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Recruitment and retention: three things schools are doing while government prevaricates

… and 10 questions to consider, offered by Brian Lightman, former head of ASCL and now an education consultant…

In my current role I have the privilege of working with a large number of schools of all kinds in many different parts of England. In spite of all of the wonderful things they are doing to give their students the very best start in life, not one of them has told me that recruitment is anything less than a massive challenge.

They also tell me that retention is just as much of a problem, compounding the issue as the Education Select Committee recently highlighted. Schools are losing good teachers as well as potential or serving school leaders at an alarming rate, for a host of reasons.

However, this blog is not about the problem which has been so well documented that even the denial at ministerial level is becoming more muted. Instead I want to put together a list of characteristics which, from my experience, appear to help and, at the end of this article, some questions to consider.

There is one caveat however. This is not another set of platitudes stating that it is simply down to good leadership. No school will crack this without serious action from government. Nevertheless I am most definitely seeing examples of characteristics and strategies that seem to help.

I have summarised these characteristics under the following headings:

  • professional and career development
  • employment practice
  • the external image of the school.

Central to all of this is a climate and ethos which values, supports and trusts staff in ways which are tangible and explicit. So much policy is driven by a culture of culpability and blame*. Staff want to work in schools which have a climate that rejects that ethos without compromising the drive to do the very best for every child.

Such schools have strong systems to ensure that everyone can teach without interruption and that they can ask for help if in difficulty, without blame. Such schools are happy places where those in leadership roles smile, are interested in the wellbeing of staff and, to use Tim Brighouse’s wonderful phrase, display ‘unwarranted optimism’.

However difficult the challenges the schools face, middle and senior leaders know that they are paid to deal with these and shield their staff from these pressures. Having said that, they balance that with a degree of openness which enables staff to contribute their ideas and suggestions.

I would emphasise that the schools with fewer difficulties are by no means only in ‘leafier’ areas. A culture of the kind I have describe can and does exist in all kinds of contexts.

Professional and career development

The strongest emphasis is placed on this. Explicitly promoted and valued by the governing body and headteacher, professional development is the main responsibility of a very senior leader, supported by a team who provide bespoke programmes for all staff. The programmes are valued and bought into. In spite of budget pressures, these schools protect CPD as an essential investment.

This is certainly about far more than sending people on courses or briefing them about the latest statutory requirements. Instead, staff are given opportunities to become involved in action research, curriculum development projects, coaching and mentoring. And they are provided with opportunities to develop their own leadership skills, for example by chairing an ad hoc working group to review an aspect of the school’s operation and come up with solutions for its future development.

Integral to this is the opportunity to shadow other staff, leadership team meetings, etc. Much of this can be achieved even when budgets are tight.

There is also clarity about career routes, with a healthy and continuous dialogue with all staff about their own journey. It is important to highlight that there is more than one career route for teachers. One of these should certainly be a pathway for those who wish to continue and develop further as highly experienced and expert classroom teachers, who can be tremendous role models to less experienced colleagues.

Schools ensure that some of their best teachers want to progress to lead departments and whole schools in order to share their expertise and skills and make a difference to the lives of greater numbers of young people. Schools take succession planning seriously with clear routes into school leadership. They identify and develop the most effective teachers, who can create the conditions in which less experienced colleagues can develop their skills and expertise. They support and encourage ambitious and able staff, but also show them how complex school leadership is.

One of the benefits of working in partnership with other schools, in whatever structure exists, is the opportunity for succession planning to be carefully planned with opportunities for experience beyond one school.

I believe that the best preparation for potential senior leaders is to have had a range of responsibilities before progressing to headship. While that does not mean waiting for years on end, the reality is that in some cases people who have been promoted too quickly have made big and sometimes career-ending mistakes because they were not properly prepared. This is a real risk in the present recruitment context, which has to be addressed strategically.

In order to have credibility, teachers must have been in the classroom long enough to take groups through to examination level and develop the skills and knowledge to undertake a more senior post. Schools that do this most effectively harness the enthusiasm and abilities of young, ambitious teachers by enabling them to develop thorough carefully planned programmes.

Whileet I hope that the Chartered College of Teaching will ultimately be able to bring some clarity to routes into and through teacher and school leadership, this is a long-term aim. But that is not a reason for inaction now.

Employment practice

The issue of teacher workload is well known. The long-hours culture that has prevailed for far too long has been fuelled by hyper-accountability and constant externally imposed and poorly planned change. In the current financial climate there is a significant risk of this continuing or intensifying. While this is a national policy issue, some schools are making a real difference to staff morale and retention:

  • Leaders shield staff and protect them from additional pressures which potentially follow every ministerial announcement. They have the confidence to focus on this.
  • Roles and responsibilities are planned in ways that make jobs manageable. Giving people additional responsibilities, even with the best intentions, without also giving them the time and capacity to do the job is one of the biggest causes of stress and quickest ways of losing staff. British teachers already have less time for preparation and marking that their counterparts in many other countries, so expectations have to be reasonable.
  • Jobs are matched effectively to staff skills and experience; and staff are coached, mentored and supported to enable them to do the best job they can.
  • Seemingly small things like recognition, ensuring that the working environment is comfortable, and appropriate equipment are prioritised.
  • All staff are empowered to feel that they have a real stake in the development of the school. Their opinions are sought and their ideas and suggestions welcomed by an accessible leadership team.

A common misconception is that this is all about pay. There is a big issue with the erosion of teachers’ pay – but these other aspects are at least as if not more important.

The external image of the school

A direct consequence of what has been written above is that word gets round about schools which have this climate and culture, and people want to work in them. This is not about explicit marketing or getting the right sales pitch: it’s about word of mouth.

Teachers are now more networked than ever. Communication takes place on social media and when teachers meet. When I ask teachers why they applied to work in a particular school or have stayed in there and progressed, they are quite clear about this. They can afford to be choosy and use this freedom.

A final reminder. The last thing I would wish to imply is that schools which are struggling to retain staff are in some way at fault. There are so many factors that affect this and there are undoubtedly many schools that are doing everything they possibly could to try to address the problem, but without success. For the sake of all our young people, I hope that the current and future governments take the problem seriously very soon.

General questions for school leaders to consider:

  • On a scale of one (low down) to ten (very top), where would you place retention among the myriad priorities facing you? Do you have a clear strategy?
  • Have you considered initiating a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of the climate in your school – involving key staff whose retention will be of particular benefit to the school?
  • How do you assess the extent to which staff feel valued?
  • How do you elicit feedback from recently appointed staff about their reasons for applying and their early experiences?
  • How do you elicit feedback from all staff about the less tangible aspects of the school climate that make them enthusiastic about working in the school?
  • How do you shield and protect your staff from pressures placed on the school by external factors?
  • What steps are being taken to promote staff wellbeing? How do you assess the impact?
  • Are exit interviews conducted? How are these reviewed?
  • To what extent are professional development conversations with line and/or senior managers – beyond formal performance management processes – embedded in the culture of the school?
  • Does each member or group of staff have some kind of programme for their professional learning? How are these developed?

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