Talking about my generation – schools must work hard to retain millennial generation

You can also read Michael’s most recent articles on recruitment and retention here:

• Schools should be proactive in responding to the recruitment challenge (2016):
• Recruiting heads, the most important decision a governing body will take? (2015):

Our Director, Michael Pain will be speaking at a number of the NCTL’s national ‘marketing for effective recruitment’ training events in the coming months, commencing in Cheltenham this coming Tuesday (1st November). Here he sets out why retention strategies should not be forgotten at a time when investment in teacher recruitment and training has never been more important. 

As we’ve said on many occasions, recruiting the best staff is paramount to the success of any school or organisation. Staff are a school’s most important resource and failure to attract and retain the most talented professionals quickly leads to overall organisational failure – however good the strategy or the leadership may be. When compared with other sectors of the economy, the education sector is still playing catch up in terms of the strategic thought and planning it gives to recruitment and retention of staff, which is astounding given that children’s successful learning and development depends so much on the quality of the adults who serve them.

It is therefore concerning that around 7,200 of the 24,100 newly qualified teachers who joined schools in November 2010 had left the profession by 2015, according to figures published by schools minister Nick Gibb. Around one in eight (13%) had left after just a year. Retention isn’t just an issue for education. Deloitte’s annual millennial survey has identified that 71% of UK millennials – those in the workforce born after 1982 – are expecting to leave their place of work within the next five years. This is by far the highest percentage in the world’s developed markets (the US was in second place with 64%, the average was 61%). For individual organisations – such as teaching schools, MATs and ITT providers – that are investing significant time, energy and resource in attracting and training this new generation of school-based employees, such a situation could be considered to be catastrophic. Losing highly qualified, high potential staff so early in their careers is a risk that every organisation should be addressing.

Many of those employees planning to leave their roles within five years were strongly of the view that their leadership skills are being underdeveloped. Millennials want and expect to take on some form of leadership role early on in their careers. Those that reported having a strong degree of loyalty to their employers were much more likely to agree that within their organisations: “there is a lot more support for those wishing to take on leadership roles” and that “younger employees are actively encouraged to aim for leadership roles.” The research also emphasised the importance that millennials attach to mentoring – a much valued avenue for personal growth, and the importance that the organisation they work for has a ‘strong sense of purpose’. Work/life balance also came out very strongly – as it always does in surveys of this generation.

What are the implications of this for the education sector? More schools are investing more than ever before in recruiting and developing their staff, but misjudging the needs and expectations of this new generation could prove to be both highly expensive and lead to significant instability.

First, it is clear that schools must be looking beyond employees’ experience during the initial recruitment and training period – critical though that is (we’ve covered this elsewhere: – and consider the medium- to long-term issue of what they do to retain these young employees. Indeed, by carefully considering and developing the strategies that build employee loyalty, the organisation in turn becomes more attractive to potential and new recruits (“no one ever wants to leave that school”) and there is also – as a consequence – less  need for investing intensively in future recruitment campaigns. Yet, it is our experience that – as with recruitment – many schools are not giving retention the strategic thought or planning it deserves.

Retention strategies, from our experience, are developed to varying degrees of success within schools and schools groups. These strategies – which emerge strongly from the evidence we have gathered over a number of years – include maintaining strong organisational vision and values that employees can genuinely relate to through their day to day work (vision too often sits in the leader’s office); a commitment to providing all staff with high quality professional development; opportunities for ‘stretch’ and working beyond traditional organisational boundaries (some school groups deploy staff across schools, others see cross-working and networking as the leader’s job); access to high quality mentors where appropriate; and a commitment to sustainable working practices (a huge issue for the sector as highlighted by the recent report by the EPI).

Some schools are better at delivering on these areas than others. Some assume, for instance, that having teaching school or MAT status puts them in a strong place to achieve many of these strategies – which it does – but merely being a delivery agent of the ‘big six’ for instance does not guarantee staff loyalty or a great employee experience. As the research itself suggests, management’s experience of the organisation can be very different to that of the employees. Achieving retention is an exercise requiring strategic planning and cultural leadership – yet too many leaders do not appreciate this.

Secondly, work/life balance crops up again and again for this generation. A workplace environment where teachers are working an average of 48 hours a week (see EPI research – October 2016) is not sustainable and – if the research is to be believed – staff who experience excessive workloads for sustained periods will move on. The best leaders anticipated this long ago, some are only just responding to the clarion calls for more sustainable working. The important thing is that leaders model the importance of wellbeing and sustainable working – anything that resembles lip service will not lead to cultural change and a better experience for employees. Leaders will always set the tone. A starting point for some school leaders has been to carefully consider how they can make the recommendations of the DfE’s workload challenge a reality in their schools, however, strategies can range from setting up wellbeing committees and undertaking regular wellbeing surveys of staff, through to a no-email policy at certain times of the week (e.g. Saturdays and Sunday mornings). I recently heard about a company in the Netherlands that insists that its employees spend a certain number of hours within the working week in the gym, on a walk or at a spa – a position that our workplace culture in the UK (and certainly our education system) is currently far away from accepting! Yet investing in employee wellbeing makes complete financial sense when one considers the cost of covering for staff absence or replacing staff who have moved on.

Thirdly, it is very clear that school leaders must recognise the leadership potential within all staff, and find opportunities for colleagues to develop that potential wherever possible. Indeed, someone once referred to the headteacher as Chief Talent Officer and that title has never been more appropriate. The recent emergence of the SLE role is just one excellent way in which schools can recognise and encourage leadership contributions beyond the traditional leadership career structures within schools. However, the research provides a stark warning that schools cannot lose sight of the need to provide teachers and other staff with leadership opportunities. We live an era – thanks in large part to technology – where people feel a greater sense of participation and empowerment across their lives, and millennials want to make a a contribution that reaches beyond the traditional boundaries of their job roles. This isn’t necessarily about giving people bigger pay packets or fancy job titles – school leaders must work hard to identify the unique talents of their staff and provide relevant leadership opportunities wherever possible. If they don’t, the danger is that schools will lose their high performers far too soon.

The education system still lags far behind many other sectors in terms of the strategic thought and planning that it gives to staff recruitment and retention. As with many issues, schools without strong leadership are often waiting for answers from above, but, as we regularly tell our audiences: “we cannot wait for great visions from great people, for at the end of history these are in short supply.” I’m proud that Forum Education continues to work with so many schools and providers who are forward-thinking, showing determined leadership and recognise the huge importance of attracting and retaining the very best people to serve children.

Michael Pain


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