The key to being an employer of choice? Know your staff well

The key to being an employer of choice? ‘Know’ your staff

Back in January, the Department for Education launched its recruitment and retention strategy. The report was encouraging – but it emerged quickly, and without much in the way of initial consultation with the sector. So – in May – CEOs and trustees from across our six regional #TrustLeaders networks came together in Southwell for our fourth policy roundtable; this time to consider the recruitment and retention challenges and the specifics of the new government strategy.

There is no doubt that the recruitment and retention challenge is enormous. However, both economic data and feedback from leaders in other sectors tells us that this is a challenge that is not confined to the world of education. That means that we cannot afford to view the issue or seek solutions simply from ‘the bubble’ of the education sector.  The economy, as a whole, faces ‘a perfect storm’ – there are more vacancies nationally than since the turn of the century, more people heading into retirement or part-time working/ self-employment than ever before, and employee expectations are evolving rapidly. Employees know they have a lot of choice and they’re making big demands of their employers! Great organisations will listen and respond carefully in order to remain just that – ‘great’.

We cannot afford to view the issue or seek solutions simply from ‘the bubble’ of the education sector.

Within this broader context, two big issues in particular face the education sector. The perception of high workload and poor flexibility. More than one third of teachers leave the profession after five years of teaching, and the main reason they give is their workload. The longstanding culture of extensive planning, marking, data collection and observation are all playing their part – often driven by a ‘high stakes’ accountability system. This is one area where the DfE and Ofsted can try to change and reset the tone – and the strategy, encouragingly, promises to do so (as does the new Ofsted framework). Leaders too, must be courageous enough to draw the line and many have done so long before this strategy. The workplace culture – generated by a trust or a school’s leadership – it was agreed, matters most.

Read our case study on the Embark Federation’s approach to ensuring a culture for excellent staff recruitment and retention: #TrustLeaders Resources:

Meanwhile, other sectors are responding astutely to the demand for flexibility. We hear a lot about a new generation of employees who want to be mobile and prioritise work life balance, but we must also not forget those people mid-way through their careers who are now becoming carers of both the younger and older generation. More people than ever before are living into their eighties and nineties, and mid-career workers are at the frontline of caring for them.

So, what does the roundtable report recommend?

Trustee commitment

Before a trust can become an employer of choice, it is crucial that trustees prioritise the issue, making staff satisfaction and retention a key measure of organisational success. It is important that staffing is a standing agenda item at board meetings, that the board is assured that an employer of choice strategy is in place, and that CEOs and executives are held to account by the board for staff satisfaction and retention over the long-term. Recent research has shown how important it is that organisations, including academy trusts, have sophisticated and routine insights into staffing issues – and all trusts should be surveying their staff (at least on an annual basis) to understand their concerns, needs and expectations so that this informs their employer of choice strategy. Every trust board should be aspiring to be an employer of choice.


The group were confident that we can, as a sector, address the workload challenges through the structures and collaborative models that academy trusts provide. For example, classroom teachers who can often be isolated in their planning in individual schools, should now be supported to network and share resources with teachers in other schools within their trusts – spreading the load and not reinventing the wheel. Technology has a big role to play in ensuring staff across schools can communicate and collaborate on resources and materials with ease – whilst also working under careful protocols around emails.

Some trusts are also now considering introducing centrally provided pastoral support for staff as well as pupils

Headteachers should also, increasingly, be able to rely on central teams to provide finance, site management and HR expertise; allowing them to spend more time focusing on leading teaching and learning and less burdened by the administrative demands that often push them away from the job. Trusts can also be more astute about the data they collect, ensuring that data collection has a purpose, and that better triangulation of data is used both to spread the load and to ensure that data is more robust. Meanwhile, some trusts are also now considering introducing centrally provided pastoral support for staff as well as pupils, ensuring that staff have a confidential space in which to share their worries and concerns.

It must also be noted that managing pupil behaviour is a key issue in ensuring staff recruitment and retention, and the group were strongly of the view that the DfE’s onus on providing support, training and resources to ensure effective behaviour management was to be welcomed.

Flexible working

The group were strongly of the view that education needs a mindset change around flexibility, and that other sectors are moving quickly in this area. Again, knowing our staff is important, and the trusts involved highlighted the importance of annual conversations with all staff about their needs and expectations – including where they may wish to explore job shares, reduced hours or relocation within the trust. With this data, trusts can then look across the group to see where opportunities may arise and then plan accordingly to meet individual staff members’ expectations. Too often, at the moment, these conversations are not being had, and people simply leave the organisation without having them.

Trusts have much more to do to engage and use volunteers much more effectively

One area where trusts could do more is to engage volunteers, both in terms of enriching children’s learning experiences and building more flexibility into the system. Both the health service and the charities sector inspire and engage volunteers – adding countless working hours and many millions of pounds worth of value to those services, and it was felt that trusts have much more to do to engage and use volunteers much more effectively. Volunteers could, for example, take assemblies at the beginning and the end of the day. This – if done well – could provide enriching and inspiring opportunities for children to engage with those beyond the school in business, the arts, and the wider community. It would also provide more time for teachers to plan and engage in CPD, or to build more flexibility into their working patterns. It should be noted that volunteer services should be managed with sophistication across a trust, not simply a ad hoc ‘come and help out’ approach as is often used in individual schools. Again the NHS  provides an excellent template for engaging, co-ordinating and, yes, managing, volunteers.

Career development

A key aspect of the new recruitment & retention strategy is career development. The group welcomed the fact that the strategy has proposed National Professional Qualifications for non-leadership specialisms – giving more people the chance to gain recognition and qualifications without having to leave behind what motivates them most: being in the classroom.

Many trusts themselves are also doing great work in this area. Again, this is about ‘knowing’ you staff. One trust spoke about the 10-year career plan that each staff member across the organisation has in place, and which is reviewed with them annually – informing professional development and opportunities to engage in activities and projects across the trust. Others spoke of undertaking routine ‘talent-audits’ across the trust to identify staff members’ skills, talents and interests – considering how these can feed into the wider work and life of the trust, adding value to the organisation and ensuring recognition of individuals. Examples included teachers and support staff who were also musicians, artists, electricians, and carpenters! Talent management isn’t always about undertaking a qualification, it’s about recognising people’s skills and interests and allowing them to flourish.

Better marketing

Many trusts are now doing great work in actively responding to the needs and expectations of the workforce. Many trusts are doing impressive things in terms of talent management, CPD and providing a wide range of opportunities for staff to work across contexts. They’re also getting better at workload, using their structures to create a culture of support and professional networking across schools. Yet, many are not articulating these opportunities and activities well enough in their recruitment marketing. Investing in good marketing, that puts employees’ voices centre stage and reflects and promotes those aspects of employment most prized by this generation of worker, remains an area of development for many trusts. Most of all, communicating a compelling vision and sense of purpose is the most important thing a trust can do – with recent research by Deloitte showing that those who believed their organisation has a strong sense of purpose were more likely to remain in their roles after five years than those who felt it did not. The big message – don’t wait for government to do your marketing for you!

The DfE’s strategy

It has to be said that much of what is covered in the recruitment and retention strategy, many trusts are doing already. In fact, the practices taking place in some trusts are more sophisticated than those outlined in the strategy – not least around flexible working and career development. On some areas of the strategy, trusts urged caution; for example, around making the early career teacher curriculum mandatory, when so many already have a strong early careers development plan that is carefully aligned with their own curricula and resources. A note of caution was also made around the introduction of mentors for all early careers teachers – adding that the people delivering it must be skilled and experienced enough to mentor to a high standard.

That said, the recruitment and retention strategy is welcomed by trusts as a step in the right direction; it outlines so many of the key issues that all trusts and schools should be considering and focuses minds. Ultimately, however, it is the trustees, governors and leaders of trusts and schools who make the difference – prioritising the issues, creating the right culture, and investing in the systems and opportunities that ensure staff satisfaction and development for the long-term. A national strategy is helpful, but even more helpful is to look to those organisations – within and beyond the sector – who are doing all of this so well and have so much to share. Now the DfE must look to capture and disseminate this. We’re here to help!

Forum Strategy’s fourth roundtable report will be published in late June.

Hints and tips for becoming an employer of choice

  • It begins at the top, ensure your board is prioritising it, monitoring strategy and impact, and holding the executive to account;
  • Culture matters. The trust’s leadership must take a stand on those issues that contribute to high levels of workload; encouraging and investing in those aspects that mitigate workload issues – such as better use of technology, resource sharing, and pastoral support for staff; whilst being careful not to induce excessive burdens on staff through expectations around data and monitoring;
  • Know your staff well. Undertake regular (anonymous) surveys of staff to understand the trends in terms of staff satisfaction and their needs, expectations and concerns; Ensure this informs your strategy;
  • Consider how – like NHS trusts and charities – volunteers can actively contribute to the life and work of the trust and its schools, whilst also creating flexibility for staff. Always ensure volunteers are held to account for high standards, just as you would a member of staff;
  • Ensure the highest standards and most relevant sources of central resource so that heads and senior leaders in schools feel supported and unburdened by excessive administration;
  • Create a culture where line-managers spend time understanding their individual team members’ needs and identifying their future aspirations and relevant career development opportunities. Make sure this becomes a standard way of operating across the trust;
  • Undertake regular talent audits of staff; identifying people’s interests, passions and how they can contribute to the wider life and work of the organisation. Again, make this a standard way of operating.
  • Invest in high quality marketing, that reflects the investment you make in staff and the commitment the organisation is making to being an employer of choice.


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