2020 Spring Term 2


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  • Teacher autonomy
    What role does teacher autonomy play in keeping teachers motivated and in the profession? Jack Worth from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) investigates. More
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    ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton says while many old habits are hard to break, together we can create new and better ones. Here, he highlights ASCL's work on a new blueprint for education. More
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What role does teacher autonomy play in keeping teachers motivated and in the profession? Jack Worth from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) investigates.

Teacher autonomy

Teacher recruitment and retention is one of the biggest challenges facing the education system in England, especially in the secondary sector. Figures last year showed that despite the number of secondary pupils rising for the fourth straight year, the number of secondary teachers had declined, as it has done each successive year since 2012 (see www.nfer.ac.uk/workforce-in-england-blog).

In the search for insights to address this, we decided to examine teacher autonomy in our new research report, Teacher Autonomy: How does it relate to job satisfaction and retention? (see www.nfer.ac.uk/teacherautonomy). We did this as previous research has drawn a strong link between autonomy and job satisfaction in many occupations. There was also a distinct lack of quantitative research on teacher autonomy in England.

School leaders face a complex challenge of ensuring that decisions are made at the appropriate level and are informed by the right conversations to get the right balance between coherence and autonomy throughout the organisation. Our latest research evidence relates to the autonomy side of this balance, showing that autonomy is an important factor to consider.

Is increased autonomy important for teacher job satisfaction and retention?

The headline finding of our study published in January is that higher teacher autonomy is strongly associated with improved job satisfaction, perceptions of workload manageability and intention to stay in teaching.

Our study also reveals nuanced insights on how teacher autonomy varies greatly between different areas of work, and how certain types of autonomy are more important for increasing job satisfaction and retention. Understanding these nuances may be especially important for school leaders looking to ensure they have an attractive employment offer that motivates teachers and encourages them to stay.

Different levels of influence As we might expect, teachers report higher levels of influence over classroom activities, such as the teaching methods they use and how they plan lessons. Conversely, teachers report relatively low autonomy over assessment and feedback, pupil data collection and curriculum content. Most schools have policies covering their expectations in these areas, which direct teachers to some extent.

Autonomy over professional development is key 

Teachers also report having low autonomy over their professional development goals. Interestingly, we find that increasing the amount of influence teachers have over their professional development goals is associated with the largest gains in job satisfaction and retention. 

This provides a significant opportunity for school leaders to consider how they design and deliver professional development in their schools.

ASCL’s view

We are pleased that ASCL has welcomed the findings of our report. Commenting in a press release at the time the report was published, ASCL General Secretary, Geoff Barton, said, “[T]his report shows that giving teachers a greater say and more influence over their professional development may pay dividends in terms of improved job satisfaction and teacher retention.

“This would be a useful insight at any time, but it is particularly important now because schools are experiencing a severe shortage of teachers which is likely to become more acute over the next few years with a projected increase in the number of pupils in secondary education.

“These shortages are caused not just by the fact that the government keeps missing its targets for recruiting trainee teachers, but also because about one third then leave the profession within five years of qualifying.

“We have to stem this exodus and this report provides some important thinking on action which schools might take. We also need system-wide action by the government, most notably in reducing the crushing weight of performance tables and Ofsted inspections.”

What can schools do?

Autonomy over professional development goals doesn’t necessarily mean giving teachers total freedom to choose their professional development goals and activities. Helping teachers see the relevance of professional development to their individual needs, their pupils’ needs and the wider organisational goals has the potential to have a big impact on teachers’ motivation. Involving teachers in choosing goals and ensuring they have some influence over how they choose to meet these goals could also lead to improved job satisfaction.

More generally, it could be beneficial to encourage a school culture where open conversations about the optimal balance between alignment and autonomy are welcomed. School leaders should consider incorporating a teacher autonomy lens to regular reviews of teaching and learning policies. These reviews should cover both the written policies and, importantly, the culture around how they are enacted in practice.

To further explore the implications of our findings for policy and practice, we partnered with the Teacher Development Trust (TDT) to bring together sector leaders to gain insights to inform our research. In response to our research, TDT developed a resource that lays out some guidance for schools on how to improve school systems in this area – Guidance on Teacher Goal Setting: Balancing autonomy and coherence is available at www.tdtrust.org/autonomy20

What can the government do?

System-wide action to embed the principles of autonomy into professional development and into national policy would also be valuable. We recommend that the DfE should draw up guidance for professional development that gives teachers more influence over their targets and objectives.

It is also important for the DfE to continue developing non-leadership pathways for teachers who aren’t considering promotion into senior leadership roles. Specialist qualifications could offer teachers a wider range of development options that meet their development needs and keep them highly engaged for longer. These findings are especially timely as they come a year after the DfE published its teacher recruitment and retention strategy. Giving teachers greater influence over their professional development goals has the potential to increase their job satisfaction, which in turn is important for improving teacher retention. At a time when the school system cannot afford to lose valuable teachers, improving autonomy may help to address the teacher supply challenge.

Find out more

For more on NFER’s research on the teacher workforce in England visit www.nfer.ac.uk/key-topics-expertise/school-workforce

Jack Worth
School Workforce Lead at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)