The Department for Education (DfE) published its recruitment and retention strategy last Monday to widespread acclaim. It boasts a supportive foreword from eight leading sector bodies including teacher unions, Ofsted and the Education Endowment Foundation and the central plank – a new Early Career Framework (ECF) – was heralded by leading academic Professor Samantha Twiselton as “the most potentially game-changing policy move I can remember” that “could save the teaching profession”.

It is hard to recall a government policy that has attracted such an array of support and praise from across the education sector. In that respect the strategy is already a success: indicative of a department that is no longer battling ‘the blob’ but, instead, directly working with experts and practitioners to solve shared problems.

Increasing retention is the key to overcoming the shortages

The central problem the strategy addresses is that secondary schools face a critical shortage of qualified teachers. Pupil numbers are rising as the number of teachers falls. Over the next decade the DfE projects that pupil numbers will rise by nearly 20 per cent while teacher training applications have fallen by 5 per cent in recent years. The chart below illustrates how fast the gap is likely to open if the current trends continues.

The government is right to recognise that the declining retention rates among early-career teachers are a central part of this problem. As we’ve previously highlighted, each cohort of new teachers seems less likely to stay in the profession.

As well as recognising retention is a huge problem among early-career teachers, the DfE also highlights the particular challenges for schools in disadvantaged areas, and it acknowledges that change is required on many fronts. Its two major innovations are the ECF and the reform of training bursaries to target retention in addition to recruitment.

Financial incentives are likely to help

EPI has written previously about the potential for targeted retention payments to overcome the present retention problems and, though much of the sector’s attention has been directed at the ECF, the move to phased bursaries has more potential to resolve the immediate problems. Improvements to early-career support may well help retention from 2022 onward as the first full cohort receive additional support in their initial years of teaching. However, by then there may already be 10 per cent fewer secondary teachers than in 2010 and 10 per cent more pupils. Closing that gap will be difficult.

The advantage of financial incentives, however, is that they can be applied immediately and have an immediate effect on retention. Researcher Sam Sims’ work for the Gatsby Foundation reviewed similar retention payments for teachers in Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, and found that “for every 1 per cent increase in pay for a shortage-subject teacher, there is a 3.1 per cent reduction in the number of teachers quitting the profession.” He estimated that a 5 per cent pay supplement for shortage-subject teachers since 2010 would have been sufficient to eliminate the current shortage in those subjects.

The DfE has not yet announced the precise design of the new bursaries, but what we know so far is that:

  • About 60 per cent of the bursary will be paid in the training year.
  • The remaining 40 per cent will be focused on retention and paid in later years.
  • The retention payment will be greater in more challenging schools.

A clue to the likely details is provided by the document’s discussion of the current maths bursary. In that scheme the trainee receives £20,000 in their training year, £5,000 in their third year of teaching and £5,000 in their fifth year. If they work in a challenging school the retention payments rise to £7,500. The scheme was only implemented last year so it is too soon to know how well it is working, but a comparison to the US schemes indicates what magnitude of effect is possible.

A secondary teacher in their late twenties earns, on average, about £30,000, which means that a £5,000 payment amounts to nearly 17 per cent of their salary. While it is unlikely that a salary uplift of this magnitude would see retention increases three times the size of a 5 per cent supplement, it nonetheless is very likely to generate a large increase in retention.[1]

The payments are also likely to be most effective for graduates in degree subjects where teachers are paid less than alternative occupations (see figure below); these tend to be the subjects where the government already pays larger bursaries and might be expected to also provide larger retention payments.


Timing is critical

The question, then, is less about the size of the payments and more about the timing of implementation. Bursaries for 2019/20 entrants to initial teacher training have already been announced and there will be a temptation to leave those untouched. However, if the DfE first implements the phased bursaries for 2020/21 entrants, then the first cohort to be affected by them will only enter teaching as NQTs in 2021/22 – by which point the shortage of teachers in STEM subjects may have worsened dramatically.

To make a difference to shortages in the immediate-term, the payments will need to be applied to teachers already in the early years of their teaching career. The second chart above shows that retention rates have not yet levelled off after four years so it is likely that some teachers in shortage subjects can still be encouraged to remain in the profession at that point. The advantage of a design like the maths bursaries, where payments are made to teachers up to their fifth year of teaching, is that they can be awarded to teachers who have already been in service for up to five years.

The primary objection to awarding payments to teachers already in service is likely to be the unbudgeted cost. Reshuffling future bursary payments has the advantage of being cost neutral and the prospect of awarding additional payments to a large group of teachers who already received a bursary when training would be expensive.

Nonetheless, the department has a number of options for reallocating funds within the existing bursary budget:

  • It could consider redirecting some of the money for bursaries in the training year towards retention payments for teachers in their first five years.
  • It could pay smaller retention payments but pay them to existing teachers as well as new teachers. With the large effect sizes observed in the US, there may be no need to pay such a large percentage of salary to markedly increase retention.
  • It could make the payments only in shortage subjects where graduates have high-paying alternative career options.

Each of these options would require some reshuffling of the departmental budget allocations, either within the year or across years. However, the prospect of reducing the shortage of teachers and improving the experience of the teaching workforce may well be worth the effort.

The development and launch of the teacher recruitment and retention strategy has been a triumph of consultative policy development. However, as every response has emphasised, a strategy is only as good as its implementation and the design of the phased bursaries is no different.


[1] There are two complicating factors: first, the English maths bursary is paid only in the third and fifth years whereas the US pay supplements are paid annually. It is unclear how exactly the staggered payment would affect the elasticity. Secondly, the elasticity is estimated for payments between 3 and 10 per cent of salary. For a single-year payment of up to 17 per cent of salary, the elasticity may differ.