I asked my personal assistant to ping over the remaining job applications for our teacher vacancies.
“Only two have come, through,” I said, “can you send the rest?”
“Umm…there are only two, Lara,” came the hesitant response.
As a headteacher, my world was full of endless recruitment campaigns and the sense of dread when the next knock on the office door meant another person was leaving, even when it was for lovely reasons like having a baby (five in 18 months – people got busy in lockdown).
Headline upon headline paints a picture of post-pandemic direction changes; people have questioned their existing roles and decided enough is enough. Teacher retention was a big enough issue pre Covid, now school leaders are facing a staffing exodus.
So how do we attract staff into roles and how do we keep them?
Should I stay or should I go?
What is the tipping point for staff? Of course, it is different for each role within the sector, but there are parallels between them.
A basic living wage is a good start. Teaching assistants are often on, or close to, national minimum wage.
Being a teaching assistant can be hugely rewarding, but it can also be demanding, both emotionally and physically.
There are only so many doughnuts we can put in the staff room to recognise how TAs go above and beyond daily.
Does TA pay recognise the varied challenges and the demands of difficult behaviour? Rewarding teaching assistants with the remuneration they deserve would make the role competitive in the job market; right now, it is not the most attractive of prospects.
However, school leaders and teacher’s pay are, in the main, considered to be fair; £25,714 a year is regarded a decent starting salary with the opportunity to swiftly work up the career ladder. So, why are one in six new teachers walking away within a year?
If it isn’t money, then what is the reason? The demands of Covid certainly upped the ante for both teachers and leaders.
I sometimes felt like I powered through that first year of Covid, firefighting, moving from day to day and hour to hour not knowing what would come next, just dealing with it. I think a lot of staff in school felt the same way.
Once we had a few minutes to breathe we realised it had all been too much. That, coupled with the day-to-day challenges of being an educator, have tipped people over the edge and led them to look at other career options.
Turning away from a secure career and income is a big choice and a big risk for staff to take. And yet many are doing it. How can that tide change?
Challenges and strategies
Headteacher colleagues shared their experiences, strategies and despair at the current retention situation.
“I cannot recruit admin staff for love nor money,” one told me. “I have failed three times to recruit a SBM and now two times to recruit an office manager.
“TA recruitment is also almost impossible due to low wages and challenging children. In response, we have various working parties to address staff issues and close governor involvement. I run clinics for staff drop ins, regular surveys and have recently promoted someone as a staff wellbeing lead.”
Another said he had considered staff workload, removed bureaucratic paperwork and ensured they could work from home where possible.
He’d also provided mentors, promoted social events, listened to ideas (allowing time for them to be implemented) and, importantly, remembered to say ‘thank you’ and celebrate successes.
Meanwhile the director of a multi-academy trust told me that the “only way is to work on staff’s sense of worth. Forget extra pay, incentives, free tea, coffee etc - teachers aren’t motivated by that stuff and soon forget it.”
It’s clear that school leaders are fully focused on approaches to attract and retain staff, even in the face of extreme adversity (though I’m not really sure teachers are quick to forget a pay rise!).
Five ways to attract staff (and keep them)
How can leaders and, ultimately, government shift the direction of travel and avoid the exodus? There are ‘big ideas’ and then there are the ‘quick fixes’ - this is a bit of both, and includes strategies that worked for me:
- Time. This is the golden ticket in the Wonka bar. In the summer term we gave every teacher an extra afternoon, spent in school doing what they needed to do, and I covered classes. We also set up an afternoon tea for all TAs while senior leaders supported 1:1s in class. Staff felt valued. PPA at home is an easy win.
- Expectations. We must be realistic. When asking any member of staff to do something, ask yourself “How will this help our children to progress?” It is amazing how many things can drop off the list when you stop for a second and ask that.
- Be kind. Empathy is key to staff retention. Listening, even when you know you have a million things on your ‘to do’ list, is important. For an inset I made every member of staff an aromatherapy relaxing oil and gave it to them in a goody bag. It took time, but it was worth it. Kindness needs to come from the top and permeate through everything.
- Training and opportunities. I am not talking about the dreaded performance management. I mean specific, considered opportunities to give your team CPD that aligns with your school improvement priorities, whilst also acknowledging their strengths and passions. Budget does not always need to be a constraint; there are amazing courses and open-source content out there to tap into.
- Reform at the top. Education is archaic at points - a Victorian model ripe for change. We need to shift and move and be dynamic in how we teach children, what we teach, how we structure learning and how schools are managed from the top down. We must pay staff fairly, but the expectation to increase wages from existing budgets is unrealistic. Buildings are crumbling, IT hardware does not meet need, and SEND needs a serious overhaul. Leaders need to be brave and take these issues up with governors and unions. It’s the big stuff that will really make a difference in staff retention and recruitment.
Education should be an exciting and enticing career to pursue, but it is a little broken. It needs love and attention and the focus of government to make some serious changes.
Lara Jeffries is a former headteacher, turned educational consultant.