachers having greater involvement in their professional development goal-setting and making decisions more widely.
- Teachers are 16 percentage points less likely than similar professionals to report having ‘a lot’ of influence over how they do their job. The average teacher in England also reports a lower level of autonomy over what tasks they do, the order in which they carry out tasks, the pace at which they work and their working hours, compared to similar professionals.
- 38 per cent of teachers say that they have ‘a little’ or ‘no’ influence over their professional development goals. Teachers also report relatively low autonomy over assessment and feedback, pupil data collection and curriculum content in their phase or subject. Teachers report relatively high autonomy in areas associated with classroom management and practice, such as classroom layout, teaching methods, planning and preparing lessons, use of classroom time and rules for behaviour.
- Teacher autonomy is lower among early career teachers and higher among senior leaders. In general, teachers who stay in the classroom after their first five years do not experience increased autonomy as their careers progress and are likely to only if they enter leadership roles.
- Teacher autonomy is strongly associated with improved job satisfaction and a greater intention to stay in teaching. While correlation does not necessarily imply a causal relationship, these associations strongly suggest that teacher autonomy is an important influence on job satisfaction and retention. Teacher autonomy is also strongly associated with workload being more manageable, but is not associated with working hours.
- Increasing teachers’ reported influence over their professional development (PD) goals from ‘some’ to ‘a lot’ is associated with a nine‑percentage‑point increase in intention to stay in teaching.
- This presents a significant opportunity for school leaders to consider how they design and deliver PD in their schools, harnessing the benefits of increased motivation from teachers having greater involvement in their PD goal-setting.