The Knowledge

How do school leaders retain their most talented staff?

John Jerrim reveals the results of a new study into the importance of staff knowing and believing in their school leader's vision

John Jerrim reveals the results of a new study into the importance of staff knowing and believing in their school leader's vision

11 Oct 2023, 5:00

Perhaps the biggest challenge the education system in England is currently facing is the recruitment and retention of enough teachers. In such an environment, it is vital that schools manage to keep their most valued staff.

There is, of course, always stiff competition for top talent. What, then, can school leaders do to foster high levels of organisational commitment amongst their employees?

Using data from almost 3,000 teachers collected via The Engagement Platform (TEP) (www.tep.uk) I have this week published a new academic working paper on this issue.

In this, I focus on one potentially important issue – the extent that staff ‘buy-in’ to their leadership team’s strategy for the school.

How the data was gathered

TEP is a new service for school and MAT leaders  that has been designed to gather information from schools about teacher and school staff engagement and – more broadly – their work environment. It involves school staff completing around 40 survey questions in census-like windows, which can then be used to benchmark engagement amongst their staff compared to others and enable leaders to take action to boost employee engagement at class room, school or trust level.

One of the statements teachers were asked to rate on a 0-10 scale was: “We have a strategy that is taking this school in the right direction”. Following studies from the management literature, I interpret responses as a measure of how ‘bought-in’ teachers are to their leader’s strategic plans. In other words, to what extent do teachers have confidence that their leaders have a plan that will make the school better?

I then explore how responses to this question are associated with how committed teachers are to their current school. This was captured, using the same 0-10 scale, by the question: “If you were offered the same job at another school, how likely is it that you would stay at this school”.

What the results show

The headline results from the paper are presented in Figure 1. The top bar illustrates how much more likely teachers are to say they will reject an outside offer of employment if they buy into the strategy of their leadership team (compared to if they are not bought in).

The other bars illustrate how the importance of buy-in compares to three other workplace factors: the strength of the bond teachers have with their colleagues, how satisfied the teacher is with their workload, and whether they believe their pay/compensation is fair. 

Out of all these factors, buying in to the leadership team’s strategy has the strongest association with the level of commitment teachers have to the school. Teacher who are bought-in are 20 percentage points more likely to reject an outside employment offer than teachers who do not support their leader’s strategy.

This is a bigger difference than if the teacher feels they have a good relationship with colleagues versus a poor relationship (12 percentage point difference), if they are satisfied versus dissatisfied with their workload (9 percentage point difference) and if they believe their pay/compensation is fair (2 percentage point difference).

Implications for leadership

Now, there remains a lot that we don’t know about the role of teacher buy-in within schools.

To what extent does it change over time? Is it a movable feast or is it pretty slow and sticky to change? How do levels of buy-in react to major events, such as a change in school inspection rating or change of leadership team? And how does it relate to the actual future career steps that school staff take? Do staff even know what the strategy is?

Yet, this first piece of research on this issue suggests that buy-in is likely to be important. Staff are only going to (willingly) keep working at a school if they have belief in the strategic plans of their leadership team.

At a time when recruiting and retaining good staff is proving a challenge at many schools, ensuring teachers and other employees understand and are bought-in to the school’s vision and implementation looks to be an  important factor, that school leaders have the power to influence.

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One comment

  1. Steven Turner

    The importance of Buy In by staff is something the business schools have been talking about for many many years. Just check out the Harvard Business Review archive.
    Just as important is the SLT walking the talk which many fail to do, this combined with the recruitment practices of many schools and the working conditions many teachers work in contribute to the high rate of turnover in schools.