‘Schools can learn from each other to keep staff happy’

State and private schools can pick up ideas from each other about teacher wellbeing and retention, writes Georgia Murphy
25th June 2020, 4:01pm


‘Schools can learn from each other to keep staff happy’

Teacher Wellbeing: What State & Private Schools Can Learn From Each Other

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a teacher who defects to a private school will enjoy higher pay, longer holidays, fewer books to mark and additional perks, such as free lunches and a gym.

But having taught in both state and private schools in the UK, the reality is a little different.

There are things that each system could learn from the other to help improve staff wellbeing and retention. After all, a good idea is a good idea, regardless of where it came from.

Teacher wellbeing: The difference between state and private schools

More time

The most significant difference between the two systems is time. At a standard state secondary school, there might be 25 timetabled lessons across the week.

A classroom teacher with no extra responsibilities will receive 10 per cent PPA (planning, preparation and assessment time), meaning that she is teaching almost every lesson of the day, every day.

But her private school counterpart might receive 15 per cent PPA, meaning that she has more free lessons to prepare and mark.

Of course, this difference costs money. However, the discussion on workload and retention is not going away, so decreasing teaching loads might be a way to retain staff.


Private schools are generally thought to offer a higher level of autonomy and trust in their staff.

The Independent Schools Inspectorate’s framework is similar to that of Ofsted, yet private schools have mostly eschewed state school processes of learning walks and frequent workbook scrutinies, letting teachers get on with the business of teaching.

This is in contrast with many state school teachers who, it was noted in the 2019 Ofsted report into wellbeing, felt that leaders did not adequately value or support their work.

We can only hope that lockdown will herald a change in schools adopting more flexible working practices.

A 2018 Department for Education report into teacher recruitment and retention highlighted that increasing flexible working arrangements could lead to better retention of teachers, and flagged a state primary that had implemented an annual “no questions asked” day off for all staff.

Flexible working could also mean coming in later or leaving earlier if a teacher is free in the first or last period of the day; I know of both state and private schools that have successfully implemented these policies.

These ideas will seem standard to our colleagues working in other sectors; the inflexible school day is centuries-old, so surely now would be the time to change it in order to benefit staff wellbeing?

Outside of the classroom

While state and private schools often both offer health and wellbeing incentives for their staff, like yoga or boot camps, these can come across as add-ons or gimmicks.

Private school staff will usually be treated to an external, qualified teacher coming in to teach, whereas in state schools it is usually teachers themselves (perhaps from the PE department) who take the classes.

But could state schools follow private schools’ lead here and ask for reduced memberships for their staff at local leisure centres or clubs, instead of asking their own staff to give up their time?

Private schools also often offer free lunches, and tea and coffee.

I remember the first state school I worked in announcing that our pre-briefing “croissant Fridays” would be abolished: the death knell of a cherished bit of recognition and gratitude from the SLT.

State schools have enormous budget constraints, but a weekly pastry does not seem a significant thing to do away with to cut costs. And we all know that food is a way to show love and appreciation.

Providing some sort of refreshment for your staff, whether that is lunch once or twice a week, or tea in the staffroom, can work wonders.

Learning from each other

Private schools can also learn from state schools, particularly in terms of pay transparency and professional development.

The stronger union presence in state schools means that teachers are more protected around their working conditions: there are fewer meetings and there is enforced transparency around pay.

Several female heads of department at private schools have told me about concerns around pay equality; one would hope this would happen less often in the state system, given the transparency of pay scales.

Moving to part-time working after children is a flexible working condition that women may find easier to lobby for in state schools. 

Additionally, teaching alliances and partnerships across boroughs are common among state schools, leading to collegiality and collaboration.

Many departments within state schools work closely together to ensure uniformity of teaching resources, leading to teacher collaboration around schemes of work.

Employment in a multi-academy trust can also mean more opportunities for career progression and variety, and thus better retention of staff.

State school teachers might also benefit from a wider range of CPD through some of the DfE programmes, such as the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund (though funding for these programmes has now stopped as of March 2020).

Change is inevitable

What seems inevitable is that the working world will not remain the same following this pandemic, for those working in state or private schools.

It may mean big changes for the private school system as they face their own budget crises and are forced to make cuts to staff incentives.

But if this pandemic has taught us anything, it is the importance of happiness and wellbeing.

If there are good ideas to be had, no one can afford to be dismissive of where they come from.

Georgia Murphy is a secondary school teacher in north-east London

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