Monday, 6 April 2015
The birth of a zombie statistic
Last week the "i" newspaper splashed on a startling statistic: "40% of teachers leave within one year". It has since been repeated in the Guardian, Times, Mail, Observer and probably hundreds of other places.* It was cited in this weeks' Any Questions. It's been tweeted by thousands of people.
The only problem is that it's entirely untrue. 9% of teachers leave in their first year (Table C2). It's been 9 or 10% a year every year for the last 20 years. This isn't particularly interesting; it isn't news; but it is true.
The 40% figure comes from ATL - who press released the numbers to generate publicity for their annual conference. To be fair to ATL they never claimed that 40% of teachers leave within the first year. Their claim was that 40% of those who achieve qualified teacher status (QTS) aren't teaching after a year - this includes people who qualified but then never went into a teaching job in the first place. They generated this number by adding the 9% who leave in the first year to another table showing 10,800 people (roughly a third) who achieved QTS in 2011 never started teaching (Table I2).
Even if this number was correct all the newspaper reports would still be wrong because they're making a claim about the numbers who start teaching and then leave within a year. However, the 10,800 number is also wrong because it is generated from pensions data which omits certain groups of people. The correct data to use if you want to see how many people gain QTS and then don't start teaching is here in Table 5. This shows just 15% of those who gained QTS in 2012 were either not in a teaching job or had an "unknown" status six months after completion. It was 16% in 2011 (Table 1).
This matters because the 40% figure creates a false narrative about a profession in crisis. I agree with ATL that teacher workload is too high - often driven by nonsense compliance rules around marking and planning. I agree that it's a very stressful and tiring job and that many first year teachers don't get the support they need. But the vast majority of those who start teaching do stay and succeed. Exaggerating the problem through dodgy statistics risks putting off new entrants to the profession - which we really can't afford to do at the moment given an improving economy and changes to teacher training are creating serious recruitment issues.
*Massive credit to Schools Week for being the only publication to realise there was something dodgy about the statistic.