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Anonymous staff surveys: a double-edged sword

Unattributed feedback has its pros and cons. We look at how to make it work well in your school

Do anonymous surveys work?

Getting people to open up about wellbeing concerns or issues is never easy. 

But understanding how your workforce is feeling is a crucial part of a leader’s remit.

One way schools can obtain useful insights into staff wellbeing is with anonymous surveys.

Elizabeth Cloke, headteacher at Tenby International School in Penang, Malaysia, explains that her school group does this once a year across seven schools, covering almost 200 members of staff.

“By running the survey anonymously, we hope staff will be honest and that gives them the opportunity to raise concerns we may not otherwise pick up on,” she says.

Clear intentions

Liz Robson-Kelly, managing director of Worth-it Positive Education CIC, a wellbeing organisation that has worked with almost 140 schools in the UK, agrees this chance for openness and honesty is a definite potential benefit of anonymous surveys. 

However, she says schools should engage with staff before the survey to try to derive the maximum benefits, otherwise there is a risk that staff will just ignore it.

“Use a workshop, inset day or team meeting to explain the survey’s purpose and that you want people to answer honestly about how they feel.”

She says that schools also need to be selective with when they send a survey to avoid catching staff during particularly stressful periods. 

“Humans are emotional and it may be they just had a bad day,” Cloke says, “for example, after a parent complaint, and so it changes the way they would answer.”

It is impossible to ask outright who raised a certain issue or scored poorly for wellbeing concerns, and this can be a point of frustration, Cloke says. 

She also notes that anonymous surveys make it easier for staff to be overly negative, which can also make it hard to get a clear indication of how the majority of staff are feeling by distorting the results. 

Robson-Kelly says that, even so, they should not ignore the data they receive.

“It may be that it’s actually a teacher who you thought was fine that is being honest in their answers, so you have to give it proper consideration.”

Staff Pulse - a staff survey for schoolsAcknowledging and acting on information

To make sure that anonymous surveys are viewed as worthwhile, it’s important to show that the results are being considered.

“[Staff] need to feel heard and there is no point in doing a survey if you don’t do anything on the back of it,” says Robson-Kelly.

As such, she says, leaders should explain how they will act on any issues raised by the surveys.

“You could have a team meeting or an inset day, where everyone is involved and the issues are brought up in a more subtle, general way. You can respect the anonymity of the survey but still find ways to address the issues it brings up.”

Cloke says she and her senior team always analyse the survey and discuss the results with staff, which can have very positive outcomes.

“We give staff the chance to come to a presentation where we share results in terms of trends and what we are doing in those areas to make things better.”

She adds that this also offers staff the chance to feed back, whether in person or via email, if they are comfortable elaborating after these meetings.

She gives an example of how one survey found a high number of staff concerned about workload. 

When the issue was delved into, several staff highlighted that a major part of the problem was due to a specific overseas enrichment programme.

“Because of the survey, we were able to identify the issue and then work to address it,” she says. 

Look for the positives

Robson-Kelly adds that sometimes schools can become too focused on using anonymous surveys to seek out problems but the process itself should be seen as a positive tool for staff wellbeing as much as the results it may provide. 

“Scrutiny is at the heart of education and it can be hard to get out of this mindset, but I would urge schools to sometimes try to get staff thinking about what is working well so they can build on this, too.

“The questions could be focused on aspects of meaning and purpose in work, if staff feel they have autonomy, what has made them feel joy recently and other positive emotions related to their work.”

Dan Worth is a content writer at Tes

Tes Staff Pulse - a staff survey