Reward and Relationships

Why teachers stay working in FE – and what we need to do to keep them?

Written by Sue Keenan, Director of Quality and Performance at Myerscough College.

The publication of the Skills for Jobs White Paper this week rightly places FE front and centre in meeting the nations future skills needs.  I was pleased to see that teacher recruitment and retention in FE was a

critical aspect of the paper. I thought it was timely to share my MEd research, undertaken in the Spring 2020 lockdown. My research was all about teacher retention. I wanted to understand what it was about their job roles that led teachers working in FE to remain working in the sector. To do this, I used a qualitative research approach, using narrative enquiry to tell the stories of the lived experiences of a case study of five FE teachers.

The results probably won’t come as a surprise for anyone who works in education.  I found that the most significant factor in teacher retention was the relationships they had with their students, and the reward of participating in and supporting their students’ success. There was strong sense of the ‘second chance’ FE provides for many learners who weren’t suited to the school system. One teacher said:

“it’s watching them grow, watching them develop as individuals…they give me a massive sense of pride in what I do, that’s the reason I’m still here”.

Teachers discussed the diverse daily experience in their roles that kept them interested and engaged. All talked of being extremely busy and working long hours and the intensity of the role. I’m sure that will chime with many. Working in education is not a 9-5 job.

Also important in influencing their retention was the institutional culture in which they worked, particularly at departmental level. The sense of community and relationships within departments was strong, and all felt an affinity with the college. As one teacher said,

“you’ve got to, I suppose, agree with the mindset of an organisation in order to stay working within an organisation”

I was more surprised to learn that the physical health of teachers proved to be significant in their retention as FE lecturers.  Some were simply unable to cope with the physical demands of working in their industries, perhaps feeling they were just getting too old and sore for industry.  Teaching helped them remain connected to industry and provided a satisfaction in passing on skills and knowledge to a new generation. They were definitely emotionally invested in and passionate about their subjects. There was also a strong connection with the career choice of teaching for other family members; they had been influenced by seeing people close to them doing the job.

So how do we provide the right conditions to retain teachers?

My research affirmed that teachers need freedom to teach and have self-determination over their decisions and their working day, as they are the people best placed to meet the individual needs of their students. It is this aspect of their job roles that they most enjoy. What colleges need to create is the space for professional reflection, coaching and mentoring, empowering and supporting teachers. The only way FE can do this is by having the funding to support time off the teaching timetable for valuable professional development.

It is also essential that Initial Teacher Education (ITE) begins for new in-service teachers as quickly as possible. New teachers are often thrown into teaching for twenty-five hours a week before they have started their ITE and know what a learning outcome or basic assessment practice is. Beginning a new career can be overwhelming and grappling with teaching as well as learning about the structures of a large organisation can be exhausting. Support to mitigate the pressure of this is essential. At Myerscough College we have been part of the Taking Teaching Further scheme which supports new teachers from industry with the costs of ITE and a reduced timetable to enable workshadowing. This is been brilliant for new teachers. One commented, “A reduced timetable has allowed me to shadow as many teachers as I can of different subjects and see their methods of teaching… this has helped me massively as I am a complete novice to teaching”. We need ALL new teachers to the FE sector to be supported in this way.

Skills for Jobs talks about ‘sustained, high quality professional development opportunities’ and my research found that giving teachers time to maintain industry links and ensure their practice remains current was very important to retain credibility. It is essential that teachers are given funded opportunities for keeping ahead with developments in technology and industry practice. The T Level Professional Development programme supports this and it’s vital that ALL teachers have this opportunity.

As Skills for Jobs highlights, the FE sector has a huge impact on the economy and the skills agenda.  My research found that FE teachers are passionate about their roles.  As one teacher said,

“ultimately it’s satisfying, hugely satisfying…when you’ve been part of a student’s journey, particularly a student that’s faced some sort of adversity through it, …if you’ve been a little part of that, that doesn’t get any better does it”.

We need to do all we can to help teachers in FE stay and it’s great to see the Skills for Jobs White Paper discuss this. But of course, what’s needed to support the recruitment and retention of teachers in FE is funding. Funding for ITE, for continued professional development and funding so that FE teachers’ salaries are equal to those working in schools and universities. Once that’s in place, then the FE sector will be shown ‘the esteem it deserves’.

Sue Keenan


Sue Keenan is Director of Quality and Performance at Myerscough College, though of course all views expressed are her own.

Sue has worked in education for over 25 years, with roles in Offender Learning, GFE and Land Based Colleges and Teacher Education.