Pay policy reform needed to recruit and retain specialist teachers

20 May 2021 Lauren Golding

New research funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and published by the Education Policy Institute finds that without reform of teacher pay policy, England could see a large proportion of newly recruited teachers leave the profession in the post-pandemic economic recovery.

Pay policy reform needed to recruit and retain specialist teachers

The report’s key findings include:

The pandemic has boosted teacher numbers, but this may prove short-lived, with long-standing recruitment and retention problems likely to return

  • Over the last decade, the teaching profession in England has faced serious retention problems, with teachers across most levels of experience more likely to leave the profession in each successive year since 2010.
  • Early-career teachers have very low retention rates – in 2019, just two-thirds (67%) remained in the profession 5 years after they joined, down from 72% in 2010. 
  • However, the Covid-induced recession has provided a temporary boost to the profession. Since March 2020, teacher training applications have increased considerably, leading to the government reaching its overall recruitment target for the first time in 8 years. (Though some subjects such as maths and physics still missed their targets).
  • Teaching typically becomes more attractive to graduates in a recession, as it is largely unaffected during this period, offering stability to workers.
  • But despite this recent surge in teacher numbers, research shows that teachers who were drawn into the profession by a recession are also more likely to leave once the labour market recovers. As a result, while the government has recently made some reforms to boost the status of the teaching profession, it is expected that longstanding supply issues will return in the near future.

Despite acknowledging the risk of a shortfall of teachers after the pandemic, the government has recently scrapped policies which are most likely to encourage retention

  • Evidence suggests that pay can play a key role in teachers’ decision to remain in or leave the profession. While there are other personal factors which may affect teachers’ career decisions, pay is one that can be altered immediately by a change in government policy.
  • Policies which boost teacher pay in a targeted way can have a positive impact on recruitment and retention. There is strong evidence that top-up salary payments given to those teaching shortage school subjects (such as maths and physics) and in more challenging schools, are likely to significantly improve retention.
  • In 2019, following EPI recommendations, the government introduced new salary top-up payments for new teachers in shortage subjects (£2,000 per year if still teaching 2, 3 and 4 years after training) and for new teachers based in challenging areas of the country (an extra £1,000 per year).
  • However, in response to the current, short-term boost in teacher numbers, the government has since cut these retention payments. This decision could prove costly, as it is likely to hinder efforts to retain the large intake of new teaching graduates once the economy improves.
  • To effectively respond to the expected shortfall of teachers in the coming years, the government should urgently reinstate these top-up payments for teachers, and expand them so that they cover existing teachers, as well as those who are new to the profession.


Large local pay gaps are impeding efforts to recruit and retain teachers – they must also be addressed to prevent teacher supply problems returning

  • In some parts of the country, particularly around London, there are significant teacher supply problems, driven by relatively low local pay. Non-teaching occupations in these regions pay higher average salaries than teaching occupations.
  • This is especially the case in areas around outer London. In areas such as High Wycombe and Reading, teachers earn over 11% less on average than non-teaching professionals, which corresponds to about £5,400 less per year.
  • Smaller local pay gaps are associated with fewer supply problems in the profession. Just a 1% reduction in the local pay gap is associated with higher numbers of more experienced teachers in the workforce and fewer vacant teaching posts. The reduction is associated with a 2.6% decline in the proportion of teachers without qualified teacher status (meaning that there are more experienced teachers remaining in the workforce), and a 5% decline in the proportion of vacant posts.
  • In those areas with very large local pay gaps, a larger, 10% reduction in the gap could reduce the number of teachers leaving the profession by 0.5 percentage points each year and increase recruitment by 3.4%. Taken together, this equates to an extra 720 teachers in the local workforce.
  • While in theory headteachers have been granted freedoms to set teacher salaries, in practice, the present system offers very little flexibility because of funding restraints, meaning schools are unable to respond to local labour market conditions and narrow the local pay gap.
  • To improve recruitment and retention and respond to challenges after the pandemic, the government should review its policy on setting teacher pay, so that salaries are more responsive to local labour markets. In doing so, it should take into account both the distributional impact of any changes and the impact on teacher supply.

Jenni French, Head of Teacher Supply Programmes at Gatsby Charitable Foundation, said:

“Ensuring a supply of high-quality experienced teachers should be a priority for Education policy makers, so that we can provide a high-quality education for all pupils, irrespective of background or economic circumstance.

“We know that the most common reasons teachers give for leaving the profession are workload and behaviour. But science, particularly physics, and maths teachers leave the profession in even greater numbers than other teachers and this could be explained by the better paid opportunities outside the profession.

“We encourage government to use pay policies more effectively to help retain teachers, ensuring that salaries are more responsive to factors outside of teaching.”

Commenting on the report, James Zuccollo, report co-author and Director of School Workforce at the Education Policy Institute (EPI) added:

 “While the government has put in place positive reforms to raise the status of teaching, this report shows that its current approach to setting teacher pay is outdated and could heighten the risk of an exodus from the profession in the coming years.

“After seeing a boost to teacher numbers following the pandemic, many of those who recently joined may now leave as the economy recovers. The government must do all it can to retain this large influx of new teachers. Our research shows that reforming pay to make teacher salaries more adaptable at a local level may be an effective way to do this. We need to give headteachers genuine flexibility so they can offer attractive salaries that are able to compete with other occupations.

“By changing its approach to setting salaries, and by reinstating recently scrapped financial incentives for teachers, the government is more likely to put the profession on a sustainable footing for the future and avoid severe supply problems.”

To read the report in full, click here

To learn more about EPI, click here

Pay policy reform needed to recruit and retain specialist teachers