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Overcoming the challenges to retaining and developing staff in schools and Multi-Academy Trusts

In this article Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith examines the key challenges that schools and Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) face in relation to staff retention and development and how The Open University can help address this.

In this article Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith examines the key challenges that schools and Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) face in relation to staff retention and development and how The Open University can help address this.



In a March 2022 white paper, the UK Government expressed its intent for all children to be taught within a family of schools by 2030. The term ‘family of schools’ refers to Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), and according to the report, schools must already be in a Trust within this timeframe or have plans to join or form one.

MATs are free from the control of local authority, which means that schoolteachers and leaders have greater freedoms and are empowered to decide how best to spend their budgets and deliver the curriculum to pupils.

However, despite this increased autonomy, leadership in MATs does not come without its challenges.

Staff Retention

According to a survey carried out by the National Education Union (NEU) in 2021, nearly half of all teachers and leaders surveyed do not think that they will still be working in schools in 5 years’ time.

The most common reasons for this are cited as a concern for high workload (51%), lack of government trust (53%) and the reduced status of the profession (66%). Data from the Department for Education shows that whilst teacher retention has been steadily improving since 2013, there seems to be a problem retaining those in the early stages of their career – 22% of newly qualified teachers were reported as leaving the profession within 2 years, 33% within 5 years and 29% within 10 years.

In a 2018 report, those who left teaching recommended improving in-school support for teachers, reducing workloads, and increasing the focus on professional recognition and progression opportunities.

A greater commitment to Continuing Professional Development (CPD) could therefore play an important part in staff retention. It will also encourage employees to learn new skills, refresh existing knowledge, and to keep up to date with the latest trends and developments within their profession.

Improving the quality of teaching and learning

A number of national policies have combined to create a work environment that many teachers and leaders perceive as providing limited autonomy and professional trust. In turn, this can create a focus on operational (rather than strategic) aspects of professional development. This type of training does not always make a direct impact on sustainably improving the quality of teaching and learning, nor does it always provide a direct sense of fulfilment for those doing it. The result is often an experience which demotivates and disengages staff who are already facing a challenging workload.

The reason that most teachers and school leaders enter the world of education is to focus on children and students’, not on the school or Trust as an organisation. Staff want to understand how to improve their professional practice and want to see how theories and research are directly relevant to their own classroom or leadership practices.

For this reason, it is important for all schools and trusts to provide opportunities for professional learning that address not only operational matters, but the areas in which staff really want to engage and develop their own professional priorities.

Leadership pipeline

Encouraging a more evidence driven profession is a current priority of both the teaching profession (see this article from the Chartered College of Teaching) and the government.

As Teaching Assistant’s (TAs) work towards becoming Teachers, Teachers towards Middle and Senior Leaders, and Senior Leaders towards System Leaders, different skills, knowledge, and attributes are required. Schools and trusts need to think about developing a pipeline of professionals suitable for the many different roles and levels within the organisation and wider system. This is partly to retain good staff, partly because growing people is cheaper than recruiting externally, and partly because schools and trusts play a vital role in civic leadership – that is to say, imparting knowledge, skills and values that will have a positive impact on individuals and local communities.

A challenge for schools and trusts, therefore, is how they can provide professional learning experiences that address each of these different career stages and levels of leadership.

Flexible professional development as a solution

Based on these challenges, it’s clear that providing staff with development and progression opportunities is key to retaining and developing a skilled and informed workforce. However, with pressures on staff time and the continued squeeze on budgets, school and trust leaders require solutions that span differing career stages and development needs. A flexible approach to CPD is therefore essential.

Learning solutions from The Open University

The Open University’s approach is to provide employers with the resources, support, and expertise necessary to make meaningful investment in staff development.

Courses range from free online learning modules to professional short courses and recognised qualifications, providing learning solutions for school and trust staff at all levels. As the only UK university dedicated to distance learning, The Open University’s courses are designed to be flexible, enabling teachers and leaders to make the most of the valuable non-teaching time that they have.

The OU’s supported online learning approach provides the flexibility needed for TAs through to System Leaders to achieve a recognised undergraduate or postgraduate personal qualification as part of their organisations professional practice. They are also portable, meaning they can be used in different roles, specialisms, contexts, or locations.

This ‘everyone benefits’ method is vital to justifying funding, as well as being crucial to getting the ‘buy in’ from the individual to take on the commitment and see it through successfully. Furthermore, it creates a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship that increases the commitment from both employee and employer, leading to staff retention and efficient talent development.

As well as recognised qualifications, Continuing Professional Development (CPD) through The Open University enables learners to develop their theoretical understanding and professional practice.

For school and trust staff seeking informal learning opportunities, the OU’s award winning OpenLearn platform contains thousands of courses and resources available for free. For CPD with greater professional recognition, but without the time commitment required for a qualification, short courses known as Microcredentials enhance teaching skills and offer an insight into inclusive learning. They’re perfect for professional development and enable learners to gain new skills in as little as 12 weeks. Created by world-class OU academics, many microcredentials are endorsed by high-profile industry partners. A 2022 survey highlighted learners’ satisfaction with microcredential course materials, with 97% rating the quality of audio and video highly. 96% also said they felt the skills they gained were “excellent” or “good”.

Discover the range of OU courses for those working in schools and Multi-Academy Trusts

About the academic

Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith EdD MA (Ed) MMus PGCE BA (Hons) FCCT FRSA

Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith is an award-winning leader with a passion for making learning meaningful for every child.

As Director of One Life Learning, Fiona provides strategic education consultancy services to schools, professional learning providers and edtech companies. She is also an Associate Lecturer and Consultant Researcher at The Open University, teaching and supervising postgraduate research and taught programmes as well as undergraduate education degree courses in education, pedagogy and research methods.

Fiona sits on the board of a number of charitable trusts and is a regular contributor to books, panels, and events addressing Education, Pedagogy and Education Technology.

Named by Education Business as one of the 50 most influential people in education in both 2021 and 2022, Fiona has been recognised for her contribution to the teaching profession and across education with Fellowships awarded by both the Chartered College of Teaching and the Royal Society of Arts.

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