The last 18 months have been challenging. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused mass disruption of the education system and staff have been put under even more pressure than normal. The wellbeing of education staff is consistently lower than the general population, stress levels remain high and significant numbers of teachers and support staff have either left the profession or are thinking of leaving.

In fact, recent data indicates that almost one in six teachers in England quit after just a year in the classroom. That’s the highest figure on record.

What can be done?

1. Find out why people are leaving

If you're seeing an exodus of people from your workplace, do you know why they are leaving? Is it about pay? Or are they unhappy with other elements of their working environment, their workload or the culture of the organisation? You won't know the answers to these questions unless you ask. Exit interviews are useful, but not everyone is willing to be honest about their reasons for leaving during a face to face interview and it can be helpful to ask them to complete a short survey as well (or instead of) having a meeting.

That said, many people may feel awkward about telling you the truth, particularly if they need you to provide them with a job reference etc. If you want honest feedback, you need to be big enough to receive it and must be able to genuinely reassure your staff that it will not negatively impact on their future prospects.

Once you have this information, you can ascertain whether there are any trends emerging and decide whether you can do anything to reduce the numbers of people leaving. In this context it’s helpful to understand whether they are leaving the profession or are moving to a different school or college.

2. Conduct employee surveys

Conducting regular surveys is a good way to test the pulse of your organisation and may help you to identify and resolve issues at an early stage. Staff will usually only answer surveys honestly if a) their responses are confidential b) you don't ask too many questions and concentrate on the important stuff and c) they have faith that the organisation will actually listen to what they say.

If you don’t know where to start, there are good resources on-line. For example, the Anna Freud organisation has a free survey and supporting documentation designed to help schools and FE colleges understand the importance of staff wellbeing and provide them with the support they need. The hub4leaders also has a useful survey you can download free of charge. 

You must be willing to share the results and explain what steps your organisation will take to make changes and how long you expect this to take. This requires open communication. You won’t be able to change everything, so concentrate on what you can. And don’t forget that small things can have a big impact, such as asking staff not to send emails last thing on a Friday night or over the weekend as this can generate a culture where staff feel under pressure to respond immediately and don't rest properly.

3. Collaborate with other schools/colleges in your area

Some specialist teachers are in high demand and we’re seeing an increase in the numbers of schools/colleges that are poaching staff by offering them higher salaries, temporary supplements or more attractive benefit packages. Whilst that might solve your problem in the short-term it’s not sustainable. Budgets are tight and if you use money to pay some teachers more than you’d anticipated where are you going to make up the shortfall? Plus, paying one group of people significantly more than others is likely to alienate your other staff and may make it more likely they will go elsewhere. It could also make future negotiations with unions around pay much trickier.

Some organisations have used their senior networking groups to raise concerns about pay inflation in hard to recruit roles and have reached informal agreements not to increase salaries beyond a set level with other schools/colleges operating in the same area. 

You can’t buy loyalty. Offering plumbers and engineers financial incentives to teach practical courses won’t mean that they will remain with you long-term. With the right contractual documentation in place, you may be able to claw back part of the incentive payment you handed over to persuade them to join you, if they leave within a specified period of time. But you won’t be able to prevent them moving somewhere else if they want to earn more or they don’t like the culture of your school/college.

One other thing to note: you may want to put in place a market factor supplementary policy which explains the circumstances in which you may pay more than the existing pay scale to recruit and retain staff, how this is approved and the processes you follow before paying a supplement. 

4. 'Re-brand' yourself

This is about promoting what you can offer to staff beyond their basic salary and tapping into the psychology of what people are looking for from a job. What does your school or college offer that others don't? Being known as an organisation that genuinely cares about its staff and puts their welfare first will be an attractive selling point for many teachers and support staff. Your existing staff can be your greatest advocates – treat them well and they will encourage other people to apply.  

It's also important to attract people who may not have considered using their skills to teach. Many colleges are struggling to recruit plumbers, engineers and other tradespeople to teach practical skills because they can earn more on the open market. But, they may not be aware that they could work part-time and could continue to perform their trade for part of the week elsewhere. If they are self-employed, they may not know how much paid holiday they'll receive as a teacher (which is a big bonus) or the contributions they'll receive towards a pension. 

You could also emphasise that working in a school/college may give them an opportunity to have a better work/life balance, have financial security and to give something back to the community.

5. Invest in training

Make sure that your staff know how you can help them improve their skills and progress within your organisation. Upskilling staff through training and development courses will help them to keep up to date with new approaches and the skills required in their role.

It might be helpful to also set up a mentorship scheme which matches experienced workers with new recruits. This can help bridge knowledge gaps and help more inexperienced staff feel supported.

6. Up-skill line managers

Line managers have an important role in setting the tone of the organisation. Some are naturally good at handling people and having difficult conversations, but many aren't. If you help them to improve they will be better placed to deal with issues promptly, minimise the risk of problems escalating or festering.

7. Improve your recruitment process

Make sure that your recruitment process is efficient and friendly. If it isn't candidates may be put off working for you and may turn down your offer if they already have another one on the table. Good candidates are always in high demand and will often have more than one job offer to consider.

Your offer letter should be modernised and written in plain English. Aim to combine the basic facts of the job with a welcoming tone. Let the candidates know when you expect to make a decision and get the offer letter out quickly and delivered by email. Invite the candidate to come back to you if they have any questions about the offer or anything else about the role and make sure that you are available to discuss any issues they do raise promptly (and preferably by telephone).

One other point is to recognise that we all have biases and personal experiences that lead us to think in ways that are automatic. We tend to gravitate towards people who are like us (affinity bias) and look for evidence that tends to confirm what we already think (confirmation bias). That's a problem when it comes to recruitment. Interviewers need to base their decisions on evidence rather than generalising and learn to recognise their own unconscious biases.

8. Get your contracts right

It’s also sensible to review your contracts of employment particularly if you haven’t reviewed them in a while. 

How much notice do employees have to give if they want to leave? Can you increase this?

Are you thinking about offering a supplement to new recruits in positions that are difficult to fill? Will you pay this as a lump sum when they start or pay it over several months? Do you want to recover some of this if the employee leaves within, say, 12 months? Is the supplement going to be offered on a temporary or permanent basis? Your contracts of employment need to be carefully drafted to ensure that these issues are clear and unambiguous and tie in with any other relevant policies you have (such as a market factor supplementary policy).    

It’s also worth thinking about whether you should include restrictive covenants in the contracts of employment of your senior leadership and management teams. Whilst, usually, you won’t be able to prevent them working for someone else, you may be able to stop them from poaching other members of staff when they leave.

Restrictive covenants are only enforceable to the extent that they are necessary and protect a legitimate interest (such as the stability of your workforce) and go no further than is necessary to achieve that. You may therefore need legal help to ensure that your contracts are properly drafted.

We can help

We have a suite of 'back to basics' training for line managers which are designed to give managers the tools they need to proactively manage the key employment law issues they encounter in their day to day lives, identify key risks and know when to raise these with HR at an early stage.

The online format means that modules can be accessed at any time and completed at each manager’s own pace – perfect for busy schedules. Most modules come with an accompanying workbook allowing managers to put their knowledge into practice.

As there’s no limit on the number of managers that can access the modules once purchased, this is a cost-effective option for you to upskill line managers. The training would also be suitable for junior HR professionals.

We also offer unconscious bias training to help interviews find the best candidate for the role.

Please contact Jenny Arrowsmith for more information.