Saturday 24 February 2018

Teaching Staff Turnover and Employee Engagement

During this week's #UKEDResChat discussion a number of Tweets mentioned concerns about levels of teaching staff turnover and how to go about creating reliable and valid measures of staff satisfaction and engagement.  So with that in mind, I thought I'd have a look at Bamford and Worth (2017) and their report for the NFER as to the reasons why teachers leave the teaching profession.   I will then focus on one recommendation of the report i.e. the need for schools to measure job satisfaction and engagement and intervene -  to show how that might be easier said than done.

Why do teachers leave the teaching profession?

Drawing on data collected from 40,000 households as part of the Understanding Society longitudinal study, Bamford and Worth (2017) found the following.

  • More than half of non-retiring teachers who leave remain working in the education sector.
  • Teachers do not leave for higher- paid jobs: overall pay decreases, but hourly wages stay the same.
  • Leavers' working hours decrease and many secondary leavers take up part-time positions.
  • Leavers' job satisfaction and subjective well-being improve after leaving. 

Bamford and Worth then go on to make the following recommendations

  • School leaders should regularly monitor the job satisfaction and engagement of their staff, and intervene 
  • Government and other secondary-sector stakeholders need to urgently look at ways of accommodating more part-time working in secondary schools 
  • School leaders, Government and Ofsted need to work together to review the impact their actions are having on teacher workload, to identify practical actions that can be taken to reduce this 

An evidence-based approach to monitoring job satisfaction and engagement 

Monitoring job satisfaction and engagement and susbequently intervening may seem a very sensible and obvious recommendation.  However, it may be a lot easier said than done .  So to help understand why this might be case I'm going to look at the work of  Briner (2014) who raises some very pertinent questions about employee engagement.  So here goes:

Defining engagement - unfortunately there is no one agreed definition of engagement. 

The consequence of this is as Briner states: From a practical (and academic) perspective the absence of agreement about what something means - and an absence of concern about that lack of agreement - is not funny or weird or cute or unfortunate or inconvenient. It's a confused, confusing and chaotic mess that is almost bound to lead to messy and undesired outcomes. It means that whenever we talk about or think about or try to measure 'engagement' we are almost certainly saying different things, understanding different things, measuring different things and doing different things but believing quite incorrectly they are all the same. 

Measuring engagement - if there is no agreement about the nature of employee engagement the chance of developing valid, reliable and meaningful measures are slim. 

Again as Briner states: As a consequence of confused definition and overlap with other existing ideas there is currently little evidence that engagement measures are particularly valid or reliable. There is one crucial form of validity - predictive validity - for which there seems to be almost no evidence at all. This form of validity is essential as it explores whether measures, in this case of engagement, actually predict anything important in the future. At the present time therefore we do not have enough good quality evidence to allow us to draw even tentative conclusions about whether or how engagement can be measured in a valid and reliable way.

Engagement is nothing new or different 

Briner poses two questions about whether engagement is a new or different concept

Engagement is not a new and different idea: If this is the case then the term and idea should be immediately discontinued because using a new term to describe existing concepts is confusing and unhelpful. 

Engagement is a new and different idea: If this is the case then there is a huge amount of work to be done first to define engagement in a way that shows precisely how it is new and different and second to gather good quality evidence to show that measures of engagement are measuring something new and different. 

There is lack of good quality evidence about employee engagement

As Briner states '

There is almost no good quality evidence with which to answer the most important questions about engagement:
Fundamental Question 1: 'Do increases in engagement cause increases in performance?' 
Fundamental Question 2: 'Do engagement interventions cause increases levels of engagement and subsequent increases in performance?' 

Over-claiming and misclaiming

Briner argues that these four challenges raise serious challenges about the usefulness of the idea of employee engagement.  Nevertheless, there is an additional challenge;

That the proponents, supporters and advocates of engagement both over-claim by exaggerating the quantity and quality of evidence and mis-claim by making statements about engagement that, on closer inspection, seem to be about something else.

What are the implications of this discussion for school leaders who wish to monitor job satisfaction and engagement.

  • It will be a waste of time and resources for the school to try and develop its own valid and reliable measures of employee engagement
  • Staff surveys are highly likely to tell you very little, indeed as Argyris (1994) states may even get in the way of learning what needs to be done.
  • Multiple proxy measures of employee engagement are going to be required to help school leaders make a judgement about employee engagement.

And finally

How school leaders tackle the challenge of employee engagement comes down to a choice as to type of school leaders they want to be.  Are they school leaders who carefully examine the evidence on a particular, being explicit about what they know or don't know and then act accordingly. Or do they want to be school leaders who are not overly bothered about the quality of the evidence, subsequently misclaim and misrepresent the evidence for their own purposes and come up with superficial solutions to complex issues.  The choice is yours! (Amended from Briner)


Argyris, C. (1994). Good Communication That Blocks Learning. Harvard business review. 72. 4. 77-85.
Bamford, S. and Worth, J. (2017). Teacher Retention and Turnover Research. Research Update 3: Is the Grass Greener Beyond Teaching? Slough. NFER
Briner, R. (2014). What Is Employee Engagement and Does It Matter? An Evidence-Based Approach. The Future of Engagement Thought Piece Collection. 51.

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