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Promoting Quality in Teacher Education

NFER Report: Comparative analysis of teacher attrition rates in England and Wales

22 September 2022

The full report is attached as a PDF.

Executive Summary


Retaining teachers to meet the growing demand for teachers due to
increasing pupil numbers is a key challenge that the school systems of
both England and Wales currently face. Teacher attrition rates are part
of the wider set of factors that influence the state of teacher supply,
including teacher training and recruitment. NFER, supported by the
Nuffield Foundation, has explored these wider issues through annual
reports on the respective teacher labour markets in England and
Wales during the period 2020-2022 (Worth and Faulkner-Ellis, 2022;
Ghosh and Worth, 2022).


In this report, we investigate the extent to which teacher attrition rates
differ between England and Wales and attempt to unpick and
understand some of the reasons why they might differ. We use newly
available teacher census data in Wales to make robust comparisons of
teacher retention rates in England and Wales in 2019/20 to 2020/21.
We compare attrition rates using local authorities in England, weighted
by their characteristics to be similar to local authorities in Wales. This
enables us to assess the role of economic and contextual factors in
explaining overall differences in attrition rates between Wales and
England, while also attempting to isolate the differences that may be
attributable to other factors such as differences in policy approach.
Education policy can have an important influence on teacher attrition,
through the impact of policy initiatives on workload and how much
teachers are paid. Since education policy was devolved to Wales in
1999, there has been a divergence in policy approaches in England
and Wales. Wales has been characterised as having followed a more
‘producerist’ approach that ‘emphasised collaboration between
educational partners’, in contrast to a more ‘consumerist’ approach in
England (Reynolds, 2006).


For example, in recent decades England and Wales have taken
different approaches to school accountability and inspection, testing
and examinations, curriculum development and implementation, school
autonomy, and teacher pay (Sibieta and Jerrim, 2021). We explore the
extent to which differences in attrition rates may be attributable to
overall differences in policy approaches, but do so cautiously given the
limitations of the data available to us.


We hypothesise that one possible result of a more ‘producerist’ policy
mix in Wales compared to the more ‘consumerist’ model in England is
that attrition rates could be lower in Wales and that workload may play
a role as a mechanism for differences in teacher attrition rates between
the countries. This is the key hypothesis we seek to test in the data.
There are significant differences in teacher attrition rates between
England and Wales after accounting for differences in economic
and contextual factors, but not all in the same direction.


Our analysis shows that while teacher attrition rates are lower in Wales
than in England overall, a substantial portion of this difference is due to
differences in economic and contextual factors between the two
countries. Therefore, it is important to bear this in mind when any
comparison of teacher retention rates in England and Wales is made.

Comparative analysis of teacher attrition rates in England and Wales 2
We find that there are significant differences in attrition rates between
teachers in the two countries after accounting for differences in
economic and contextual factors. However, these are not all in the
same direction, which appears to challenge the hypothesis that the
contrasting approach to policymaking in Wales compared to England is
associated with universally lower rates of teacher attrition.
The attrition rate among secondary classroom teachers is 0.6
percentage points higher in England compared to in Wales, a
difference that is statistically significant. However, among primary
classroom teachers, there is a statistically significant difference of 0.6
percentage points in attrition rates between the England comparison
group and Wales, with lower attrition in England.


Our findings on teacher working hours and perceptions of working
hours in England and Wales, which use directly comparable data from
the Labour Force Survey, show that teachers in Wales work fewer
working hours per week on average and have slightly better
perceptions of their working hours compared to England. However, it is
important to note that teachers in both countries report high working
hours and many teachers in both countries report preferring to work
shorter hours.


Overall, the findings suggest that there is a more complex relationship
between policy approaches, teacher workload and attrition than implied
by our hypothesis. While there may be underlying policy reasons
contributing to differences in attrition rates, it might indicate that there
are policy differences affecting primary and secondary schools
differently, rather than a universal difference in overall policy approach.


A key limitation of this study is that the attrition rate data is based on
the 2020/21 academic year, which was significantly affected by the
Covid-19 pandemic in both countries. Research exploring differences
in attrition rates between the two countries in future years that have
more typically functioning teacher labour markets would help to test the
robustness of the tentative conclusions drawn from the findings here.
There are key groups of teachers and schools for whom there are
more substantial differences in attrition rates between teachers in
England and Wales, after accounting for differences in economic
and contextual factors.


There are some key groups of teachers in Wales that appear to have
significantly lower attrition rates compared to in England. These
include primary and secondary teachers with more than 20 years of
experience.


Secondary schools in Wales with the highest levels of pupil
disadvantage (measured by the proportion of pupils eligible for free
school meals) tend to have lower teacher attrition rates than
comparator schools in England. However, among teachers in primary
schools, schools in Wales with the middle-highest and highest levels of
pupil disadvantage tend to have higher attrition rates than comparator
schools in England.


Part-time teachers have significantly higher retention rates in Wales
compared to comparator schools in England, and the fact that
substantially more of the teaching workforce in Wales works part time
suggests that greater attention is paid in Wales to making part-time
working opportunities available for teachers.

Comparative analysis of teacher attrition rates in England and Wales 3
England aimed at encouraging part-time and flexible working in
schools may benefit from exploring and understanding further why
part-time working appears to be better supported in schools in Wales.
Devolution of policymaking provides some valuable opportunities
to evaluate impact where individual policies and approaches to
policymaking differ, but research in this area also has significant
challenges.


The evaluation of policies is particularly challenging where the change
introduced is at a national level, since there is typically no suitable
comparison group available to understand what the counterfactual (i.e.
what might have happened otherwise) path of outcomes might have
been.


The devolution of education policymaking, particularly to Wales since
2000 given the similarities between the two systems before then and
the substantial differences in policy approach that have been taken
since, therefore potentially provides good opportunities to evaluate the
impact of policies. For example, Burgess et al. (2013) used the
decision by the Welsh Government early in the devolution process to
abolish school league tables as a ‘natural experiment’.


However, significant challenges for research in this area remain. A key
challenge is the isolation of the impact of individual policy changes
when multiple policy changes are made at similar times. This is the
reason why this research paper focuses on attempting to understand
the impact of overarching policy approaches rather than individual
policy changes.


Despite these challenges, the availability of comparable teacher
census data provides opportunities for research to explore the
differences in teacher attrition between the two countries, and perhaps
to unpick the influence of policy approaches.


Further, the devolution of pay-setting to the Welsh Government in
2019, and the ensuing divergence in salaries at different teacher pay
scale points, could provide research opportunities to influence of
teacher pay on attrition rates. However, such research would also
need to be carefully designed to isolate the impact of pay from other
concurrent changes that potentially also affect country-specific teacher
attrition rates.

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