How do we motivate our teachers to stay in FE? Could an alternative approach to professional development be part of the solution?

In the first of three articles focusing on motivating teachers to remain in Further Education (FE) and the part an alternative approach to professional development could play, Education Consultant Dr Tricia Odell looks at the role of middle leaders in bringing about a cultural shift in professional learning.

Challenges with teacher retention

For some time now, the high turnover of teaching staff, particularly amongst early career teachers, has been a key concern for many leaders in the FE sector. An Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) report published last year suggests that 25% of college teachers leave the profession after one year; almost half have left after three years; and 10 years after beginning teaching, less than 25% remain in the profession (IFS, 2023).

Understandably, the problem with teacher retention is causing a headache for leaders who are continually having to recruit new staff at a time when there are high vacancy rates across the country. As we might expect, this high turnover of teaching staff is also impacting negatively on students. Authors of the IFS report suggest that because so many teachers are leaving before they have sufficiently developed their practice, students are often being taught by inexperienced teachers.

So why are so many FE teachers choosing to leave and what can leaders do to encourage teachers to stay in the profession?

Whilst there have been a number of recent reports exploring teacher retention in schools, there is much less evidence on this issue relating to the FE sector. However, the following data drawn from studies focused on our sector may help to shed some light on the question.

  • Low pay is often cited as a key factor, backed up by the IFS (2023) report that says recommended salary levels for FE teachers in colleges fell by 18% between 2010–11 and 2022–23.
  • Insufficient attention to teachers’ mental health and wellbeing also emerges as an important issue. An Education and Training Foundation (ETF) study that looked into staff wellbeing in the post-14 workforce found that the wellbeing of staff working in the education sector is lower than that of the general population. The authors highlighted that teachers’ wellbeing could be enhanced if they had increased autonomy and were more trusted to carry out their work (ETF, 2019).
  • A lack of professional development opportunities could also be a factor. A DfE College Staff survey found that 52% of teachers who have left the FE sector said that more professional development opportunities would have encouraged them to stay (DfE, 2020).

Perhaps this last finding is not so surprising, given that on average, the number of hours that FE teachers spend on CPD is surprisingly low – 38 hours per year – according to the ETF’s FE Workforce Data for England report (ETF, 2020).

So can we encourage our FE teachers to stay simply by offering more CPD or should we also think about offering an alternative model of professional learning?

A different approach to professional learning

An unexpected consequence of Covid 19 was that teachers had a unique opportunity to spend time reflecting with colleagues, sharing practice and developing further skills to try to address some of the pedagogical challenges caused by the pandemic.

This collaborative way of developing practice contrasts sharply with the traditional ‘expert to novice’ model of professional development that usually involves attending external events or staff training days. Teachers often come away from these events enthused by new ideas, but the problem is that once back in the workplace, they often do not have the time and space they need to be able to experiment with new strategies. As a result, there may be little or no change in practice (Coffield & Edwards, 2009; Coffield et al, 2014).

Collaborative approaches to professional learning differ from conventional CPD methods in three ways, in that teachers are:

  • empowered to take ownership of their professional development, identifying areas of their practice they wish to improve
  • provided with time and space to improve their practice, enabling them to share, discuss and reflect on their practice with others
  • able to experiment with alternative strategies and take risks without fear of being judged.

A growing number of studies suggest that this bottom-up approach can be a highly effective model for FE teachers to work together to improve their practice. Research indicates there is a desire and enthusiasm by teachers, middle and senior leaders for collaborative professional development approaches, where historically there has been a dependency on top-down models. If leaders can create the conditions for teachers to engage with one another in an atmosphere of trust, teachers will be motivated to make lasting changes to their practice and this in turn will have a knock-on effect on their learners’ attitude to learning (FETL, 2019; Odell, 2020).

For this alternative model to be effective, however, leaders need to foster a non-judgemental mentoring culture that supports the professional learning, development and wellbeing of teachers.

The next article in this series will explore the practicalities of introducing a collaborative professional learning environment and the role that middle leaders can play in implementing and supporting this model.


Coffield, F. and Edward, S. (2009) Rolling out ‘good’, ‘best’ and ‘excellent’ practice. What next? Perfect practice? British Educational Research Journal, 35 (3), pp. 371-390.

Coffield, F., Costa, C., Muller, W. and Webber, J. (2014) Beyond bulimic learning: improving teaching in further education. London: Institute of Education.

Department for Education (2020) College Staff Survey 2019 follow-up. London: DfE.

Education and Training Foundation (2019) Understanding the well-being of the post-14 education workforce. London: ETF.

Education and Training Foundation (2020) Further education workforce data for England: Analysis of the 2018-2019 Staff Individualised Record (SIR) data. London: ETF.

Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) (2019) The role of leadership in prioritising and improving the quality of teaching and learning in further education. London: FETL.

Institute for Fiscal Studies (2023) What has happened to college teacher pay in England? London: IFS.

Odell, P. (2020) ‘Quick fix’ or ‘slow deep burn’? An exploration of the benefits and challenges of implementing a joint practice development approach in further education institutions. [Doctoral Thesis]