Retaining more teachers is crucial for the education system, particularly at a time when there are not enough teachers coming into the profession to meet the growing need from rising student numbers. Unmanageable workload and low job satisfaction are significant factors determining teachers’ decision to stay in the profession or leave. To explore this further, NFER, in partnership with the Teacher Development Trust (TDT), looked at the relationship between professional autonomy and teachers’ job satisfaction and retention.

So, does a greater sense of autonomy relate to higher job satisfaction and retention in teaching? Our new research, the first large-scale quantitative study in England to look at teacher autonomy and retention, suggests that it does (Worth and Van den Brande, 2020).

Teacher surveys show that when teachers have a lot of influence over what they do in their job and how they do it, they are more likely to feel that they have a manageable workload, are more satisfied with their job, and are more likely to say that they intend to stay in teaching. This is an important insight for school leaders and we explore this in detail below.

What does autonomy mean? Moving the debate forward

The debate on autonomy tends to be based on rhetorical examples where the ‘right’ amount of autonomy seems self-evident, ranging from ‘why would a school prescribe how a teacher lays out their classroom?’ to ‘imagine the chaos if each teacher constructed and taught their own curriculum!’ This kind of polarised debate can mask key practical issues and insights for school leaders.

Our study reveals new and nuanced insights into how teacher autonomy varies between different areas of work, and identifies the areas where more autonomy could most help to motivate teachers. Interestingly, we find that increasing the amount of influence that teachers have over their professional development goals is associated with the largest gains in job satisfaction.

This is an important finding for school leaders when they are considering their school policies and culture around professional development. There is an opportunity to harness the benefits of teachers having greater involvement in their professional development goal-setting and making school-level decisions more widely. A TDT resource for school leaders that accompanies the new research provides guidance for schools on how to improve school systems in this area (Teacher Development Trust, 2020).

Autonomy matters for teachers’ motivation and sense of professionalism

One of the most important challenges facing any school leader is deciding how best to create working conditions that maximise staff motivation to perform well in their role. This challenge is easier where staff are intrinsically motivated to perform well at what leaders want them to achieve. However, some degree of direction is always necessary through forms of extrinsic motivation, where direction is enforced through regulation, sanctions and rewards.

Psychologists Deci and Ryan’s (2008) self-determination theory provides a framework for understanding the nature of motivation. This theory of motivation underpins our interest in teacher autonomy as a concept and its relationship with job satisfaction and retention.

The theory says that while intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can drive job performance, they have different implications for staff wellbeing and job satisfaction. Greater reliance on intrinsic motivation is thought to be associated with higher wellbeing and job satisfaction, while more reliance on extrinsic motivation can risk undermining staff members’ sense of feeling trusted and intrinsic motivation itself. Extrinsic motivation can then potentially lead to disengagement, burnout and leaving the profession.

Deci and Ryan (2008) outline three basic psychological needs that underpin intrinsic motivation:

  • competence – skills to perform well in one’s job
  • autonomy – direction over one’s own decisions and actions
  • relatedness – connection with, and support from, colleagues.

The theory suggests that these needs are interdependent. In other words, intrinsic motivation is likely to increase more if you have all three (competence, autonomy and relatedness) at the same time (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

In which aspects of their practice do teachers feel they have least and most autonomy over?

We used data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study ( to compare the self-reported autonomy of 1,243 teachers in England with individuals in other professional occupations. We statistically adjusted the composition of age, gender, region and highest qualification in the group of professionals to ensure that these characteristics were as similar as possible to the group of teachers, allowing us to compare like with like.

The data shows that the average teacher has lower autonomy compared to similar professionals. Teachers report a much lower level of autonomy over their working hours, which is unsurprising given the set term times and school hours when teachers are required to be teaching. However, teachers also report lower autonomy over what tasks they do, the order in which they carry out tasks, the pace at which they work and how they do their job, areas that are particularly relevant for workload manageability.

Data from our representative survey of 1,144 teachers in March 2019 shows that autonomy varies considerably between different areas of teachers’ work. Teachers report higher levels of influence over classroom activities, such as the teaching methods they use and how they plan lessons, and lower levels of autonomy over curriculum, assessment and their professional development goals.

Autonomy is strongly associated with higher teacher job satisfaction and retention

Our analysis finds that teacher autonomy is strongly associated with job satisfaction, as Deci and Ryan’s (2008) self-determination theory suggests. Around four in 10 teachers with the lowest autonomy report low job satisfaction, compared to less than one in 10 among those with the highest autonomy.

Job satisfaction is an important factor associated with teachers’ intentions and decisions to stay in the profession (Lynch et al., 2016; Worth et al., 2018). Autonomy is also strongly correlated with the likelihood of teachers intending to stay in the profession in the next 12 months. Teachers’ intentions to leave are not the same as their actions, and correlation does not necessarily imply a causal relationship. However, these associations do strongly suggest that teacher autonomy is an important influence on job satisfaction and retention.

Autonomy is associated with workload manageability, but not with working hours

Unmanageable workload is consistently the most-cited reason that ex-teachers give for why they left the profession (Lynch et al., 2016; DfE, 2017). Workload is often conceptualised simply as the number of hours that teachers work, or how much time they spend on different activities, but ‘it is also about teachers feeling in control of their work’ (DfE, 2019).

Research by Sims (2017) found a relationship between the extent to which a teacher regards their workload as manageable and job satisfaction, but no relationship between working hours and job satisfaction. Our analysis of teacher autonomy echoes these findings, suggesting that autonomy is a key part of the relationship between unmanageable workload, job satisfaction and retention.

Teacher autonomy is strongly related to the extent to which teachers regard their workload as manageable and teachers’ satisfaction with their amount of leisure time. When teachers feel more in control of what they do and how they work, they tend to experience a better work–life balance.

Does this mean that teachers, once in control, reduce their effort? We found no evidence of this, as teacher autonomy is unrelated to the number of hours that teachers work. Most teachers entered the profession for reasons relating to intrinsic factors such as influencing the development of children and young people and contributing to society (Jerrim and Sims, 2019). Autonomy can particularly enhance motivation where people are inherently already intrinsically motivated.

Implications for school leaders and teachers

A strong association between teacher autonomy and job satisfaction suggests that increasing autonomy is likely to be beneficial for motivating and retaining staff. However, the link with staff retention is only part of the picture for school leaders, for two main reasons.

Firstly, leaders are responsible for ensuring that the school operates with the necessary coherence to deliver good student outcomes. School leaders can and should shape what teachers do to some extent, and this can involve balancing autonomy and alignment. This need not always be a straight trade-off between the two, and effective leadership can combine high alignment with high autonomy. School improvement should be underpinned by a compelling overarching vision and meaningful staff involvement and engagement to ensure their buy-in. This can maximise the benefits of teachers working both coherently towards shared organisational goals and with a high degree of professional autonomy.

Secondly, our research explores the nuances behind which areas of teachers’ work are most associated with positive teacher outcomes, to inform school leaders about how they can best harness autonomy to improve teacher satisfaction and retention. We find that teachers’ autonomy over their professional development goals is the factor most associated with higher job satisfaction. Autonomy over professional development goals does not necessarily mean teachers having total freedom to choose their professional development goals and activities. Indeed, there is mixed evidence about whether complete choice is effective (Kennedy, 2016; Maandag et al., 2016; Cordingley et al., 2015).

Based on this finding, it could be particularly beneficial for school leaders to think about helping teachers to see the relevance of professional development to their individual needs, their students’ needs and the wider organisational goals. It suggests a benefit in involving teachers in choosing goals, albeit not necessarily giving them total control, and ensuring that teachers can have some autonomy in how they choose to meet these goals. Equally, teachers should consider reflecting on their professional development goals and proactively bringing these into regular conversations with mentors and/or line managers.

More generally, it is likely to be beneficial for school leaders to encourage a culture where open conversations about the optimal balance between alignment and autonomy are welcomed. School leaders should consider incorporating a teacher autonomy lens into regular reviews of teaching and learning policies. These reviews should cover both the written policies and, importantly, the culture around how they are enacted in practice.

When reviewing a school’s approach to the design and delivery of professional development, exploring the extent to which teachers feel that professional development is relevant and that they have input into the design and content is key.


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