What makes teachers decide to stay in challenging schools?

by Dr Linet Arthur

17 Jun 2020

The initial idea for our research came from a project to support leadership in primary schools facing great challenges. These schools typically had a high proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals and an above-average percentage of children with special needs; some of the schools also had a large number of pupils whose first language was not English. Discussions with the school leaders indicated that teacher turnover was a major concern.

An annual turnover of 50% was not unusual; one school had lost 80% of its staff, after a year with an interim head teacher because there had been no suitable applicants for the post during that period.

Making teacher retention a priority

Nationally, there has been growing concern about teacher retention. The Department for Education’s 2019 Recruitment and Retention Strategy has acknowledged the current difficulties of recruiting and retaining staff, due to an increase in the number of pupils in the UK, combined with a competitive labour market which has encouraged some teachers to leave the profession in order to pursue other careers. The highest turnover is in schools serving the poorest areas.

More than one in 10 teachers from the most disadvantaged secondary schools leave to teach in other schools: about twice the proportion who make the same move from the least disadvantaged schools.

DFE, 2019

Although there may be positive reasons for teachers to change jobs – for example, to develop their careers or to move to a school whose values they share – teacher turnover can have an adverse impact on student achievement. The recruitment process takes time, drains financial resources and means that school leaders are constantly having to induct new staff.

There has been a number of research studies looking at why teachers decide to leave. The reasons include stress, workload, poor pupil behaviour, lack of support, reduced autonomy and the low status of the profession. However, little is known about why teachers stay, particularly in challenging schools. This seems an important gap in current understanding about teacher retention. Improved knowledge about the reasons why teachers stay could help school leaders to develop strategies to keep good staff and could also influence education policymakers when making changes to legislation affecting schools.

Understanding more about why teachers stay

The research study comprised nine school case studies: one secondary and two primaries in three geographical locations, chosen to explore the impact on teacher retention of poverty in different contexts. These were: an inner-city, where there are large areas of deprivation; a Shire County where there are pockets of poverty in otherwise relatively well-off areas; and a coastal town, where the coastal environment has particular challenges for schools because of local under-investment and industrial decline. One headteacher of a coastal school pointed out that, when recruiting staff, the potential catchment area was restricted because half of it was in the sea. Focus groups with long-serving staff and an interview with the headteacher of each school provided a rich and detailed picture of why teachers choose to stay in challenging schools.

What were the most important reasons?

Making a difference

Those who participated in our research expressed a strong sense of social responsibility. They wanted to make a difference to the lives of children who lacked opportunities at home. Several teachers in the focus groups had come from similar backgrounds to the children at their school. One said she grew up on a council estate, explaining "for me it was the teachers in my school that really really helped me. I think that's why I perhaps wanted to become a teacher".

The pupils

Poor pupil behaviour is a major reason for teachers to leave, but for those who stay, a rewarding relationship with the children was a key factor:

"They're demanding, challenging, they’re hard work, but you see a lightbulb moment, it is brilliant."

"You always have bad days… But then a child will say something or you get a breakthrough, and there's nothing better than that."


Teachers may still find the daily cut and thrust of school life challenging but having strong support from their colleagues was crucial in enabling them to thrive. At several different schools, teachers talked about being part of a family:

“I have very close relationships with the people here, they are my family.”

“Having the right people you’re actually working with on a day-to-day basis; people you trust, you can rely on, you like, makes it far easier to want to stay.”

Feeling valued

Feeling valued by senior leaders is also important. At one of the schools, there were regular doughnuts for the staff at break-time while the leaders undertook break duties. Pizzas encouraged staff who were staying on for meetings after school. One school allowed a ‘sofa day’ each term so that teachers could take a day off if they needed some time out.

Growing your own

Several of the school leaders had adopted a strategy of ‘growing your own’ – identifying staff whose careers could be developed at the school. This helped to encourage retention and consistency. One school even contacted former sixth formers who had graduated from university to offer them the opportunity to return to the school as a teacher.

This is a short summary of the many reasons why teachers had decided to stay working in a challenging school and the strategies school leaders had adopted to retain them. The full picture will be provided in the project report, together with recommendations for educational policymakers and school leaders to help teacher retention in high-need schools.

Dr Linet Arthur is a Principal Lecturer at the School of Education, Oxford Brookes University. She received a BA / Leverhulme Small Research Grant in 2018 and carried out this study with Simon Bradley. Their research on what encourages teachers to stay in challenging schools in England featured in the British Academy Virtual Summer Showcase.

Further reading

Wanted: A National Teacher Supply Policy for Education: The Right Way to Meet The "Highly Qualified Teacher" Challenge, Darling-Hammond and Sykes, 2003

The Cost of Teacher Turnover in Five School Districts: A Pilot Study, Barnes, Crowe and Schaefer, 2007

How Teacher Turnover Harms Student Achievement, Ronfeldt et al, 2012

Teacher Workforce Dynamics in England, Worth et al, 2015

Leaving or staying in teaching: a ‘vignette’ of an experienced urban teacher ‘leaver’ of a London primary school, Towers and Maguire, 2017

Is teacher attrition a poor estimate of the value of teacher education? A Swedish case, Carlsson et al, 2019


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