Taking the drama out of the recruitment crisis

With teacher recruitment and teacher retention currently posing difficult issues to the education sector, Julian Stanley of the Education Support Partnership discusses why it remains important to look beyond the destressing headlines.

Recruitment and retention are well known to be issues causing the education sector more problems than any other right now. But at UK education charity Education Support Partnership (formerly the Teacher Support Network), we are always keen to take the drama out of a crisis and provide practical solutions. That’s why this January we hosted an event at the Houses of Parliament designed to shift the focus away from ongoing conjecture and onto the search for some answers.

As a provider of free telephone crisis counselling services for individuals working in the sector, and organisational development programmes delivered each year to over 900 schools and colleges, the charity is well versed in the issues currently facing education. So, in response to this we pulled together a debate between an eclectic panel of education experts including: chair of the Education Select Committee Neil Carmichael MP; a head teacher who turned her own school’s performance and ability to recruit and retain its staff around 180 degrees; an ex-tutor from an FE institution who left teaching due to work load issues; and an academic completing a PhD on the topic of work strain in the sector.

Chaired by myself the panel discussed a wide range of topics, from personal development to administrative overload, and through this identified four main areas in which the sector ‘could do better’. These were: well-being and welfare – insisting upon the adoption of well-being policies in all education settings; empowering and enabling –identifying the balance between empowering and overburdening staff; freedom and flexibility - reversing the trend for testing and increasingly structured curriculum frameworks and trust and train teachers to do their job with a focus on reflective practice; and celebrating success – making sure we all better celebrate the amazing experiences and achievements of teachers to help stem a current tendency for public pessimism.

Promoting well-being
The first point, that of well-being is something the charity is very familiar with. Much of its work is designed to help those working in education be at their best through the provision of a free counselling hotline, text, email and coaching support for individuals, a range of products and services including employee assistance programmes for and organisations.

Building on this experience we conduct an annual survey, questioning thousands of those working in the sector about their experience of mental and physical health. A sneak preview of this year’s soon to be released results show that only eight per cent of those surveyed had workplace well-being policies in their education settings. This is worrying. Good management principles suggest that for success, organisations need to place well-being at the heart of their operations to maintain a healthy and happy workforce so more schools need to adopt well-being policies if the situation is to improve.

Supportive leadership
Which brings us neatly to the second point, that of empowerment. It transpires that the importance of a supportive structure in the work place is not just anecdotally true, but fact. Preliminary findings of a PHD, co-funded by Education Support Partnership and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) suggest that giving teachers sufficient control and autonomy is a significant factor in reducing job strain, but that the effect is relatively small unless combined with leader and management support.

This research, conducted by PhD student Candy Whittome of Birkbeck, University of London’s Department of Organisational Psychology, found that supportive leadership is critical not only for teaching staff, but also for head teachers too. This makes clear that the support provided by governors, local education authorities and academy chains to head teachers is equally as important as that provided to a teacher by line manager or head of department. Everyone needs a shoulder to lean on.

The research, which is anticipated to be completed later this year, draws on lessons learned from fields of business and management organisational psychology and explored data gathered from Education Support Partnership’s Positive Workplace Survey, a service the charity provides to help schools better understand their working environments. This data reveals that job strain has, over the last five years, become the single most important factor causing teachers to access the Education Support Partnership 24-hour helpline.

Candy explains: “Although the results of my research are not yet complete, what I am starting to be able to evidence is the importance of supportive leadership in helping individuals and organisations cope with the increased responsibility the sector is faced with. In other words, as external pressures on the teacher increase, due to changes in government policy such as testing and changes in curriculum, the need for those responsible for the running of schools to step up and show true leadership and support becomes ever more important.” Once completed, these research findings will form a centrepiece to a new consultation process we launched this month. This consultation is intended to assist school leaders and managers to identify best practice to create the appropriate cultures for success, preventing some of the issues commonly experienced as a result of workload and responsibility imbalances that can lead mental health issues and ultimately resignations.

Considering that our own YouGov Poll from June 2015 found that 24 per cent of those surveyed felt that the unreasonable demands from line managers would be to blame for their likely departure from education in the next five years, it becomes clear how important the conclusion of the new research is. Helping school leaders and managers to better, understand and support their teaching staff to keep them happy, well and in their jobs for longer is critical if we are to solve the current crisis.

Cracking down on creativity
Next comes the topic of the increasingly structured curriculum and high levels of admin preventing teachers from being able to bring their creativity to the table. For many, the potential to work creatively to inspire young minds through varied teaching methodologies is what first motivates the desire to teach. But it is the removal of this freedom to be creative – due to lack of time or lack of permission – that drives many away. This must stop, because creative inspired teaching is not only good for the profession but for pupils and performance too.

Anna-Beth Orton is an ex further education tutor who spoke very eloquently at our event this January about her own experiences of admin gone mad. For her the focus on ‘box ticking’ was exactly what drove her to resign. As an art and design tutor she increasingly found that she was under pressure to get the students through the modules quickly and collect the data that indicated their success (or otherwise).

Anna-Beth explains: “Making a mistake is often the best way to learn how to do something right, but in the current climate there is no time for this. Instead the system requires students to rote learn and move on while teaching staff focus on data collection and admin rather than people. In my opinion neither students or teaching staff are well served by this approach. Personally I began to feel as though I was simply a box ticking coach, helping students gain certificates but not pick up any real understanding or education along the way, so I left, because it was no longer the job I signed up for.”

Warranting recognition
Finally, let’s talk about celebration. Feeling proud of one’s career is hugely important and celebration helps us achieve this. Pride finds its origins in public and private perceptions as well as the reality of the job. Pride manifests itself in heightened interest in a profession, as seen through numbers of applicants, departures and arrivals. So given this, shouldn’t we be celebrating teaching more?

Of course celebration is perhaps best achieved through recognition, and what better way to be recognised than through fair pay and conditions? Making sure all of those in education can look forward to investment in their continuous professional development, and remuneration that is sufficient to encourage them to stay in the classroom for the long term without the risk of burn out or bankruptcy. This has to be the very best incentive for attracting high calibre staff into the sector and keeping them there, does it not?

At the Education Support Partnership we know that working in the sector is, in equal measures, one of the most challenging and fulfilling career choices there is. But I do worry that it sometimes seems as though, through social and traditional media, we are hearing more about the bad times than the good. And whilst sharing our experiences is critically important as a way to effect change, is this very public sharing by the few also responsible for driving away the many?

I hope not, but to help readdress any imbalance we at the Education Support Partnership want to encourage the sharing of positive experiences through our hashtag #NotQuittingTeaching.

This has already gathered great momentum and even found itself trending throughout the evening of our Westminster event. So why not join us by sharing your own thoughts and advice too?

Equally, if you have information you’d like to contribute to our consultation process on the practical solutions to the recruitment and retention problem we'd love to hear from you too. Simply email us on consultation@educationsupport.org.uk because I am certain that together, we can at least take some of the drama out of this particular crisis.

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