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Teacher attrition: What’s the real picture?

Claims that half of Australian early career teachers are leaving the profession are not as robust as they might seem, new analysis reveals.

Media interest in a ‘worrying’ teacher attrition ‘epidemic’ appears to be perennial; most media reports cite high attrition rates. The ABC, for example, reported in 2016 that, ‘Research has found that somewhere between 30 and 50 per cent of teachers give up their job within their first five years in the profession.’

Likewise, the Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2017 that, ‘Up to half of all Australian teachers are leaving the profession in the first five years.’

According to analysis by Dr Paul Weldon, reported in the Australian Journal of Education, Australian figures on the attrition of early career teachers are, at best, estimates. ‘In reality, there is no robust Australian evidence, and figures do not agree,’ Dr Weldon writes in ‘Early career teacher attrition in Australia: evidence, definition, classification and measurement.’

Employing a forensic approach to investigate research claims about teacher attrition, and the reporting of such claims in the media, Dr Weldon’s analysis reveals that claims about attrition rely on citations of previous claims that at source are without reliable data or rely on anecdotal evidence from which a national attrition rate is inappropriately extrapolated.

 ‘What evidence there is, nationally and internationally, suggests that attrition is dynamic, varies by school level and location, and is not always negative and not always due to the school environment,’ Dr Weldon concludes.

According to Dr Weldon, teacher attrition is a far from monolithic phenomenon and is different for primary and secondary teachers, for permanent and contract teachers, and for those in metropolitan, regional and rural schools. ‘Attrition in recent Australian (research) literature is generally portrayed as high, negative, and specifically related to the context of employment – lack of support, burn out… – which ignores a number of other relevant contexts and issues such as short-term contracts and lack of ongoing positions, personal issues such as illness or family concerns, or choosing to leave to pursue an alternative career,’ Dr Weldon writes.

What may be described as attrition may, more properly, refer to teacher ‘moveage’ – the movement of teachers between schools – Dr Weldon notes. ‘Movement between schools, systems and sectors can be positive. No one expects teachers to stay in the same position for a lifetime. A promotion, a fresh environment, different colleagues, different challenges, different ways of doing things can be important for the health and career progression of employees in most industries. Leaving teaching for career or family reasons is also not necessarily negative for the individual.’

According to Dr Weldon, the attrition rate of early career teachers in Australia is an issue, not because it is worryingly high or an intractable problem of epidemic proportions, but because there is currently no reliable evidence. ‘The main issue is that the attrition rate in Australia is, in fact, not well established. It is unknown,’ he concludes. ■

Further information:

‘Early career teacher attrition in Australia: evidence, definition, classification and measurement,’ Dr Paul Weldon, is available free until mid-February 2018. 

Listen to Paul Weldon on early career teacher attrition in Australia in Teacher

RD

About the author

Dr Paul Weldon is a former Senior Research Fellow in ACER's Teaching and Learning research program.

More [rd] articles by Paul Weldon

View selected works of Paul Weldon

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