Education staff across the UK have overcome plenty of challenges this past year, as the role they knew was transformed overnight. Could investing in professional development and upskilling in areas beyond the fundamentals of teaching pave the way for a happier workforce?
Staff retention in the education sector is reaching a crisis point, with existing pressures compounded by COVID-19. Anecdotally, this statement might not be surprising for anyone working in schools but new research has confirmed it’s a growing problem.
As many as one-in-three plan to quit the classroom within five years, according to a recent National Education Union survey. Around 70% cited increased workload over the last 12 months, while almost all respondents raised concerns about their wellbeing.
There are often many well-intended but less impactful strategies around wellbeing for staff that are implemented in many schools, such as cakes on a Friday, after work yoga classes and fitness workshops.
How effective can they really be, when people have commitments and would rather spend time with their families in the evening instead? Would spending more time after school at a yoga session then cause more stress, leading to late-night marking sessions for the already time-poor teacher?
Analysing the root causes affecting teachers’ wellbeing should pave the way for meaningful initiatives that lead to the creation of positive working environments, not tokenistic gestures.
Understanding why teachers leave the profession
Whenever I talk about workload, or its impact on wellbeing, with colleagues at schools and academies, I always return to one particular study.
The government’s Teacher well-being at work in schools and further education providers paper is one of the biggest research reports of its kind from the last decade. Amongst other findings, it provides a clear understanding of what teachers really want, as well as why people leave the profession.
The government report identifies five key factors, offered either as fundamental reasons for people leaving or deciding to stay in a school: its ability to support health, purpose, relationships, autonomy and security.
Compiled in 2019, these concerns were raised a year before COVID-19 struck. As schools had to adapt to new virtual classrooms and changing guidelines almost overnight, compounded by numerous physical and mental health triggers, existing stresses are undoubtedly even more pronounced two years on.
Yet, just as there have been difficulties exacerbated by the global pandemic, there have also been opportunities to learn from real-world experience as change was forced on the sector.
Schools had no choice but to enter the digital realm, offering blended learning and turning to platforms such as video calls to communicate. Those who already had a central software system, such as the Access Education Finance and Budgets or Workspace software, will have been better equipped to run virtual classrooms, share best practice and undertake training in new areas, as well as ensuring the day-to-day financial and business matters were taken care of.
For teachers in particular, the opportunity to upskill via remote classes demonstrated the role technology can play in the school environment, as well as the wider wellbeing benefits that can occur indirectly.
Designing policies around people
Education and assessment company Pearson recently asked almost 7,000 educators about their experience with online learning throughout the pandemic. Around 81% said that their digital skills have improved as a result, while almost half of primary and secondary educators agreed that their work-life balance was better. One in three predict that there will be more flexibility in their roles as the use of tech gets wider; however, concerns over workload and keeping students motivated were still high, with 61% and 83% stating this as their biggest challenge.
“If complementary cake or yoga is backed by feedback and insight from these reports, it becomes an informed decision rather than a tokenistic tool”
Considering tech more broadly, there are also benefits of going digital that can feed into other areas such as professional development and wellbeing. Just like online learning, virtual HR systems could also lead to a more flexible relationship with training for teachers. Switching spreadsheets for databases, over time it’s possible to gain a bigger-picture overview of an entire workforce that could, in turn, form a more effective policy. Areas such as sickness absence levels, notes from appraisals and engagement with training can be logged centrally to create powerful reports. If complementary cake or yoga is backed by feedback and insight from these reports, it becomes an informed decision rather than a tokenistic tool.
Space for added-value training
Referring back to the five key factors from the government’s wellbeing report, investing in teachers’ wider skillsets is another essential tool for feeling satisfied at work.
A teacher’s level of teaching or understanding isn’t the main concern – they’re very highly trained in their subject areas – but other aspects such as managing people, parents or time management are difficult. When things are difficult, we feel stress. Compounded by the ever-present challenge of workload, having the time or resources to take on essential non-educational training to improve those skills might not feel like a priority. In schools, it’s the norm to operate in much smaller teams than other sectors that would have whole departments dedicated towards maintaining and upkeeping an ‘added value’ training regime for a workforce of 100+.
Specialist HR technology for the education sector is developed to empower users to take control of their experience at work. Cloud-based, the platform acts as a central hub for communication and collaboration, with options to self-serve on certain routine tasks, such as updating personal details. They save time and are more likely to undertake value-added activities such as additional training or simply feel more engaged with their work.
Freeing up teaching and non-teaching staff from time-consuming admin should be at the core of any new policies – particularly as schools will be putting together their plans for the post-COVID-19 world. In my experience, policy should always pass a two stage checklist: will it improve outcomes? Will it reduce or maintain workload? Investing in employee experiences and supporting professional development are key to ticking both of these boxes.
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