Having worked in HR for the best part of 25 years, almost eight of which has been as part of a multi academy trust, what is clear to me is that although the makeup of a teaching trade union is different from that of a leadership of a trust, their fundamental roles should, in theory be highly complementary.
They both have a duty to put the wellbeing of their teaching and support staff members at the heart of what they do, with a view to championing change that improves the lives of those involved, ensuring they are recognised and rewarded and that they are able to focus on their core role as educators. At Focus Trust, we have placed considerable emphasis on the wellbeing of our teachers and support staff and have invested heavily in a whole host of tools and tactics to ensure staff feel connected and supported.
This includes scheduled, termly meeting opportunities for members across all of our 15 primary academies to meet up face to face (or via remote technology if more appropriate under current circumstances) to share their ideas, learn from one another and implement different ways of thinking; to take the opportunity to share their experiences, and explore how different ways of working are affecting them both positively and negatively. Feedback is taken on board, and where necessary changes are made. In doing this, and in order to be an employer of choice, we have recognised the role of the unions and embraced a collaborative approach. We make every effort to interact with our trade union representatives to not only respond and react to concerns raised, but to genuinely engage on the key topics and potential changes that affect members and teaching and support staff.
We can only succeed if we work as a team. Where we want to adopt new policies and new ways of working, we have a system by which we consult with them beforehand to get their views. It’s proved invaluable in the past and demonstrates to our staff that we are listening.
With the support of our unions we were able to develop our appraisal policy into a more developmental process underpinned by coaching and all staff and leaders have engaged positively with this. These relationships are, arguably, now never more important as staff members return to school.
Over the last six months support and teaching staff have had to put themselves on the front line, work through holiday periods and adapt to be able to support children both in and outside the classroom. Their working terms and requirements were turned upside down and previously set plans and objectives became obsolete overnight.
While we do our utmost to adopt policies and ways of working that are right for all, and our open relationship with our teaching and support staff means that they can feed in and speak to us about any concerns, the additional input of the Unions is greatly valued. Over the last term and in the runup to all pupils returning, we worked to put measures in place to provide support and reassurance to staff, including individual risk assessments and one-to-one video meetings to discuss individual needs.
The Trust has now also developed orientation videos for teaching and support staff, children and families to show how the layout of facilities has changed to respond to the need of social distancing and where facilities such as hand sanitiser can be found in the building. PPE has also been made available alongside comprehensive training given to provide staff with the knowledge and skills to support as safe a return to work as possible. What is important to us as a trust is that we want to do more than just tick boxes when it comes to meeting the needs of our teaching and support staff – both as we return to school, and beyond.
Due to our established formal and informal relationship with representatives, we feel we can be transparent when speaking to them, ultimately learning, and benefiting from their knowledge and experience of where things have not gone so smoothly elsewhere.
Equally, this helps identify any problems early on and doesn’t let them fester. That’s why I am now having weekly meetings with representatives over video to make sure we can continue to monitor the ongoing situation.
Unfortunately, I’m aware there is still evidence to suggest that in many cases the interaction between trade union and trust representatives does not always run as smoothly as it should. Obviously, the success of any collaboration will not grow overnight, but that shouldn’t discourage you and your team in looking at ways you can strengthen your relationship to help you both achieve.
Steps you should take
- Communication is key and it is never too late to review or change a policy if it is in the best needs of your teaching and support staff. As we all return to school things are going to be very different from before and it will not only be disconcerting for pupils but staff as well.
- Make it a priority to meet with your representatives from different unions and work to establish new ways of working this year. I’d recommend focussing on one area at first, you will see results this way and it will encourage both parties to focus on a continued improvement process rather than a quick fix or change.
- If there are schools within your Trust which demonstrate stronger working relationships than others focus on a peer review learning where both schools can benefit from one another.
- Ultimately, we are all in this together and only time will tell what the upcoming term will bring. So, we all need to continue listening and communicating to one another to help support our entire networks to help improve lives and ensure excellence in the provision of education.
Claire Livingstone, Head of HR at Focus Trust