5 reasons to focus on retaining your best staff

March 22, 2018
Stephen Jones

Stephen Jones

Director of School Partnerships in the South, Ambition School Leadership

We all know that a school is not the building – it is the people.

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This blog is part of Ambition:Feed's finding and keeping great staff challenge. Find more tips and discussion on the Ambition:Feed homepage.

That means a great school is not evidenced by a brand-new architectural gem, but the children who learn and the adults who enable them to learn. Pupil numbers are increasing and we must ensure the number of high quality teachers and school leaders keeps pace. How can school leaders make sure that pupils have the teachers they need?

From the discussions I have with leaders around the country, I think that retention is the key to this challenge.

1. Develop all your staff

Recruitment is important but it’s not the only answer to the staffing challenges that many heads face. Lots of people are still training to become teachers but 27% leave five years after qualifying. To quote Stephen Tierney at an event I attended last year, “We won’t recruit our way out of this problem, we have to focus on retention.”

We should start by looking at why people leave. Ruth Malloy, Global Management Director at Hay Group, says people leave for one of two reasons: their line manager or the lack of opportunity to develop and grow.

That suggests an obvious solution: help the line managers that you manage to become more effective and provide opportunities for all the people you work with to develop.

2. Development can be simple

When developing a new skill in any organisation, the tendency is to go on a training course. Research from Deloitte shows that it is how the learning from a course is embedded back into the organisation that is what has the real impact. 

One of the most effective ways to do it is through stretch assignments. This enables you to support a colleague while they do something new and challenging – so they can experiment and practice but be confident that you have their back.

We do this as part of our Future Leaders and Teaching Leaders programmes and people always tell me how useful their stretch project was in their development. So work with your team to identify and deliver a project that will be important for the school – and watch them grow. 

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3. Great leaders make all the difference

We can identify a number of points at which different people either leave the profession or don’t progress. Their prevalence suggests that targeted support might give people what they need to continue and thrive.

These points include:

  • The first five years – 27% of teachers leave in the first five years
  • Aspiring to headship – surveys show that may people regard headship as increasingly unattractive
  • The need for flexible working - more than a quarter of the teachers of working age who left the profession between 2008 and 2012 were women aged 30 to 39
  • The lack of diversity – only 1.4% of headteachers identify as BAME and only 38% of headteachers are female

These are very different scenarios that effect different groups of people but all of them are key factors in the recruitment challenges the sector faces. I see excellent initiatives at both system and school level which aim to overcome these breakpoints – but ultimately it will be great leaders that ensure any initiative is successful.

4. Highlight the different careers paths

There will be many reasons that people leave a school or the entire sector, but it’s worth bearing in mind for your development conversations with staff that the sector has many different career paths worth exploring.

The growth of academy trusts and other school groups have meant that the traditional hierarchy no longer applies. Trusts still need these structures within schools but they may also have cross-school curriculum experts who work with middle leaders, or regional directors, who give targeted support to heads. There are also a whole host of non-educational roles such as finance, HR and communications which staff could choose to pursue as their next career move.

A colleague may not want to work in a school anymore but it would be worth them considering if they could still contribute to the sector in other ways. This is especially true where it relates to people with a passion for social justice and a deep moral purpose – they could still support children from disadvantaged backgrounds by working with a trust that runs schools in challenging contexts.

5. Think long term

Anything to do with an institution like a school needs to be seen as a marathon rather than a sprint, so making sure great staff  stay in your school will only happen by consistently offering people the things they want and need.

That will take time, effort and good responses when mistakes are made. But you will have a school that people are committed to because they know the school is committed to them.

As the other Feed blogs this month have discussed, there are lots of ways that leaders at all levels can increase retention. Executive leaders or heads can mandate flexible working policies that make senior roles more accessible - and anyone with any leadership responsibility can offer their line reports mentoring, development support or just a ‘thank you’ for great work.

And as Nick Brook, NAHT Deputy General Secretary, wrote for this blog, you counter-intuitively want people to leave when the time is right for them. Schools are learning organisations – and that applies to the adults, just as much as the children. And a teacher who is always learning is likely to be a happy teacher.


Do you have a top tip for retaining staff? Get involved in the discussion over at Ambition:Feed - tweet us using #ambitionfeed or join our Facebook group. 

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