Why a better head for business could lead to happier staff

3rd June 2016 at 00:00
A business approach to education is alienating teachers from leadership, says this academic, mostly because headteachers don’t understand how businesses work

THE UK has a staff retention crisis on its hands and, on first look, it looks like a difficult issue to fix. The reasons for staff unhappiness in education are in some ways unique. We have a lot of pressures from different parties: what the government wants, what parents demand and what we think is best for our children. This is a tortuous mix.

It is documented that problems are also caused by external (Sats, GCSEs) and internal (triple marking, behaviour management strategies) change. All the while managers are looking to improve performance in a way that is increasingly data driven.

But let’s not kid ourselves. High levels of pressure are not found only in schools.

So perhaps we should look at other causes for the increase in teacher unhappiness. One thing inevitably comes to the fore: the actions of school leaders.

A search around the teacher forums will uncover some disturbing examples of alleged bullying and unreasonable demands from school leaders. Things have gone a long way from having a moan about the boss. There is now an unprecedented level of bile. But what is the reason for this?

Many schools are now being run by leaders who are target driven and seek success at any cost. This is a brutal business model. Indeed, there are some leaders who see themselves as running a business. They use language that they think comes from a corporate world.

Although there are many in the education world who are uneasy about this, there are those who can see the merits and regard it as the way forward. They argue it is not the business approach that is causing teacher unhappiness. Rather, it is the fact that a business model of management is being increasingly adopted in schools without much knowledge about how to do it right.

So how do the best leaders in tough businesses retain their staff?

According to experts in the field Masterton and Pickton, effective leaders in industry deploy internal marketing (IM). They need their good employees to stay. In an education setting, you need to make your school a place where people want to work. So how do we go about developing this environment?

Masterton and Pickton argue that IM has the purpose of addressing the needs and concerns of colleagues caused by:

Lack of information about any changes.

Not having the skills or know-how to implement the changes.

Having knowledge and know-how but not the willpower.

Different vested interests.

Management needs to inform, provide the training and incentivise. Here’s how the business world does it.

Adapt relationships with parents and staff

Masterton and Pickton suggest that we cannot satisfy customers by simply providing a good technical service (eg, the success of the surgery or the tastiness of the food served in the restaurant). We can read this as having good exam results. They make it clear that the customer judges overall quality not just on technical but also functional quality (eg, whether the surgeon showed concern and inspired confidence or whether the waiter was friendly and polite).

For us, this could mean how we present ourselves at parent consultation evenings and open days and the welcome that parents get when phoning or dropping into the school with a concern. In other words, abandoning the “you shall not pass” posturing at the front desk.

There is a clear message in this for staff relations, too. Leaders need to treat their colleagues with a high level of functional quality. They have to master interpersonal skills with staff.

A strong IM strategy will find all a school’s employees treated as internal customers. They must be convinced of their school’s vision and worth just as efficiently as we try to get that message across to all the other stakeholders.

Concentrate on information and development

Worthwhile IM is based on the idea that employees’ attitudes toward an institution are based on their entire experience. But how should heads go about fine tuning this? The Marketing Schools website (for marketing trainer providers in the US) has sound advice.

Provide comprehensive and ongoing training programs for employees at every level.

Allow top performers to provide feedback on issues concerning the organisation.

Use newsletters or in-house vlogs, wikis and message boards to spread information and reinforce organisational culture.

Provide access to information as frequently as is possible.

Create performance-based incentives.

Tailor your internal marketing messages to each department, key stage and age phase. Messages to teachers might be different to messages aimed at IT support staff.

Highlight success.

Encourage collaboration and co-operation between different departments.

Accountability and responsibility are also key drivers in encouraging staff to perform better. But only if teachers and staff have an understanding of the expectations put on them will a culture of loyalty grow within the school. Leaders need to make sure that they integrate the organisational culture of the school with colleagues’ own personal and professional needs.

Adapt to staff, don’t expect staff to adapt to you

HR professionals suggest that when an organisation wants to implement a new strategy or change programme, it needs to align employees’ attitudes and behaviours to correspond with the vision. Not force or impose.

This does not fit the “our way or no way” attitude evident in some schools.

The approach has payoffs. High levels of employee satisfaction will lead to improved retention rates, reduced absenteeism and wider acceptance of any change programme. This needs to be the aim of all school leaders.

Teachers are customers, too

Teachers are expected to treat pupils with respect. This should be extended to their parents. There is evidence that this respect is not always conveyed to teachers and support staff. Good HR practice states that you must treat your employees as you would your customers. School leaders should ask themselves if they are doing this.

Research staff opinion

Another aspect of IM is having leaders who understand how colleagues perceive their school. HR consultants recommend faceto-face interviews as the best way to get a real understanding of how staff at a school think that the organisation works.

They suggest these questions to form the basis of a trustworthy staff retention policy:

What do colleagues think of the way the organisation recruits?

What is their view of ongoing training?

Are they happy with the working conditions?

Do they feel committed to the school?

David Hail, the managing director of internal marketing specialist Serac Communications, explains the rationale behind carrying out such research: “It is about acquiring an in-depth understanding of the issues people are facing and understanding it in their context.”

Not all heads fail in these areas, of course. And those that do fail are unlikely to be doing so intentionally. But it is an issue that needs to be addressed. Yes, external factors are important when looking at staff retention, but we cannot forget to take a look at the situation closer to home, too.

Bill Lowe is a senior lecturer at Newman University in Birmingham and a former headteacher

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