Stemming the tide

How has Covid-19 affected teacher recruitment and retention?

The independent sector has been hit hard by the pandemic. We all know that. In the words of Julie Robinson, chief executive officer of the Independent Schools Council (ISC), in their latest census, it’s been the most difficult period for schools since the Second World War.

The census found that the number of students enrolled in independent schools fell for the first time in a decade (an overall 1.3% drop of more than 5,000 students).

A 2020 report co-researched by Teacher Tapp and SchoolDash with support from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, suggests that the education sector will face a recruitment crisis in the aftermath of Covid-19.

The report, Musical Chairs: Understanding and Tackling Covid-19 Disruption to the Teacher Recruitment Market, found that newly qualified teachers are struggling to find first appointments, simply because there are fewer vacancies. The report estimated a reduction of more than 5,000 advertised posts in secondary schools alone.

Research from teaching union NASUWT found that one in four teachers sought medical help for the impact of Covid-19. “The impact of Covid has led most of us to re-evaluate aspects of our lives that we had previously taken for granted, including how we balance our work and home lives; and independent school teachers are not exempt from this,” says Lawrence Tubb, headmaster at Minerva’s Virtual Academy, a unique, independent online school for pupils aged 12–18.

The benefits that draw some teachers to work in independent schools in this post-Covid re-evaluation – with fresh memories of the many and new demands on teachers over the past 18 months – has resulted in some deciding that now is the right time to change direction, or indeed career, entirely.

However, “In recruiting teaching staff for Minerva’s Virtual Academy, we have noted an increase in the number of experienced school teachers applying to teach,” says Tubb. “I frequently interview teachers with 10+ years of experience as subject teachers, heads of department, those with significant experience in supporting pupils with special education needs and disabilities (SEND), and those who have been academic and pastoral senior leaders.”

He adds: “These teachers are experienced and committed professionals who remain driven to support young people in their learning but who see the potential of new approaches to education.”

Rising to the challenges

Ben Evans, headmaster at Windlesham House School in West Sussex, says: “Covid has placed huge pressures on teachers and all school staff and it has been a time of adaptation, learning new skills and coping with the anxieties of children and parents whilst also facing personal challenges and difficulties.”

However, Evans believes most teachers have more than just coped, saying: “They have risen to the challenges and provided high-quality online and blended learning whilst also ensuring children and their families have been supported and remained connected with school.”

Despite the alarmist (often financially related) headlines, teaching in the independent sector comes with a range of attractions including job security in an uncertain market, a clear route of progression up the leadership ladder, market-leading pension schemes and, often, private healthcare and other salary sacrifice schemes. There are often higher starting salaries, free on-site housing in return for boarding duties and opportunities for further training.

However, it’s fair to say the teaching job description has changed somewhat. “Teachers have emerged with increased skill levels in their understanding and delivery of digital learning and the ability to remain positive and proactive in the face of adversity,” says Evans.

“Rather than seeing an exodus of teachers, it is quite possible that the teaching profession will become more attractive to new graduates.”

For some, the pandemic has been a chance to have a shake-up. “Process-wise for recruitment, it’s had a really positive impact,” says Philippa Devo, director of HR at St Dunstan’s College in London.

For example, she says: “The introduction of interviewing over Teams has allowed us to interview a wider field in the initial stages than we would have previously. We then run shortlist interviews on site, where we see fewer candidates than before, but who are arguably more suitable than they would have been previously.”

This process has worked well for St Dunstan’s, allowing the school to widen its net in the initial stages but retain greater focus and efficiency at the later stages. This, says Devo, “results in on-site recruitment days being much better for everyone involved and less time-pressured than they used to be”.

A sustainable career choice?

“The independent sector offers fantastic job satisfaction and this is seen as an important factor for many young graduates,” says Evans.

“They are able to grow, develop and benefit from working in some fantastic environments whilst still able to maintain a healthy work-life balance.”

He adds: “For newly qualified teachers, the camaraderie and community spirit can also be a big draw and, together with other financial benefits, will often outweigh the longer daily contact hours and working week than those of maintained sector colleagues.”

Devo says: “Application-wise, we have definitely seen an increase and get a good response.” Though, of course there could be other factors, such as reputation and financial position at play here too, she says.

Rather than seeing an exodus of teachers, it is quite possible that the teaching profession will become more attractive to new graduates – Ben Evans, Windlesham House School

Devo says she’s seen an upsurge in overseas applicants earlier in the year from people wishing to return to the UK.

The quality of applicants has also been high: “On the support side, we’ve definitely seen some highly skilled applicants who may have lost their jobs in other fields or are attempting to relocate. It seems people have been re-evaluating their lives and deciding to take the plunge and teach abroad [when they couldn’t last year].”

She adds: “I wonder if people feel more free to make and communicate ‘life-changing’ decisions safe in the knowledge it will be widely understood and seen as acceptable.”

Teaching will always attract passionate, committed and inspiring people. This is, says Tubb, “the driving force behind so many teachers choosing to remain in the profession, even in the face of many growing pressures”.

Independent schools have always been good at attracting people into the profession. However, says Tubb: “The rise of online teaching has provided another avenue for experienced teachers to have a positive impact on young people, channelling their energy into the ‘meat and bones’ of teaching, curating and creating engaging resources, activities to aid and consolidate learning, assignments and discussions to put learning into practice, and providing one-to-one support and mentoring, all from the comfort of home.”

Retain and retrain?

Retention is hugely important for schools; it helps to maintain continuity, raise standards and ensure that fee-paying parents have confidence in the school and its leadership.

Says Evans: “While most schools will expect a 6% turnover of staff each year – which is healthy and necessary – they will do whatever they can to retain valued and high-performing teachers.

“This can be anything from regular professional development, payment of additional qualifications such as master’s degrees, sabbaticals (paid and unpaid), internal career progression and flexible working options. All this within an environment which offers mental health and wellbeing support, keen and well-behaved pupils and well-resourced teaching facilities.”

Devo is optimistic about retention going forward. “The return to college for remaining staff is like a new beginning in itself. Everything has been turned upside down, people have undergone that process of re-evaluation, chosen to return and are grateful to be back and with a renewed vigour.”

Considering a recruitment crisis after the pandemic was predicted, the sector appears to be coping well with teachers returning to schools this September with optimism. It seems that new teachers are just as attracted to the profession, with the fact that the education sector has come on leaps and bounds with its online capabilities being an appealing factor to graduates.

Schools have even got on board with online interviewing methods, allowing them to interview a wider range of people and make time savings. And with many schools doing everything they can to retain valued teachers, we can feel confident that there are many passionate and happy teachers remaining and coming into the profession in the near future, despite the challenges of the sector.

You might also like: Guide to UK teacher recruitment and retention

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