UK schools arguably have greater challenges facing them than ever before. Years of budget cuts have resulted in underfunding, and growing student numbers are leading to mounting pressure on pastoral care structures in schools across the country. With the mental health and wellbeing of staff and students alike becoming an increasing concern, it is hugely important to explore the issues affecting UK schools and figure out how we can better support our teachers.

We sat down with expert Hilary Macaulay to discuss teacher recruitment and retention in 2019. Hilary has held senior leadership roles in three different schools rated Outstanding by OFSTED, and was principal and CEO of one of the UK’s first all-age academies for nearly eight years. She has worked for the Department for Education as a seconded executive principal, and also as a consultant alongside the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust where she mentored newly-appointed academy heads.

In the next 6-18 months, what do you think will be the big topics that are going to be high on any school’s executive team’s agenda?

The major headline topics that will be on any state school’s executive team agenda in the next 6-18 months are funding, teacher recruitment and retention, the new Ofsted Inspection Framework and the status of the profession as portrayed in the public domain. This has been greatly affected by several years of under-funding, growth in student numbers and more staff leaving the profession entirely or retiring earlier than ever before. In addition, the increase in the deterioration of the mental health and wellbeing of staff and students alike, some of which is reportedly exacerbated by the relentless pressure of workload and a national culture of lack of professional trust from government.

A year and a half ago, staff recruitment and staff retention were two of the highest items on Headteachers’ lists of challenges. Where are they now?

They remain right at the top, along with funding and teacher workload at all levels within the profession. They are inextricably linked and so, sadly, still share the top position.

Decoupling the two issues, what are the challenges of staff retention?

The main issues behind staff retention at all levels within the profession are workload, lack of reasonable work-life balance and a feeling of constant external scrutiny. In many cases, executive teams and SLT are working as best they can to address these issues whilst still needing to get the job done. This means that SLT are taking on more and more work. The draft new Ofsted Inspection Framework uses language which suggests that leadership teams will be penalised if they don’t address certain things, yet the only way for them to do so in the current regime is to continue taking on even more work themselves. People are burning out and, in turn, looking for lower workloads. That’s happening a lot, and it isn’t sustainable.

What do you think executive teams and SLT can do to address this?

One way is to explore how creative approaches to flexible working can affect improvement, whilst not impacting on learner outcomes. For their own wellbeing, more and more staff are resorting to reduced working time in order to cope with the demands presented to them which, ten years ago, would have been manageable on a full time basis. Wider acceptance of flexible working would reduce this, since teachers wouldn’t feel like their only two options are to continue working at unsustainable levels or to leave entirely.

You see it a fair bit, when people simply burn out and vanish from the profession: one minute they’re there and the next minute they’re not. It’s very much my view, however, that if you’re a qualified teacher I don’t really mind what role you are filling. As long as you remain in the profession in some way, then you’re still contributing. Anything we can do to prevent people from leaving altogether is vital, whether they’re working as a permanent member of staff or a supply teacher.

Can you offer any examples of how flexible working could be implemented more in schools?

Well it is already in many cases, because teachers do job-shares, or work part-time. It’s more common in primary schools because it’s seen as easier to achieve without affecting the students. I personally think it’s just as easy to implement in secondary, but we as a profession put obstacles in our own way. We say things like, ‘we can’t have part-time working because that will lead to split classes, and in turn that will affect the quality of the teaching and student outcomes’.

In reality, most children would probably rather enjoy having multiple teachers, who will most likely teach different aspects of the course. That’s exactly what happens when you go to university; you have different people specialising in different areas of your subject. So I think that we have been our own worst enemy as a profession in a lot of cases, and the secondary phase has been the slowest to adapt.

Is there anything else that you think SLT can do to keep more people in the profession?

I think that SLT actually has to look after themselves. I’m trying not to be too political here, but a lot of government initiatives now state that it falls on senior leadership to ensure that their staff’s work isn’t increasing, yet workloads are increasing. Well, the only way out of that for senior leaders is for them to pick up all of the extra work themselves.

But then you’re ending up with senior leaders burning out, so senior leaders need to be far more aware of using other people to support their work. There’s often a degree of martyrdom with senior leaders, in the sense that they will take any extra work on because they feel obliged to because of higher salary scales, and then they feel like they have to keep quiet about it. So, flexible working aside, I think it’s also about senior leaders creatively using other adults within their organisation to support their work.

Could you offer some examples of creative ways to build a better support network?

I think that there’s a widespread tendency to think that anything to do with education has to be done by education professionals, specifically qualified teachers. In reality, a lot of it doesn’t have to be. Many things that senior leaders do, such as admin and data inputting, could be done by other skilled people who are not necessarily qualified teachers and who don’t also have to deal with things such as discipline, student wellbeing, and parents etc.

This needs to be looked at more carefully I believe, because I’m not convinced that all senior leaders are necessarily good at delegating. I think we feel a level of guilt if we’re delegating anything to do with education that we could in theory do ourselves. We haven’t had the time as a profession to say that it’s okay to delegate. Senior leaders across all schools need to make the effort to relieve the pressure on SLT so that it becomes the norm. If we don’t look after ourselves, we’re no use at all to our staff.

So it’s important for SLT to lean on a wider range of people to get everything done?

I think some of it is also about flexible working at a senior leader level as well. It’s happening more in primary schools, with job-shares and co-headship as an example. As I mentioned earlier, it doesn’t happen so much at secondary. When people have been in a job for a long time, let’s say more than seven years, I think it’s important for them to have the opportunity to take time out to do other things related to education, perhaps for six months to a year. There’s a tipping point at which heads have probably been at their school for too long, and there’s no reason why they can’t stay at the school in the long-term, but realistically they may need to step out and do something a bit different for a while. This could be with their local authority, or another multi-academy trust or with a university.

In this sector, we don’t have any provision for sabbaticals. If you look at Australia and America, they do; it’s expected that people do it and it is funded as well. It happens in the university teaching sector too. This should be more acceptable in this country. SLT should be able to have career breaks, during which another person or organisation can step into their role temporarily and lead it. Then they can return the year after, completely refreshed, and set the path for the next stage of their time with that organisation.

Moving on to staff recruitment, why is this such a challenge?

Staff recruitment is a challenge for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is an unavoidable fact that there is a lack of qualified staff in the profession, and every year this becomes more of a stark reality. The cost of recruitment in terms of time and advertising is a significant challenge. This ties into a growing culture where prospective staff, particularly those earlier in their career, can ask for enhanced salaries owing to the shortage of good teachers.

Recruitment is also exceptionally time consuming, with schools having to advertise multiple times for just one post and, in some areas, repeatedly receiving no applicants at all. The official resignation dates which the majority of teachers are tied into also puts huge pressure on schools, who are all vying for staff at the same time. This often forces schools into making appointments at considerable unplanned salary enhancements, just to secure people early. It’s rather like the football player transfer window but without the money that comes with football.

Do you have any thoughts on the DfE’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy?

I was actually involved in the consultation and table talks there, so the whole flexible working angle emerged from discussions we had last summer. I think it will work, as long as schools sign up to it. Schools have to find the courage themselves to do it. Whether they will I don’t know. There’s nothing too revolutionary in there, all it suggests is that it’s a good idea and beneficial to follow these guidelines. Some schools are doing it anyway.

Ideally there needs to be a mass movement in the way we do things, so schools who don’t follow these guidelines become the exception rather than the norm. Then, eventually, staff won’t want to join those schools, owing to the absence of flexible working and sabbaticals, for example. The profession is ultimately just terribly conservative. Even with the existing pressures that have come with the recruitment crisis, I’m still not seeing enough people saying ‘let’s look really flexibly at how we’re keeping people and what we’re doing for them’.

How has staff recruitment changed over the course of your career, and what can executive teams and SLT do to reduce the challenges and costs associated with it?

Having been in SLT for twenty-one years, fourteen of those as a Principal, Executive Principal and CEO, the change in staff recruitment has been unrecognisable, and not for the better in most cases. In the past, staff movement could be planned for. Nowadays, however, and in the past five years in particular, it has been entirely reactionary and continues all year round due to unfilled posts in schools. It has created a revolving door effect. This is based on my experience both leading and securing schools to Outstanding Ofsted judgements, and overseeing those still on a journey of improvement. This indicates that every school type and phase is experiencing this. Also, the recruitment challenges in the profession are at all levels from CEO to NQT.

Growing your own teachers from graduate TAs and HLTAs has been effective in some areas, although the scale of this is a drop in the ocean when compared with the number of teachers and school leaders needed in the system against the increasing number of unfilled positions in our schools

SLT can go some way towards reducing the challenges and costs by always being in ‘search mode’, but this is exhausting. Using a supply source with high quality staff, where both the schools and the teachers feel they are getting a good deal, will go a long way towards securing teachers in schools. The majority of teachers are still motivated by ethical approaches to recruitment and understand the costs involved in the process. However, in a climate where supply is limited and demand high, money talks. With that, students inevitably lose out, since it is the very money for their education that is being taken out of the system and being spent on brokers or agency fees.