Using evidence-based HR at UK schools group United Learning

4 minute read

Schools across the UK are facing a nationwide challenge in teacher recruitment and retention. At United Learning, add in a fast paced growth strategy, increasing teacher workload and the fact the charity takes on some of the most difficult schools, with a deep history of underperformance, and the challenge intensifies. But, by increasingly focusing on evidence-based HR, United Learning has started to meet this challenge

Mandy Coalter

United Learning is a group of nearly 60 schools that aims to provide excellent education to young people across the UK. The charitable organisation educates 40,000 pupils , employs more than 6,000 full time staff and has an annual turnover of £350 million. Uniquely, it includes schools in both the public and private sectors, working together for mutual benefit.

Five years ago, we had only 30 schools. Since then we have taken on more than 1,500 employees and developed our central support to match our scale. This growth has been managed at the same time as a relentless drive to improve all our existing schools. The ability to recruit and retain quality leaders and teachers has a major impact on young people and the chance to successfully improve schools.

Most of our resource is in schools and spent on pupils, so we must be creative when it comes to corporate resource. Our people team has 20 full time employees, the majority in business partnering with a small central team on systems and data, people development, policy and reward. Schools pay a per pupil charge for central services so expect value for money.

We believe school leaders are best placed to make the majority of decisions locally in the interests of children and communities. This means the role of the people team is one of enabling. We have to involve, engage, persuade and sell – we can’t just tell. We have to work with our head teachers to secure buy in to everything we do.

Taking an evidence-based approach is increasingly becoming core to how we face our people challenges. Through our annual employee surveys we knew that teacher workload and staff wellbeing were an issue. While we have some of the highest engagement scores in the education sector, our work-life balance scores for teachers were low.

This was in the context of a national problem in schools: 44,000 people responded to the UK Government’s call for evidence on teacher workload, with resulting guidance disseminated to schools on how to tackle excessive workload. But rather than accept the situation as is, we sought to identify worthwhile ways of addressing it for our employees.

With academies the issue of workload can be a lot more acute because we are taking on very poor failing schools and there is a big turnaround job to be done, often in a very challenging context. While we historically see high turnover at the academies, the data showed that this was going up and we were also starting to see turnover of high quality teachers in good performing schools.

The employee survey also showed that, while 80% of support staff were happy with work-life balance and the number actively dissatisfied was in single figures, far fewer teachers felt they achieved the correct balance – a large contrast that bore out what I was hearing when I talked to teachers.

Alongside tackling issues such as behavioural management, tackling wellbeing and workload are key parts of our strategy. In April we wrote to every teacher in our academies to inform them that we would be introducing an additional planning day each term so that staff can properly plan for the term ahead – rather than working this planning around existing commitments in the classroom – something we can do as a group of academies.

We are also working with business psychology firm Robertson Cooper on a pilot programme with 10 schools. This kicked off with a training day for head teachers, focusing them on thinking about a local strategy relevant to their school and how to approach wellbeing in a sustainable way, avoiding some of the wellbeing fads that can be found. This group of schools is now acting as an action learning set, supporting and sharing learning.

Among the approaches schools are taking are setting up staff wellbeing groups, using training days to integrate wellbeing into the conversation, promoting access to physical and mental health, good sleep and diet, raising awareness, events for staff to help them feel valued and wellbeing weeks.

We know there is no panacea here. Workload has been a problem for a long time in the profession. And we don’t know for certain what will work but this is a systematic and rigorous approach. We are collecting case studies to share with others plus tracking impact on absence and turnover but, also ultimately, tracking on pupil outcomes because everything we do should contribute to good pupil outcomes.

Resilience development with trainee teachers has also been introduced, together with in-school mentors.

We cannot yet show whether these strategies are having an impact, but there has been a good reduction in the turnover rate in the past 12 months. Absence is also at a four-year low.

Sitting alongside wellbeing is continuous professional development (CPD) which is the other main priority in tackling the recruitment and retention issue. Our 2014 staff survey demonstrated that our focus on developing people was not delivering the desired impact.

To rectify this, we conducted wholesale reform to our performance and development along with teachers’ pay. Our scheme had been outdated, with a tick-box scoring system purely for pay purposes. We overhauled this by working with our ‘Plus One’ group of head teachers. They wanted professional development to be focused on getting the best from every child and development for every member of staff.

As a result, we implemented a scheme with the focus on CPD, while retaining a link to pay via contribution.

Next, our people team worked alongside our strategy team to conduct an evidence based review of our approach to CPD. Using a ‘deep dive review’ we gathered internal and external (both national and international) evidence, including visiting schools, surveying staff, data analysis and looking at the substantial external evidence on CPD.

This process works well for big, complex problems. We brought together a review team including schools and the centre, did a hypothesis on what we thought the problem was and then what evidence we wanted to see around that problem.

From all this the big lesson was that we were trying to do too much from the centre. All the evidence told us the very best CPD happens in schools and this has the most impact on individual development and pupil outcomes.

Up to this stage we had offered many programmes centrally. The evidence showed the centre had, instead, a very clear role for adding value – in talent and leadership development. Only when staff moved to a leadership position was being able to access CPD from outside their school important for outcomes. For those in other positions, it was clear a high quality, in-school CPD offer was required.

So, we changed the staffing structure at the centre, reallocated funding that was put into central initiatives to schools and put in place a system of measuring quality of in-school CPD, including accountability measures so our education director can hold head teachers to account on how they are developing CPD in schools.

The People Space Sheffield Park Academy

The evidence review identified schools with high quality local practice and these were showcased at a conference of school CPD leaders in 2016. These included Sheffield Park Academy, which had put CPD right at the heart of school improvement strategy, believing that to get the right outcomes for pupils it needed to make sure every member of staff was properly developed. The academy has since been recognised as one of fastest improving schools in the country, in the top 5% of schools in terms of progress pupils make.

The conference was very highly evaluated, with 100% of participants rating it positively and stating that they intend to change their practice as a result. Since then, we have launched a regular newsletter, have overhauled our online portal and established a network of regional CPD leads from schools.

Likewise we have also strengthened our talent management approach, developing our pool of leaders for head teacher roles. An outstanding head teacher is crucial to the performance of a school and in 2013 we struggled to recruit to all our vacancies.

We now have a clear talent structure and refresh our ‘headship ready’ names frequently. This resulted in many internal appointments, significant savings in recruitment costs, and high numbers of senior leaders report that they can develop their career with us.

We are also investing in financial management training, as this is often cited as a major gap in the skills required in moving from deputy head to headship, plus we have developed a system leadership programme for top performing heads already operating beyond one school. For our growth strategy, this talent is critical. It is very different from running one school, like stepping from department to strategic leadership in business.

Our approach is clearly paying off when it comes to employee engagement. The 2016 score was well ahead of the sector norm, at 73% against a Mori Education norm of 60%. Survey response rates have risen from 46% in 2011 to 81% in 2016, during a period of TUPE transfer and onboarding of more than 1,500 employees, plus restructuring affecting hundreds of staff.

There is no silver bullet to the complex and UK-wide issues of teacher workload and wellbeing, and its impact on recruitment and retention in the sector. But, by taking an evidence-based approach, we will ensure future investment is focused only on those activities that have impact and produce the best pupil outcomes.

Mandy Coalter is director of people at United Learning and a member of People Space Leaders. Published 8 May 2017

We have to involve, engage, persuade and sell – we can’t just tell. We have to work with headteachers to secure buy in to everything we do

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