Regroup. Restructure. Repeat: how to deal with last-minute resignations

Don’t let an unexpected staff departure derail your September plans. Here, two headteachers explain why it could present an opportunity

Simon Lock

Restructuring After A Departure

As the final resignation deadline looms, school leaders everywhere will be greeting any unexpected email or knock at the door with trepidation. Could this be the moment that the maths department or leadership team gets shaken by a significant departure?

With an eye on next year’s team sheet, leaders could be forgiven for counting down to 31 May and the sense of continuity it brings.  

But a summer-term resignation doesn’t have to spell disaster. In fact, losing a key member of staff can be an opportunity in disguise. 

We spoke to two headteachers about how they deal with unexpected resignations.

No knee-jerk reactions

With temperatures rising and stress levels dialled up to 11 because of exams, it’s important to keep a cool head when it comes to summer-term resignations.

One headteacher from the North of England warns against making any sudden decisions.  

“Never make a permanent appointment in a rush and definitely not at senior level,” he says. “I’d far rather put in a year’s temporary fix. If your special educational needs and disability coordinator suddenly left, for example, I’d rather put in a one-year appointment.”

Andy Scott-Evans, headteacher at Becket Keys Church of England School in Essex, explains that he thinks carefully before looking for replacements.

“I sit with a small group of trusted senior staff,” he says. “I consult with my two deputies and my finance and operations director, and occasionally a specific assistant head or two, depending on the role, to get their views and ideas.

“As a result of the current financial pressures, we are increasingly being forced to think very carefully before making new staff appointments.

Look for opportunities

No school ever wants to see a good teacher leave, but with every departure comes some degree of opportunity, whether it's fresh ideas from a newcomer or the chance for an ambitious staff member to step up.

“There can be a log jam of talent lower down and some very stable middle and senior leadership roles,” says the headteacher from the North of England. “I’d stand to lose a lot of young talent to other schools because there are opportunities I can’t offer them internally.”

Scott-Evans uses resignations as an opportunity to give teachers the chance to take on more responsibility, whether that be on a permanent basis or with a fixed-term move.

I like to offer the opportunity for colleagues to take a temporary secondment position on the leadership team,” says Scott-Evans. “This can really help that colleague, but also the school, by bringing fresh ideas and enthusiasm into the senior leadership team.

And with a high-profile departure goes a significant salary. A more junior replacement can mean a significant saving, and that doesn’t necessarily mean making a compromise.

“If you re-evaluate roles, ask yourself whether you can do things more efficiently,” suggests the headteacher from northern England. “Can you do things in a way that is going to be better for the school and actually take something off the bottom line as well?”

Avoid like-for-like replacements

When a long-term member of staff departs, it may seem that they’re irreplaceable; they take with them knowledge, experience and probably a password or two that you’ll never be able to recover.

Despite leaving big shoes to fill, the northern headteacher says, opting for an exact replica as a replacement isn’t always the best move.

“With a senior leadership team position, I would never go like-for-like,” he explains. 

“It’s an opportunity to reevaluate the skills around the table, to think about what the deficits are and what you’re going to add to the team by bringing in someone different. If you just go with like-for-like, you can’t expect performance to improve.”

Be prepared for next time

If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail, as the saying goes. And while I’m sure we can all point to certain unexpected exam results that disprove this theory, when it comes to staffing, it rings true.

The head from northern England now has plans in place should a senior member of staff decide to move on.

“I’ve got a grid of what everyone in the senior team currently does and their responsibilities,” he explains. “I go back to that list and see what could move around. I talk to my existing team about whether they are ready for a change or whether there is something they want to take on that they haven’t done previously.

“When you’ve done that, you look at what you’ve got left over and you think ‘Is that a role or is that two roles? Are there people internally that could act up on part of that?’”

Similarly, Scott-Evans keeps tabs on what duties his staff currently perform, as well as identifying what they could potentially do in the future.

“We ask all our staff to complete a questionnaire each year,” he explains. “This gives them the opportunity to describe and set out (for the sake of clarity) what they currently do and what they think they could offer with some training.

“My senior staff and I try to spend quality time with each teacher to talk it through. There are often surprises and welcome opportunities that arise from these conversations.”

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