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Free school meals (FSM) and teacher turnover

The recent publication of the new data dashboard from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) sheds further light on teacher retention and attrition issues; an issue which, as the sector is painfully aware, continues to move in an unfavourable direction.

The data has been organised by geography (including by local authority), main teaching subject, and free school meal eligibility; the last of which has demonstrated some striking correlations.

The data has been organised into quintiles (fifths) by the proportion of pupils in each school who are eligible for free school meals (FSM). The following findings in particular display the challenging context that some school leaders and MATs are facing:

1. Higher levels of staff turnover

Not only does higher turnover have the potential to negatively impact the learning experience of students (see Second Time's the Charm? How Sustained Relationships from Repeat Student-Teacher Matches Build Academic and Behavioral Skills ( for an interesting paper on “looping”, i.e. having the same teacher for more than one year), but there are associated costs, such as advertising and recruitment. There are also broader pastoral issues to consider, such as relationships with students, parents and carers, and the local community.

2. Greater difficulty filling vacancies

A high turnover of staff is exacerbated when recruitment is harder and schools may have to rely on temporary contracts. This is a problem typically associated with smaller, rural settings, particularly the most isolated. However, it also appears to be affected by the amount of deprivation within the cohort; and all of this leads to a hidden cost which is very pronounced…

3. Much higher expenditure on supply teachers

The costings for the year shown above (2020) are as follows: from left to right £58, £74, £88, £99 and £127 per pupil.

That is a difference of £69 per pupil between the lowest and highest quintiles; a gap which is larger than the entire cost per head of the lowest quintile. Many leaders and trustees may be aware of the high costs that schools are spending on supply teaching; perhaps not as many are aware of the link to the deprivation level of their cohort.


This blog started with a simple set of data which shows that teacher turnover rates are not evenly distributed across schools. As a sector, we need to recognise this fact, and consider the motivations that may underpin the patterns. It should also be considered at a national level, particularly in terms of funding.

In terms of motivation, my initial response would be that higher levels of deprivation result in more challenging behaviour, as measured by suspensions and exclusions across our system. Such behaviours increase workload and stress for staff working in such settings, making supportive leadership, policies and processes even more vital for staff retention.

Additionally, my own teaching experience tells me that the most vulnerable students need the most stable and caring relationships; something which may be harder to foster with temporary teachers and higher turnover. Unfortunately, it feels like a situation in which ground can be lost. School leaders and managers may want to continue their focus on staff support by prioritising wellbeing and focusing on the creation and implementation of systems that enable them and their learners to thrive. Where staff feel valued and able to manage a healthy work-life balance, they are more likely to work positively and collaboratively over a longer period toward the vision of the school leadership - and to stay long term in the profession.

Kat Stern

Link to the dashboard: Explore by school type - NFER

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