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New study suggests teacher autonomy over their professional development is strongly linked with job satisfaction and retention

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New research suggests that teachers’ perceived autonomy over what they do in their jobs and how they do it is strongly associated with greater job satisfaction and intention to stay in the profession.

The analysis from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) is the first large-scale quantitative study of teacher autonomy in England and its importance for retention. Alongside the study, NFER have collaborated with the Teacher Development Trust to bring together guidance on this research to support schools to implement recommendations made through the report.

Teachers report a higher level of influence over classroom activities such as the teaching methods they use and how they plan lessons, and lower levels of autonomy over curriculum, assessment and their professional development goals. On average, teachers also have a lower level of autonomy over their work compared to similar individuals in other professions.

The study finds that teachers’ perceived influence over their professional development goal setting is the area most associated with higher job satisfaction and greater intention to stay in teaching. Around half of those with the lowest autonomy reported they are intending to stay in teaching in the short term, compared to more than 85 per cent of those with the highest autonomy. One of the main recommendations in the report is that school leaders should harness teacher autonomy to benefit both pupils and staff when considering policy and practice changes.

School Workforce Lead at NFER, Jack Worth said, “Autonomy plays a significant role in teachers’ motivation. Giving teachers greater influence over how they do their job has the potential to increase job satisfaction, which in turn is important in tackling teacher retention. At a time when the school system cannot afford to lose valuable teachers, improving autonomy, workload, satisfaction and retention could help address the teacher supply challenge. “We recommend that school leaders and the Department for Education should review how teacher professional development is designed and delivered. When teachers have greater involvement in their professional development goal-setting, and in school decision-making more widely, they are motivated to perform and stay in the profession.”

These latest findings come a year after the government published its teacher recruitment and retention strategy. The system faces a substantial and growing challenge of ensuring adequate teacher supply, 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. Improving teacher recruitment and retention is one of the most important policy issues facing England’s education system today.

Ensuring that teachers have greater involvement in their professional development goal setting is one of several positive recommendations made by NFER. To coincide with the study, the Teacher Development Trust has issued a resource designed to support senior leaders in schools and Trusts to consider how to give more autonomy in these areas, including a case study of a school that has implemented this type of approach. This resource explores how performance management and appraisal systems can either support or hinder teacher autonomy over their professional development goals.

Chief Executive David Weston of the Teacher Development Trust said, “This report highlights how autonomy may be a crucial key to solving the growing problem of teacher recruitment and retention. There has been a welcome recent focus on teacher workload but we know that what concerns teachers is not just the amount of time worked, but the relevance of tasks they’re being required to carry out. School leaders and policy makers need to carefully consider how accountability and performance management systems are supporting the right types of teacher autonomy, raising morale and improving retention.

Ultimately, we need to make a big investment in school leaders’ understanding of effective professional development so that we can act upon the findings from this report and wider research.” The free resource is available to download via the Teacher Development Trust website from tdtrust.org/autonomy20

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