Bacs to the future

Hazel Davis explores how tech has changed the face of HR communications in the education sector

There is no doubt that these are testing times for schools, colleges and universities. At the time of going to press, many in the UK have found themselves in the midst of an unprecedented staffing nightmare. During something as serious as the coronavirus outbreak, and indeed any time, institutions must ensure accuracy and security in access to systems, as well as correct budget allocation.

The pressure facing education institutes to deliver a broad and effective curriculum – in spite of rising costs and reduced budgets – is no secret and institutions are now having to be far more innovative.

HR communications – not just an operational issue

Employee retention is one of the biggest issues facing schools. In 2019, the Department for Education revealed that the five-year retention rate for teachers who qualified in 2013 had dropped to 67.7% – the fifth consecutive year that the rate has worsened. Civica’s MD of HR and payroll, Kirsty Fowler, says: “An effective HR communications strategy can use cloud technology to manage employee absences, performance and learning and development. This, in turn, can help headteachers overcome the major challenge of retaining employees by increasing efficiency in schools and improving overall morale and job satisfaction.”

To be really successful, HR tech should reach beyond the primary aim of improving day-to-day operational processes and serve to improve communication and morale within the organisation. In the education sector, technology has enabled HR and finance teams to move away from an operation focus, to dedicate more time to developing schemes that will improve staff happiness and performance, and ultimately improve educational attainment.

Over the last 10 years, manual filing systems have been replaced, identified as time-consuming, often inaccurate and insecure ways of storing potentially sensitive data. The ability to log on to a secure system and update any personal details, manage holiday requests or staff sickness and send expenses digitally has improved efficiency. HR teams are now able to easily share organisational goals to ensure staff understand the long-term vision, which can have a huge impact on staff retention.

But still, says Fowler, “many HR processes within schools are handled manually, from recruitment (such as advertising a role and taking applications) to background checks, onboarding and induction. Doing this manually is slow, inefficient and difficult to audit and has therefore become a costly and time-consuming challenge for schools.”

This drive for productivity has led HR teams to reassess outdated processes and consider IT solutions able to handle HR and admin tasks, update spreadsheets and produce reports. This not only reduces the amount of time support staff spend completing paperwork and updating records but can also increase opportunities to introduce positive initiatives.

Expert insights

Of course, the best solutions are the ones designed by experts who understand the education sector inside and out. Paul Grubb, from software provider The Access Group, says: “For groups of schools spread across a number of sites, each facing unique challenges, IT solutions can offer a customisable dashboard that can be tailored to meet the needs of the specific schools or individual user.” Access Education People, for example, centralises employee records, allowing staff to easily spot trends in staff absence or performance issues, a useful feature for struggling schools these days. For example, if a school’s HR team notices that a member of staff is taking more time off sick than expected, the tech can highlight this and ensure that any unexpected issues can be addressed as early as possible.

HR comms

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“As a result of academisation and increased commercial targets for local authorities, education institutions will be increasingly focused on business performance over the next five years,” says Paul Grubb. This, he says, “will create added complexity and new demands for HR teams. Ultimately, there will be a drive to make processes quicker and more efficient.” He adds, “For senior leadership teams, having instant access to data can help inform decision making processes on a whole host of issues, from teacher to pupil ratios to KPI sheets.”

Every cloud has a silver lining

Due to finance and budget challenges in the education sector, schools have historically lagged behind the commercial world when it comes to using technology to increase employee engagement. However, says Fowler, “we are now seeing a shift with more schools adopting solutions enabled by cloud technology. Employees can now access HR and payroll information at any time and from anywhere via a portal and/or a mobile app. Not only does this massively improve the efficiency of processes within schools, but it also enhances job satisfaction.”

It’s still necessary to remember that the needs of education institutions are quite different to the commercial sector, and that “there is only a small number of HR communications and payroll software suppliers that have developed this specialism. Selecting a solution that integrates with the institute’s management information system (MIS) offers the opportunity to improve data quality, insight and absence management, notifying schools in real-time when a supply teacher needs to be drafted in due to an absence, for example,” says Fowler.

The ability to manage the performance and continued professional development of teachers across the organisation is critical for delivering desired educational outcomes. Centralised HR communications and payroll software, such as Civica HR for example, consolidates data to give increased insights on staffing needs and enables more of a data-driven people strategy.

The education sector is subject to tax and employment laws and payroll providers that have HMRC recognition will help schools stay on the right side of the law. Those that rely on bringing in external services also face compliance regulation but can be protected with a provider that is BACS-accredited.

When it comes to standards and requirements set-out by the Department for Education, statutory reporting is critical, says Fowler, “HR systems should be able to compile the data needed for the school workforce census and need to be flexible enough to accommodate the different report formats required by different areas of the UK when submitting the single central record.” Effective HR communications technology also plays a crucial role in recruitment: “Background, right to work and DBS checks all need to be recorded and monitored in line with legislation,” Fowler says, “Schools face an enormous risk if these aren’t adequately completed and things go wrong.”

A matter of wellbeing

There is a growing conversation around improving mental health in the workplace and often it is the HR team who are tasked with addressing staff wellbeing issues. “Aside from the impact high teacher absence rates can have on pupil outcomes and the wider team, replacing staff who may be absent due to poor mental health or stress, is expensive – with schools having to pay a supply teacher alongside the existing staff member,” Grubb points out.

And technology on its own can only go so far. While advanced software can crunch data and produce reports, there must still be a human interpreting these results and taking any necessary action. Online solutions can certainly help to integrate the day-to-day operations of a school HR team, but unless the humans are on board, none of the solutions will provide real value to schools and staff.


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