The Knowledge

Retention: School leadership matters more than you think

Pay and reduced working hours might help, but school leadership approaches are vital to help you to hold on to staff, says Owen Carter

Pay and reduced working hours might help, but school leadership approaches are vital to help you to hold on to staff, says Owen Carter

21 Nov 2022, 5:00

Retaining teachers is a tricky business. About one in three entering the profession leave after five years. The averages conceal even greater challenges: retention is lower in secondary schools than primaries, in STEM subjects, and varies across the country.

A few causes spring to mind. Workload would likely be number one; pay another. And for those working in schools in challenging circumstances, issues such as pupil mental health, classroom behaviour and a lack of resources all play their part. All these contribute to teachers leaving the classroom.

You would be forgiven for thinking the fix is simple. Pay teachers more. Reduce their working hours. No doubt these would help, but the challenge for school leaders is that some of these factors might be beyond control; the pressures schools face are systemic, and can’t always be solved quickly. 

But I have a hopefully reassuring message: school leadership matters, and more than you might think.

ImpactEd recently published findings from a survey of more than 40,000 pupils and nearly 900 school staff sampled during the 2021-22 academic year. The report, Working Well explores the links between teacher satisfaction and pupil wellbeing. 

The research presented some surprising findings. On a correlation scale of 0-1, leadership and management factors were most associated with overall staff happiness. Statements such as “I feel supported by the leaders and managers in this school” and “I think that the senior leadership team is doing a good job” saw correlations of more than  0.9 with staff satisfaction. By contrast, having an acceptable workload and being able to control disruptive behaviour were less strongly linked (0.7 and 0.61 correlation respectively).

Leadership and management were most associated with overall staff happiness

The importance of school leadership was also evident when we looked at pupil wellbeing. Here, we found that staff perception of school leadership was closely linked to pupil happiness at a 0.57 correlation, behind only staff’s perception of behaviour management.

This isn’t to say that workload and pay don’t matter for staff satisfaction and retention. However, the data suggests that confidence in a school’s direction and feeling supported can have a significant impact. This supports other research that finds that the nature and perception of workload matter more than sheer quantity.

Our findings lead to three key ways school leaders can use the levers they do control for positive effect.

Context matters

The drivers of staff satisfaction and retention vary strongly by school. Using high-quality surveys and diagnostics to evaluate these drivers in each setting is a must. The key is to go beyond workload or wellbeing surveys and ask a broader set of questions about what would help staff to thrive.

Tools are available to support this, but even running this process yourself is a useful start.

Get stuck in

School improvement bookshelves groan under the weight of strategic visions. While the big picture is important, our research shows staff place greater value on supportive management structures, effective communication and a clear direction.

Aim to spend as much or more time on clear communication of the school’s direction than writing grand development plans.

Be holistic about wellbeing

We found a substantial correlation between staff engagement and pupil wellbeing. Interventions that might support one group’s wellbeing at the expense of the other are likely to be detrimental.

The report concludes with a case study from one of our partner schools, Stanley Grove Primary Academy in Manchester, which uses reflective inquiry coaching to allow time for positive wellbeing conversations. Interestingly, this did not immediately lead to uplifts in staff engagement or wellbeing. However, it did create the conditions in which staff could identify the actions that might help the most.

This is a useful analogy for schools everywhere. Much is out of our hands, but leaders should never underestimate the power they have to influence the conditions in which teachers and pupils can succeed.

Given the challenges ahead, embracing this may be the best bet for hanging on to our teachers in resilient and thriving schools.

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