The teaching workforce after the pandemic

The recruitment and retention of teachers in England has dominated education headlines for the last decade. In the midst of the pandemic, a surge in applications for initial teacher training provided some brief respite. But, for the past year, there has been speculation about whether that surge will persist when the pandemic fades. Last week, the Department for Education released the first comprehensive statistics since June 2021 on the size of the school workforce, which included recruitment and retention rates. 

The economic contraction during the pandemic made the relative security and stability of teaching more attractive. Both recruitment and retention rose. It was expected that recruitment would slow and retention fall after the pandemic because, as the job market recovered, teaching would become less attractive and teachers who deferred leaving their job during the pandemic would likely move on. Similarly, some of the graduates who entered the profession at the height of the pandemic may have decided that teaching was not for them. 


The workforce has grown again 

During the midst of the pandemic, the new data shows that the school workforce grew by about one per cent between 2020/21 and 2021/22, though at a slower rate than it did in the previous year. The charts below show that the workforce grew across most of England, causing pupil-teacher ratios to fall [1]; however, this data is not yet free of the pandemic’s influence. It was collected in November 2021 but many of the teachers who quit last year would have made their decision in early 2021, when Ofsted inspections were still suspended and schools were still experiencing closures. It is likely that we will not see the effect of post-pandemic resignations until next year’s data is released in June 2023. 

A hint that it might still be coming is in London’s numbers. The job market has rebounded faster in London than in the rest of the country and it has not experienced the increase in teacher numbers in 2021/22 that occurred elsewhere. In secondary schools, there was only a very small increase and, in primary schools, the number of teachers fell sharply. It may be that London’s numbers are leading the rest of the country because of the earlier return to economic growth. 



More teachers are leaving

A second hint that the expected increase in resignations may still happen is in the number of teachers leaving the profession. The chart below shows that the number of teachers quitting before they retire has risen again this year after falling in 2020/21.

The chart also highlights two trends that have been evident for the past decade: a growing number of head teachers resigning before pension age, and secondary heads leaving the profession at a greater rate than primary heads. Neither is due to the pandemic and both are concerning, particularly as many heads report considering quitting due to the pressure of their job.


The retention rates by cohort (chart below) emphasise the difficulty of retaining experienced teachers. Retention rates have improved dramatically for early-career teachers in the past couple of years, but there has been less improvement for mid-career teachers, and almost none for experienced teachers. These published, cohort-level retention rates only stretch to teachers in their mid-forties, which is still twenty years before the normal retirement age so it is possible that rates have been falling even further for older teachers. This is concerning because building expertise takes time and a young teacher is not a like-for-like replacement for a teacher with twenty years experience.

It is possible that these improvements in retention for early- and mid-career teachers are caused by the pandemic, but it is also possible that changes in policy have helped. Over recent years, the department has improved both professional development and early-career support, and increased the financial incentives for early-career teachers. Policymakers will be hoping that the recent reforms to NPQs for more experienced teachers also improve retention.



Recruitment is below pre-pandemic levels

The second cloud on the horizon is the recruitment data. Applications to initial teacher training are now well below pre-pandemic levels and the chart below shows that 2021-22 applications are far below the levels seen in the five previous years. [2]

Recruitment data differs from the retention and workforce data because it is updated every month, so this data shows the current state of applications rather than a teacher’s decision to quit their job a year ago. Recruitment and retention are often talked about in the same breath because they both reflect the attractiveness of the profession relative to other jobs. Unfortunately, these numbers suggest that teaching is not so attractive today as it was a year ago. If these changes are reflected in the decisions teachers are making right now about whether to continue in teaching next year, then 2022’s retention figures could paint a very different picture and the improved early-career retention of the past couple of years could be reversed.


The policy response

It is probably too early to say what this means for policy because much of the data is still affected by the pandemic. However, there are signs in the London workforce data and the recruitment data that the expected resignations may still eventuate and the retention data also shows the long-term problems with retention of mid-career and experienced teachers.

The department’s reinstatement of retention payments through the levelling-up premium remains welcome and might help mitigate the effect of the economic recovery on the number of teachers who quit this year. However, the cuts to bursaries remain and NfER’s recent work suggests that might be part of the reason for the low recruitment numbers in some subjects. The policy direction is welcome but there is no room for complacency.

Furthermore, many of the long-term challenges facing the profession persist. Recruitment is below target, retention remains down on a decade earlier for most cohorts, and head teachers continue to quit the profession at a growing rate. None of this is new but it is a worthwhile reminder that, two years on, the problems that faced us before the pandemic remain.


  1. PTRs are not the same as class sizes because not all teachers spend the same amount of time in the classroom (eg head teachers), but they are very useful for showing the size of the teacher workforce relative to pupil numbers. Class sizes are typically larger than PTRs and fluctuate less as schools reallocate teachers’ responsibilities to smooth out changes in the number of staff.
  2. The recruitment process for England was this year handed from UCAS to the department. That means the process is different, the coverage of statistics is different, and the data is slightly different. We have attempted to adjust for these where possible but it still possible that some of the difference between 2021/22 data and the other years is an artifact of the change.