Boost staff morale to control expenditure in schools/academies

28 Aug

I        Staff: Human Resources v Resourceful Humans

With the financial noose tightening around the necks of schools/academies, governing bodies have to keep a close check on expenditure and find innovative ways of raising funds.   Staff costs consume the lion’s share of a school budget – anything from 80% to 85%, though one school, with which I worked a few years ago, bucked the trend by spending 102% of its budget share on staff salaries.  The governors leaned heavily on parents – through voluntary contributions – and charities to make up the shortfall in the overspend.

Spending 80% of the budget on staff is unsurprising given that staff members are the most valuable resources of a school.   For governors to keep a firm rein on this area of spending, they don’t have to operate curmudgeonly.  However, they should ensure that the ambience at the school invigorates and motivates staff.   There are sufficient pressures on teachers, in particular, to make this exercise challenging.  They are subject to myriad demands coming from disparate sources.  The mix is toxic: government wishes, parental expectations, Ofsted inspections, changes to the curriculum and assessment, league tables – to name just a few.   The over-emphasis on data has led some taking their eyes of the ball – i.e. the children, for whom the overwhelming number of teachers became teachers in the first place.

The pressures have taken the stuffing out of many, so that, come the holidays, they collapse in a heap.  However, in term time, teachers who are the victims of the hot house environments of their schools, fall ill over varying periods of time, causing their governing bodies concern as they have to find extra monies to cover for their absences.

Education data consultants, SchoolDash, analysed teacher absences for the academic year 2014/15 using the workforce census data published by the Department for Education (DfE).  They discovered that in primary schools/academies rated “Inadequate” by Ofsted, teacher absences averaged 9.97 days compared to 6.26 days for those working in “Outstanding” schools/academies.   In secondary schools/academies rated “Inadequate” the average teacher absences was 8.94 days compared to 5.72 days for the outstanding ones.

The good news is that for teachers taking sick leave, the average number of days lost was 7.6 – down from 7.9 the previous year.

Primary teachers were more likely to go off sick in the West Midlands (55%) and least likely in the north-east (48%).  At secondary level, almost two-third of teachers in the south-west (65%) took time off last year, compared to 56% in the north-east.  However, teachers in the north-east were more likely to be absent because of sickness for longer periods of time.  The lowest average number of days off by region was achieved by London’s primary teachers, i.e. 6.03 days and the capital’s secondary teachers – 5.97%.

The schools suffer in other ways, even if they have the financial wherewithal to hire supply teachers, in that the stand-ins are not that good, consequently, not welcomed by the pupils whom they have to teach.

If schools/academies are to flourish, they need to promote staff happiness. This does not mean that the atmosphere should be one described by Tennyson in his poem on the Lotos-Eaters where “slumber is more sweet than toil” and brother mariners are exhorted to rest and wander no more.

Even if our schools/academies are not haemorrhaging teachers out of the profession, ignoring their welfare is detrimental to the quality of education we are keen to promote.   Several of our school leaders, who themselves are under considerable pressures, pass these pressures onto their staff contributing to the low morale and driving them to sick beds and doctors’ surgeries.  Headteachers want the best for their schools.  However, the methods deployed are sometimes counterproductive and the outcome is plummeting staff morale leading to absences which puts pressure on school budgets. 

Industry has much to teach us about improving morale. Four lessons from Rosalind Masterton and David Pickton are worthy of attention.

(i)         Ply staff members with information about any changes in the offing.

(ii)        Ensure that staff are given appropriate knowledge and skills through continuing professional development (CPD) to implement changes.

(iii)       Support them (to reinforce motivation) through the changes, even when they have knowledge and skills.

(iv)       Be mindful of the different vested interests among staff and work with the grain, as far as possible.

School leaders should treat their staff members with the respect due.  This means taking note of their achievements, supporting them when they confront challenges, lifting them when they fall and only in extremis, taking sanctions, when everything else fails.  They need to be constantly reminded that their clients, the parents, will judge the school/ academy not exclusively on the basis of the results of the pupils, but also by the way they (the parents) are treated at open evenings, how they are welcomed at the school gates, the quality of telephone exchanges staff have with them – in other words, the quality of interpersonal relationships.

This is best promoted if school leaders themselves have good interpersonal relationships with all their staff, not just the chosen few favourites.  Staff members are the internal customers of the school/academy. Treating them well impacts positively on the pupils and also the school/academy budget.

II       Staff members are internal customers

To promote staff happiness and, consequently, retention, school leaders could set aside time for internal interviews and surveys.  The following survey questions are worth asking of staff members and their responses – which should inform school improvement – treated confidentially.

(i)         What do colleagues think of the way the school/academy recruits?

(ii)        What are their views on continuing professional development (CPD)?

(iii)       Are they happy with the working conditions?  If not, what could be done to improve the atmosphere?

(iv)       Do they feel committed to the school/academy? How can the school/academy improve this commitment?

The governing body should have a staff exit policy.   Staff members moving on are reliant on receiving good references from the headteachers of the schools/academies.  In departing, however, they are more dependent on their own resources and abilities so have little to lose in speaking their minds.   In any case, nominated governors can carry out the interviews guaranteeing confidentiality.  The outcome is not meant to be punitive to the remaining school/academy leaders, but rather to see what the governors and school leaders can learn to improve staff morale.

The questions set out below may form the basis of such an interview between the nominated governors and each departing staff member.

(a)        What is your main reason for leaving?

(b)        What aspects of working at the school/academy did you find fulfilling?

(c)        What did you find inappropriate and how can the school/academy rectify the situation?

(d)       How would you sum up working at the school/academy to a prospective employee?

(e)        Is there anything the school/academy could have done to make it a better place in for the following areas.

(i)         Staffing

(ii)        Pupils

(iii)       Visitors

(f)        Are you able to comment briefly on the following aspects of the school/academy?

(i)         The leadership

(ii)        Team-working

(iii)       Support given to members of the school community

(iv)       Staff training

(v)        Communication

(vi)       Staff Wellbeing

(vii)      Work-Life balance

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