2019 Autumn Term 2


  • A solid foundation
    Good schools are built on good teachers, but we face a severe shortage of teachers says Sam Sims, Research Fellow at UCL Institute of Education (IOE). Here, he explains the thinking around a new collaboration between ASCL and IOE to help with teachers' job satisfaction and retention. More
  • Getting educators on board
    Supporting another school or trust by joining its governing board offers a fantastic professional development opportunity for school leaders says Dominic Judge from Education and Employers. More
  • Smoke & mirrors?
    The long-awaited government spending round has been and gone, but what does it actually mean for your school? Is the government finally addressing the funding shortages in education, or just hiding behind a smokescreen? Here ASCL Funding Specialist, Julia Harnden, talks us through the detail. More
  • Change makers
    Gohar Khan, Director of Ethos at Didcot Girls' School in Oxford, shares her school's desire to create the next generation of female leaders. More
  • All in the mind
    Ruby Wax made her name as a writer and comedian but, in recent years, has become a vocal advocate for mental health and will give a keynote speech at ASCL's Annual Conference in 2020. She spoke to Julie Nightingale. More
  • Diverse thinking
    We need leaders and governors to reflect a society and a school population that is diverse and varied, and be all the richer for it says Geoff Barton. Here he highlights how we can all help to make that change. More
  • Our united vision
    This is the first in a new regular update in Leader to provide you with the latest information from our colleagues across the nation. ASCL is proud to represent school and college leaders from all over the UK. More
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Good schools are built on good teachers, but we face a severe shortage of teachers says Sam Sims, Research Fellow at UCL Institute of Education (IOE). Here, he explains the thinking around a new collaboration between ASCL and IOE to help with teachers’ job satisfaction and retention.

A solid foundation

The urbanist Edward Glaeser argues that we often fall into the trap of thinking about cities as collections of skyscrapers, bridges and famous landmarks, when in reality they are concentrations of people. Cities are “made of flesh, not concrete”.

We make the same mistake with schools, where policymakers regularly fall into Glaeser’s trap by spending too much time and too many resources advocating for different ‘types’ of schools, changing their legal status or rebuilding them from the ground up.

These policies tend to have little or no impact because schools, like cities, are best thought of as collections of people. Research consistently shows that teachers have a powerful influence on their pupils’ exam results, soft skills and even earnings in adulthood. Good schools and colleges are built on good teachers.

Running out of bricks 

But despite what we know about the importance of teachers, the profession is not in good shape. Recent research, for example, found that job satisfaction among teachers in England was the lowest among 17 countries (https://tinyurl.com/y6zsmcwf). This low morale is reflected in steadily declining retention rates, with each new cohort of teachers leaving faster than the last. And this in turn has resulted in severe shortages, particularly in science, maths, computing and languages. If teachers are the building blocks of schools, we are in danger of running out of bricks.

What keeps teachers in the profession? Research points to two important levers (https://tinyurl.com/y2xhglve). The first is pay, which has been allowed to fall further and further behind other graduate professions over the last decade. Thankfully, the government is now addressing this with the phased maths bursary, retention payments, student loan reimbursements and the recent promise of a £30,000 starting salary.

The second important influence on retention is the quality of working environment – the way in which colleagues, policies and established ways of working within schools help or hinder teachers’ ability to do their job. It is generally known that excessive marking and ‘data drops’ are driving teachers out of the profession. Research suggests that other important aspects of working environment include support offered to teachers in relation to pupil discipline, having supportive colleagues and having a leadership team that listens to teachers (https://tinyurl.com/yy6cqdeh).

Unlike pay, improving teachers’ working environment is directly within the control of school leaders. But improving the working environment in a school is not straightforward. Where should leaders focus their efforts? How can schools take an evidence-based approach? And how can leaders verify whether meaningful improvements are being made?

Build a stronger structure

ASCL is collaborating with researchers from the IOE on an innovative new project that can help. The IOE researchers have developed a questionnaire that carefully measures the aspects of teachers’ working environment known to improve job satisfaction and retention. Thirteen ASCL schools have already taken part in a pilot and we are now opening up the opportunity to all ASCL members.

How does it work? Schools sign up on a specially designed website and provide the email addresses for their teachers. The anonymous questionnaire is then distributed to teachers, along with targeted reminders. The questionnaire takes just 11 minutes to complete. We then confidentially provide heads with the results, broken down across four areas: collegiality, workload, behaviour and leadership. Leaders can also look at a detailed breakdown of responses to each individual question. Crucially, participating schools can view their results compared to other (anonymised) schools with similar intakes or locations, allowing for meaningful, contextualised comparisons.

We think the survey is a powerful tool for school leaders looking to improve retention of hard-to-find teachers. Stephen Munday, Chief Executive of The Cam Academy Trust, told us about his experience in the pilot: “This proved to be a very helpful exercise for one of our schools. It was interesting and helpful to see how the school compared to others across a range of important criteria. Some of this confirmed what we had thought but some of it was somewhat surprising for us. It thus caused some very valuable reflection that led us to look at what we do, including how effectively we communicate on some crucial areas with all of our staff.”

Our plan is to run the ASCL/IOE survey in spring 2020, and again in the following two spring terms. This will allow schools to track progress and collect compelling evidence of improvement, including on wellbeing and workload – now part of the Ofsted framework. We will also host meetings each year at ASCL Annual Conference so that schools can ask questions, discuss the findings and compare notes on how they are responding.

The anonymous data collected through the project will also be used in academic research, helping to shed new light on the drivers of teacher job satisfaction and retention. Participating schools will receive early briefings on the insights they have helped generate. In return, we are asking for two things. First, that schools help us cover the costs of administering the survey (£100 per school, per year). This goes towards the cost of website hosting, survey software and providing high-quality, responsive technical support to schools. Second, that heads ensure a good response rate from their teachers. Our website allows heads to track response rates in real time, in order to make this as easy as possible.

More broadly, this is an opportunity for ASCL schools to take the lead on an evidence-based initiative to improve teacher wellbeing and retention. ASCL has been a driving force in the creation of a more school-led system and we see this project as a natural extension of that work. The research findings from the project will also benefit the wider school system.

Schools are built on teachers. Our survey can help school leaders ensure that theirs are built on a solid foundation of engaged and committed staff.


We need your help to make this project work. The more schools that get involved, the more useful the results will be, both for participating schools and for research. To register your interest in taking part, please contact s.sims@ucl.ac.uk 

Sam Sims
Research Fellow at UCL
Institute of Education