There are all sorts of obstacles awaiting us in this new academic year: we exit the EU and could struggle with teacher visas; there will probably be another general election; and once again, ITT recruitment targets have been missed, leaving us 3,300 teachers short in the secondary phase.
In times like these, recruitment needs to be strategic in order to be successful. And that’s how the most effective leaders are approaching the issue.
Helen Lambirth, headteacher of Westmeads Community Infant School in Kent, faces potential difficultes in staffing the small coastal setting.
She has been fortunate to see staffing levels remain largely unchanged in recent years, she says, owing in part to a willingness to be flexible around the requirements of working parents.
“We have had a stable staff for a couple of years – with a few maternity leaves,” she explains. “Staff returning from maternity have been accommodated with part-time commitments. I don’t want to lose my strong teachers so will try and accommodate them where I possibly can.”
At the other end of the country, Dr Rob Petrie has found similar calm, but possibly for different reasons.
He is head of in Cockermouth School in Cumbria where there are more than 180 different members of staff, and 2,300 students.
Petrie attributes the quiet year to wider political uncertainties.
“Recruitment this year for us has been relatively quiet, certainly compared to three or four years ago,” he says. “I wonder if the general uncertainty in the country at the moment is leading to people not taking unnecessary risks with their careers.”
Meanwhile, Petrie prepares for any departures that could arise by checking in regularly on those in his employment.
“We have a few long-serving staff retiring but these were expected,” he explains. “We maintain an ongoing staff profile so we can always look ahead and see when we expect certain people to retire.”
Lambirth also keeps channels of communication open with her staff, but cautions that anticipating what they might need isn’t as simple as it sounds.
“I always try to engage staff in discussions around workload, planning, changes and we collectively try to come up with the solution,” she says. “There are pressures. Trying to maintain our outstanding status, plus being small, everyone has lots of responsibility as there are fewer people to share things between.”
No quick fixes
For large schools like Petrie’s, many people will advise shortcuts for recruitment, such as appointing staff who can teach two subjects.
But Petrie warns such approaches must be weighed up against the wider needs of the department and school.
“We’ve tried a number of strategies, such as appointing cross-curricular teachers,” he says. “But this needs to be balanced against the benefits to learning of having subject specialists.”
Petrie places a huge amount of value is in his staff development, he says, and the importance of continuing professional development.
“Our teaching staff appraisal system that focuses purely on evidence-based improvements to teaching practice (no student progress targets or jumping through hoops, just a focus on becoming a better teacher) has been a big factor in retaining staff and attracting people to our school,” he says.
And although this isn’t a quick fix, the rewards are worth it. And he takes a similar approach to the recruitment process.
“We took a decision two years ago (after reading Patrick Lencioni’s The Ideal Team Player) to define a series of attributes that we look for in a potential hire.
“For us, attitude and attributes are more important than listed skills. We can develop teaching skills, but it’s much harder to teach the right attitude. So, yes, we look for a certain level of teaching competence but our interview processes are all about whether you have the right attitude and, of course, whether we’re right for you.”
Wellbeing boosts retention
When many teachers are feeling so stressed that they’re taking time off and seeking medical support, there isn’t any doubt that school leaders should be addressing these problems.
But where do you start? Lambirth takes the wellbeing of her staff seriously, and uses her position as headteacher to ensure she has a teaching staff who have sufficient time to do their job, and have a life outside of the classroom, too.
“Every subject leader has time out of class to lead their subjects and key stage leaders get an afternoon every week,” explains Lambirth. “I also give people time during staff meetings to write subject leader reports, update their class pages on the website, write reports. I try to recognise people's hard work and give people time to do things, which is hard with a tight budget.”
However, it isn’t just time for workload that Lambirth tries to accommodate. In order to have a happy and effective staff body, she has also looked at the flexibility she can offer around work-life balance.
“I will always give people time off for family events,” says Lambirth. “This year, I plan to give everyone a wellbeing day to take when they wish as long as it is planned in advance and can be covered.”