Will wellness solve teacher retention?

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The TES editorial (26th October, 2018) by Ann Mroz (tweets @AnnMroz) begins with a litany of all the times when wellness is not good: when it adds to the workload, when it is a sticking plaster and when it is window dressing for otherwise unacceptable practices. It goes on the reference the often quoted statistic that a quarter of teachers have left the profession since 2011. It could also have referred to the one in three NQTs who leave before their fourth year in the profession. The recent shift in Ofsted’s perspective perhaps has as much to do with changes in employer responsibility generally as any direct and specific concerns in schools, but it does point us in a direction that may be more humane and sustainable for everyone involved.

In establishing a new structure of NQT provision, lead by teaching school alliances across the county, we thought long and hard about the kind of support that new entrants to the profession require. Our consultation with headteachers revealed that most were very happy with the professional development that was available on the topics of behaviour for learning, professional organisation, curriculum knowledge, etc. The greatest concern was to equip the NQTs with the strategies that would come their way in the first and following years of their professional lives. The prevailing philosophy was that wellness strategies would act as a sustaining support for NQTs and thereby enhance retention.

Our NQT provision now includes core professional development based on the work of the University of Chichester. Six, in-depth sessions, a focus on mental and physical health, and extensive online support. We really believe that it will make a difference but we also acknowledge that there are structural issues that mean we may all have to get used to fewer and fewer teachers believing that teaching is for life. Those structural issues can be summarised in three features: the messages of the 90’s and 00’s, the impact of housing prices and debt, and the portability of teaching qualifications.

Any child of the 90’s and 00’s went through school and college hearing the same messages over and over again: ‘there is no such thing as a job for life’, ‘half of the jobs in 20 years will be in industries that don’t even exist yet’, ‘to succeed in the workforce you need to be flexible and entrepreneurial’. We could see the willingness of young teachers to come in and out of the profession as the successful expression of those messages.

How much debt does an NQT carry? £30k, £40k, £70k? And, if they live in any of the main metropolitan areas, what are the chances of getting on to the property ladder within a year or two of qualifying? Saddled with a lifetime of debt and living in rented accommodation a young teacher is far less likely to put down roots and spend six, eight or ten years in a school. No amount of wellbeing training and workload adjustment can change that.

We recently undertook to facilitate teacher training in Bangkok. Guess what? Two-thirds of the teachers were from England and Wales. We have colleagues who are teaching in the Middle East, China and south-east Asia. A teaching qualification gives access to a global jobs market. Add in to that mix the tax-free benefits and the opportunities to travel, and who can blame young teachers for responding to the call?

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