Silver hairs will purchase us a good opinion: reflections on teachers working longer

Published: 14 Mar 2017

Annette CoxAnnette Cox, Associate Director

Mr Ryan, Dr Smith, Mrs Spillane and Mrs Lucas are etched on my memory as just four of the great teachers I’ve never forgotten. Hugely different from each other, nurturing, cajoling, inspiring and challenging by turn; sometimes champions of school norms and conventions, and sometimes iconoclasts with an eye for when to break rules. Their one common characteristic, aside from professionalism, expertise, and dedication? Combined service of well over 100 years - each having spent at least 25 years in the classroom to amass their experience and wisdom.

The number of teachers has grown substantially in recent years as more teachers are joining the profession. But not everyone can benefit from the experience that older teachers have to offer, as teachers aged over 50 are among those most likely to leave their profession and less than 20 per cent of teachers are aged over 50 [1].

The Department for Education commissioned IES and the Pensions Policy Institute to explore the employment practices that can help older teachers continue working until later in life. This study was part of the department’s wider review of the issues around teachers working longer, conducted with the support of employer representatives and teaching unions.

Here are six lessons we learned that policymakers and the education sector may want to reflect on…

  1. When older teachers develop physical or mental health conditions that need support, it can be difficult to access Occupational Health services. Better signposting is needed to the sources of support that enable teachers to undertake phased return to work. There is also a need for evidence on the effectiveness of Occupational Health provision to identify what the preferred format and content of support should be. Changes to eligibility for ill-health retirement under the teachers’ pension scheme rules mean that supporting teachers to return to work has assumed greater priority in recent years, so this support is important.
  2. Education needs to learn from other sectors in adopting flexible-working policies. Many teachers and senior leaders in education have spent their entire careers in the sector and have limited experience of how these practices operate. School leaders and senior teachers often operate with a relatively small pool of support staff and do not necessarily have access to HR expertise. Evidence suggests that flexibility in the form of part-time roles or job sharing is available at senior levels but the extra demands and costs of timetabling may deter school leaders from offering this to front-line teachers. There are lots of examples from other sectors which IES has researched and from other organisations like Acas and the CIPD that offer useful pointers.
  3. Teachers are just like other (older) workers. They want to have control and autonomy in how they do their work, want to feel valued by their managers, and want access to support and adjustments to help them do their jobs. This is the same as employees of any age… just as IES found in our review of what fulfilling work looks like for older workers, for the Centre for Ageing Better. The call for focus on evidence-based policy to improve teacher retention as much as teacher recruitment recognises the importance of job satisfaction in the recent House of Commons Education Committee report.
  4. Culture and leadership counts. Headteachers are pivotal decision-makers and if they are not won over by the arguments or able to overcome barriers to employing older teachers, it will be hard to bring about change. Case studies illustrating the benefits of flexible working in schools could be extremely useful in persuading them of its value.
  5. Better understanding of pensions may open up more options for retaining older teachers. There is more to be done to help teachers understand the pensions flexibilities brought in nine years ago that may enable them to work part-time while drawing part of their pension. If the Bank of England’s Andy Haldane can admit to finding pensions difficult to understand, teachers are likely to face similar difficulties.
  6. Costs are the elephant in the room. The salary bill is simply more expensive when employing older teachers than younger ones reflecting the need to reward staff for their experience. Against a backdrop of challenging constraints to school funding and changes to the funding formula, schools are facing some very tough choices about the kind of staff they can afford to recruit.   



[1] Pollard E, Swift S, Fohrbeck A, Cox A, Crumbie A, Stock D, Curry C (2017), Teachers working longer review: annex B – employment practice, Department for Education

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.

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Teachers working longer review: annex B - employment practiceTeachers working longer review: annex B - employment practice