MAT Leaders resource: ensuring a positive culture for recruitment & retention

The Embark Federation, as members of our #MATLeaders networks, have kindly worked with us to share their work in ensuring successful recruitment and retention.

As leaders we know that the most important influence on the success of our schools, and the children and young people we all serve, is our staff. Yet, the recruitment and retention of staff is clearly becoming ever more challenging. All too often the pressure of our high accountability system is filtering down to the classroom and impacting on staff wellbeing and motivation. Nevertheless there are some steps that can be taken to mitigate this. Whilst it is challenging, it is important that schools and school leaders do what they can, creating the culture and systems of support which will enable those who teach and care for our children to thrive in their roles and therefore in their wider lives. Rachael Gacs recently visited the Richardson Endowed Primary School in Derbyshire, which alongside Kilburn Junior School forms the Embark Federation, to hear more about their approach.

Matthew Crawford, Embark Federation

Matthew Crawford, Embark’s Executive Headteacher, Kate Mason, Head of the Richardson Endowed Primary, Robert Hull, Head of Kilburn Junior school, and Sarah Armitage, Chair of Governors, all share a mutual commitment to prioritising staff wellbeing. Matthew shares the thinking behind this approach; “at Embark, we recognise that staff are our greatest resource. If they are exhausted and unhappy, that will have a negative impact on their practice in the classroom. Conversely, if they are happy in their work, have energy and motivation, and feel valued, that will have a really positive impact on their teaching and on the atmosphere in the classroom, and, consequently, on the children.”

Quality of teaching is not the only driving factor behind the emphasis on staff wellbeing at Embark; it is also founded on a culture of genuine care, and an emphasis on all members of the Federation, staff and pupils alike, being part of a ‘family’. This family feel is evident the moment you step through the doors of the school; everyone seems happy in their work, and everyone who speaks to us tells us how valued they feel. Family is one of the four key values of the school, the others being Integrity, Teamwork and Success. Sarah Armitage tells us that these values are “lived and breathed” by pupils and staff at the school, and permeate all aspects of school life.

“By caring for staff, we are caring for our school and caring for our children too.” Matthew Crawford

Matthew tells us a little more about the importance of the core value of ‘family’ at the Federation; “it means we want for the children at our schools exactly as we would want for our own children, that same level of happiness, opportunity, and success. It also means that the children of staff matter just as much as our pupils. They shouldn’t be missing out because their parent is having to invest all their time and energy into their work, at the expense of their own family.” There is a balance to be had between work and home life, and both are valued as equally important by the leadership of Embark. The value of family is very much ‘lived’ at the Federation, and this is evident in a number of ways.

First and foremost, reasonable requests for leave are always granted to staff without question for those important family occasions such as school plays, school concerts, sports days, graduations or funerals. When asked about this, staff confirmed that they felt very comfortable in making such requests, and that they had always been granted. Staff are also fully supported in times of crisis, for example, if they have parents or children who are unwell, or if they suffer a bereavement. Matthew tells us, “at times like these we do whatever we can to support the individual from a genuine place of care and concern, and we allow them to do what they need to do. The staff also rally round to help each other, knowing that the same kind of support would be offered in return should they ever need it.” A ‘Wellbeing Day’, a day of leave offered to all staff once a year, can also be booked in and used in whichever way each individual member of staff sees fit. These days can be used for anything, but popular uses include attending a wedding, having a day out with children on their inset day, Christmas shopping, a day trip, or a spa day. Wellbeing days are covered internally, usually by Matthew, Rob or Kate, who see it as a welcome opportunity to get back into the classroom!

“we’re not in from the crack of dawn until last thing at night, with no life outside of school. We actively make the point of talking about our lives outside of work, and our families, and encourage staff to do the same.”

Matthew tells us, “that little bit you give to staff, they appreciate, and you gain it back in commitment. We want staff to be able to spend time with their own families.” The leaders of the Embark Federation do not expect staff to work set hours beyond the normal school day; on a day-to-day basis staff can come in and leave at the times they choose, and are trusted to get their work done in the way that best suits them. Matthew tells us that this is also modelled by the leadership, “we’re not in from the crack of dawn until last thing at night, with no life outside of school. We actively make the point of talking about our lives outside of work, and our families, and encourage staff to do the same. We make an effort to get to know about their lives as a whole, if they are happy to share.” At Embark, meetings are kept to a minimum and usually last no longer than an hour. These only take place when they are actually necessary (not simply because a meeting was already scheduled in several months ago!)

The Federation is also keen to support staff wherever possible in leading flexible working hours, part time working, and job shares, understanding that there are often times in life where work has to fit around other commitments, such as raising young children. Emma Reckless, teacher, and head of EYFS and KS1 at Richardson Endowed Primary, tells us “when my children were younger I had the opportunity to work flexibly as part of a job share, which meant I could fit my work around childcare needs. The school were really supportive of this, and working part-time did not hold me back at all in terms of progressing in my career. I was able to engage in CPD whilst working part-time, and I am now part of the senior leadership team.”

Staff are also actively encouraged to pursue their passions and interests outside of school, as this means that they can be more well-rounded role models in the classroom. Hobbies and interests that the staff have often enrich the school, as they bring those interests with them and this can then add to the wider curriculum for pupils. Examples include a member of staff interested in baking who started a Christmas cake club, a member of staff interested in the outdoors helping to create Kilburn school’s outdoor learning environment, another who is a British Cycling coach co-ordinating a cycling club, and a colleague who introduced chickens to Richardson primary school! “As a leadership team, it is important that we identify the wider skills, talents and interests of our staff” says Kilburn’s Headteacher Rob, “we want to celebrate that, and, where staff are able and willing, to recognise that within the life of the school. Our staff are very motivated by the fact they can share their interests with the children.”

“we want to celebrate the wider talents and interests of our staff team, and, where staff are able and willing, to recognise those within the life of the school.”

Embark do not just ‘talk the talk’ of wellbeing. The systems are very much in place to help to relieve the pressure of workload that all teachers face, so that, as Matthew puts it, “teachers can be fresh and have energy where they need it most, and where pupils benefit from it most; in the classroom.” The pressures of marking, planning and report writing have all been considered and are carried out at the schools in ways that maximise efficiency and minimise workload, and ensure that no time is wasted on anything that does not directly benefit pupils’ progress. Marking is kept simple; the schools use the ‘two stars and a wish’ method, but comments are not expected to be long and detailed. Matthew tells us “sometimes a simple word, such as ‘presentation’ for one of the stars, is enough. We also don’t expect every single piece of work to be marked in this way, just the key pieces. The main thing is that the children understand their next steps for learning; feedback doesn’t need to be convoluted or subject to heavy protocols to achieve that.”

Staff at Embark have had CPD and INSET training on how to make sure marking is effective but also efficient. According the Matthew, “the main thing for us is that the impact of feedback can be seen in the pupils’ progress, and that is checked regularly as a whole staff at meetings. Of course, not all feedback has to be written either, some of the most influential feedback comes from conversations between teachers and pupils which encourage further progress.” When it comes to planning, there is a large degree of professional trust at the schools, and teachers are left to plan in the way that works best for them rather than in a prescribed manner. There are no boxes to tick or hoops to jump through, and planning is not taken in on a regular basis; Matthew tells us “teachers are able to plan their lessons creatively and in a way which supports their own personal teaching style.”

“teachers are able to plan their lessons creatively and in a way which supports their own personal teaching style.”

Embark have also adapted their approach to report writing in order to reduce workload for staff; however, this has not been at the expense of the quality of the reports, and according to Matthew, has actually enhanced them. “Previously our reports included a section on each subject, and would take over an hour to write for each individual child; now reports have a section for each of the core subjects, such as English, Maths and Science, and then a section on the individual pupil’s current strengths and weaknesses. Not only does this save time on report writing, but it has also had the effect of the reports being much more individual, as a really distinctive picture of the child is conveyed through the strengths and weaknesses section.”

Reports have also been made easier to write with the support of iTrack, a programme used by the school for data collection, since iTrack is able to generate the first page of the school report through the data that has been inputted throughout the year. Teachers are also provided with a half-day off their normal timetable to support them in completing reports without having to take significant amounts of time out of their evenings and weekends in order to do so. In addition to cutting down the workload of marking, planning and reports, Matthew recognises the need to be discerning when it comes to introducing new teaching initiatives to the classroom, “trying to take on every new initiative would ultimately cause a lot of unnecessary work and stress. We would only consider beginning a new initiative if there was very strong evidence that the pupils were going to benefit, and also in proportion to the extra work staff would be taking on.”

“trying to take on every new initiative would ultimately cause a lot of unnecessary work and stress. We would only consider beginning a new initiative if there was very strong evidence…. and also in proportion to the extra work staff would be taking on.”

As for lesson observations at the federation, they have been mostly replaced by more informal learning walks. There are no lesson judgments; instead, staff and leadership discuss strengths and weaknesses together as part of a professional development discussion, and these conversations are always supportive and focused on growth. Performance management is done in a similar way; it is encouraged to be a two-way process where staff can bring along their own personal targets, and discuss how they can be best supported in further improving their practice in terms of CPD. When it comes to Ofsted, Embark puts little emphasis on ‘preparing’; the Headteacher of Richardson Endowed Primary, Kate Mason, tells us “I hardly ever mention Ofsted, and we certainly do not do things for Ofsted. Everything we do is motivated by doing whatever is in the best interests of the pupils, and it is our core beliefs which are driving that, not Ofsted. I have every confidence in the school and in the staff, who are excellent. I just tell them to do what they usually do and focus on making the school the best place it can be, and Ofsted will take care of itself.” Kate’s approach certainly paid off, with Richardson Endowed Primary receiving a ‘good’ Ofsted report in 2017, and according to staff, it also meant they felt much less Ofsted induced stress and anxiety!

All staff and governors in the Embark Federation have a voice and an opportunity to contribute to the school vision annually, giving a sense of shared ownership, and further emphasising that every member of the school community, and their opinion, is valued. Added to this, local community groups and pupils from the school council are also invited to contribute to the meeting. One of the exciting results of the shared vision meeting recently had been the concept of the ‘Embark Award’, due to be introduced to the pupils very soon. The ‘Embark Award’ puts a strong focus on pupil wellbeing, particularly on enabling them to experience and achieve beyond the limits of the normal curriculum. It is made up of a list of 100 activities, 25 linked to each of the Federation’s values; the list includes activities such as ‘cooking a family meal’, ‘joining the local library’, ‘growing something you can eat’, ‘raising money for charity’, ‘building a den’ and ‘learning a musical instrument’. Pupils will aim to achieve a bronze award for completing 40 activities, then silver for completing 60 activities, and will be able to attain a gold award in year 6 if they complete 90 of the activities.  Matthew tells us, “the aim of the Embark award is to encourage children to be children, to have a real childhood experiences, while also feeling a sense of pride and achievement in living out the school values at the same time”.

The most inspiring thing about the Embark Federation’s emphasis on wellbeing and work life balance is that it has actually strongly supported its success, rather than hindering it in any way.

The most inspiring thing about the Embark Federation’s emphasis on wellbeing and work life balance is that it has actually underpinned its success, rather than hindering it in any way. Results are impressive; in 2014 Richardson Endowed Primary was in the top 100 schools in the country for attainment; the 2017 Ofsted judgement was ‘good’, and the school is growing all the time (it has grown from 150 pupils to 210 pupils in just three years). At Kilburn Junior School pupil numbers have risen from 131 to 158 in the last 18 months and attainment and progress results are also strong. In February 2017 Richardson Endowed Primary were designated a National Support School and Matthew a National Leader of Education as recognition of their work as system leaders.

Staff retention, as one would imagine, is excellent at the Federation, and Matthew tells us that “whilst the schools may not suit everyone and we don’t always get everything right, staff rarely leave unless it is for a promotion”. A recent job advertisement for a teaching post at the Federation also received over 50 applications, with a very high calibre of candidates applying, demonstrating that the Federation’s reputation for looking after its staff is really paying off at a time where many other schools are struggling to recruit and retain teachers. Matthew concludes by telling us, “ultimately it really is the little things that help staff to feel valued. Saying thank you, leaving chocolates or fresh fruit in the staff room, having an open door so that all staff feel comfortable coming to you with any issues, and always trusting their professional judgement – these are the things that are most important, and that are most appreciated”.


The Embark Federation – Teachers’ perspectives

Eve MacDonald – The Richardson Endowed Primary School

“Time with our families is fostered with wellbeing days, and we are also able to attend important family events and occasions (such as a child’s school play), even if they are taking place during the school day. You don’t feel you have to brace yourself before you ask either, as it’s always met with approval.

At Embark we are trusted. We have the level of scrutiny that is needed, we check progress in books and learning walks take place regularly, but it is not onerous or intimidating. Previously, when I worked in a secondary school we were scrutinised all the time. It felt really intense, and in the back of my mind while planning or marking I was always thinking about how it was going to be perceived by SLT, rather than simply how I could make the lesson most appropriate and engaging for my class. I think the level of trust at Embark helps you to be a really good teacher, your focus is on the right things, and you are not constantly anxious about ticking boxes. I’ve found it a really positive difference in culture.

In terms of having a work life balance, SLT are really clear with the staff about how important it is. Matthew says all the time that if you are bogged down and tired you’re not going to be a vibrant and energetic teacher in the staffroom. We are not made to feel guilty about having a life outside of work, and SLT talk about what they do outside of work, and their interests. They also talk about their families. I think that shows us as staff that it is ok to have interests beyond the job, and a full family life outside of work- it’s all seen as positive”.


Adam Barber – Kilburn Junior School

“Both of the schools in the Embark Federation are motivated by a sense of family- there is a real family ethos. We are very much supported if we have a crisis in our own family, and we are given time to deal with whatever needs to be dealt with, for example, taking a family member to a hospital appointment. You don’t have to worry about asking for that time, or that you might not be given it.

We are not made to do anything as teachers that does not benefit the children first and foremost. Nothing is done for show or for Ofsted when they walk through the door, and it’s not ticking boxes or jumping through hoops. Everything we do is done for the children and to move them forward. The key thing for me is that things do not just come from the top down. Staff are given the trust to develop practises that benefit us, and if something doesn’t work for us, it’s not used, and something that does work, and is useful to our job and the children, is put in its place instead.

SLT have an open door policy and I feel completely comfortable talking to them about anything. More than that, it’s not just a case of feeling you can go and talk to them when you want something, they also make a point of regularly coming to see you and asking if you are ok and if there is anything you need.”


Learning Points

  • Understand that staff are your greatest resource- You need your staff to be healthy and motivated in order for them to be able to give their best in the classroom for the pupils. A happy and motivated teacher will have a much more positive impact in the classroom than an exhausted, stressed or unsupported one.
  • Prioritise classroom teaching– Hours outside of the classroom spent marking, planning, or engaging in paperwork and administrative tasks will all take energy away from where it matters most- the classroom. Look into ways to reduce the workload outside of lesson time, so that your teachers can be as fresh and vibrant as possible in the classroom.
  • Develop a Culture of support and care– A school where staff are supported and valued will be a much more positive place to be, and this will benefit everybody, including the pupils. It will also result in a much more committed staff and will increase levels of job satisfaction and therefore retention.
  • Support staff to have a work/life balance- Allow staff to attend important family events, and to have time for their own families and interests outside of school. Not only is this fair to the staff and their families, and important for their wellbeing, they will also be much more well-rounded role models to their pupils.
  • Have professional trust- You don’t have to have set working hours outside of the normal school day, scrutinise every piece of planning, and give constant lesson observations and judgements. Have some professional trust and staff will appreciate it, and feel free to be more creative in their teaching. Be aware of what is happening in your school through informal learning walks and collaborative reviews of progress and exercise books.
  • Fully support job shares and flexible working- supporting flexible working means that you will hold on to excellent teachers and is important for staff retention. It will also be a big draw in terms of teacher recruitment – the new generation of graduates value flexibility, as do teachers with family and caring responsibilities.
  • Relieve staff pressure over Ofsted– Do not do anything for Ofsted, but instead do everything in the best interests of your pupils and staff. Share this approach with staff – reassure them that as long as they are doing what is in the best interests of the pupils and their progress, Ofsted will take care of itself. Staff will be less stressed as a result.
  • Support staff in their professional development–  Support staff in continually growing and improving as practitioners through performance management targets and opportunities for CPD, as well as helpful and supportive feedback, and encouraging them in their career progression if they wish to take on more responsibility.
  • Don’t try to take on every new teaching initiative– use discernment when considering new teaching initiatives, particularly considering if the benefits for pupils will merit the extra work that has to be taken on by staff.
  • Have a shared vision which everyone can contribute to – Everybody in a school should feel that they have a voice and that they play a part in setting the vision of the school. When all staff are involved in the formation of the vision, everybody feels that they also have a role to play in making it happen.
  • Remember the small things too – The importance of the little things, such as taking an interest in your staff, regularly saying thank you, providing good quality staff facilities, or leaving some chocolates in the staff room, cannot be underestimated. Showing your staff that they are valued on a daily basis will make a huge difference to morale.