While many would say that working in an independent school is a dream job – small classes, good discipline, plenty of resources and, in most cases, very pleasant surroundings – teaching and non-teaching staff, in common with all humans, undoubtedly have their own worries.
According to a survey carried out by the National Education Union earlier this year, UK independent school staff were most likely to be kept awake at night by niggling concerns over pay, workload and – with the Teachers’ Pension Scheme under threat across the land – pensions. Add to this the increasing stress and cost of everyday life in our country and, like all of us, independent school staff benefit from emotional support to keep their wellbeing in good shape.
Creating a supportive working environment
Of course, schools also benefit from a staff that is happy, healthy and keen to deliver the best education and school experience possible. Creating a supportive working environment for teaching and non-teaching staff can pay dividends for schools in business terms – reducing staff absences equates to a cut in spending on cover teachers and temps, while better employee retention and lower staff turnover means less time and money spent on recruitment advertising and interviews, not to mention training for new recruits.
More to the point, from an education point of view, a contented and enthusiastic staff is more likely to offer a better quality and breadth of education; staff who are positive about where they work may well be more likely to volunteer to lead co-curricular activities, assist with educational visits and generally go the extra mile when needed.
Staff talk openly about the culture at the school being a positive one where they genuinely feel heard and valued – Alice Miller, Brentwood
“While school is in session, the routine is demanding for staff and can be stressful at times,” recognises Sian Rees-Evans, who is a member of the Staff Wellbeing Committee which has recently been formed at Wycombe Abbey. “Striking a balance between the daily workload and downtime can be a challenge and we need to ensure that all our staff members feel supported so they can offer the pupils their very best.”
As well as making sure that staff have the energy to pour into educating and supporting the pupils, Wycombe Abbey has come to the realisation that a school that demonstrably cares about its staff members is more likely to attract a higher calibre of applicant when posts become available.
“Wellbeing sits at the very heart of recruitment,” says Rees-Evans. “In order to attract and retain excellent staff with a passion for their area of expertise and enthusiasm, we need to ensure that staff joining us feel as welcomed and supported as possible. Wellbeing is central to our success and in order to create meaningful change, we need an ongoing understanding of professional life at Wycombe Abbey.”
To that end, the school regularly surveys staff on their experience of the school’s wellbeing support and monitors progress as it develops.
“We use Welbee, an online evaluation and staff wellbeing improvement tool, to gather and collate all the information efficiently and effectively,” explains Rees-Evans. “The platform provides a staff survey, which is a transparent, anonymised means to collect staff feedback, build data and analyse the feedback. As it is an outsourced service, the staff are happy to share their views openly in the survey, so we are confident that the results are a true reflection of staff wellbeing.”
The results of Wycombe Abbey’s Welbee staff survey highlight areas of strength, and areas on which the school needs to focus, all benchmarked and filtered. The platform also shares suggested actions as the basis for a wellbeing action plan, with specific goals and a timeline for completion and review. The action plan is then shared with management and staff.
A whole list of staff wellbeing activities has been introduced at Wycombe Abbey, including a staff walking club, a festival start-of-term party called ‘Gratitude’, and a great Random Acts of Kindness initiative, which secretly assigns a member of staff a colleague to whom they provide gifts and treats anonymously throughout the term.
“Boarding school staff are naturally role models for the pupils and this systemised approach enables us to ensure wellbeing is at the very heart of Wycombe Abbey,” reports Rees-Evans. “We are now in our third yearly cycle, collecting data about staff wellbeing and using this to lead our future improvements.”
In order to attract and retain excellent staff with a passion for their area of expertise and enthusiasm, we need to ensure that staff joining us feel as welcomed and supported as possible – Sian Rees-Evans, Wycombe Abbey
This kind of evidence is useful to schools who are keen to further support staff wellbeing but are unsure of the initiatives that are most needed.
“While many school leaders talk about staff wellbeing as a priority, their actions suggest it still sits behind students’ and parents’,” says Mark Solomons, CEO of School Wellbeing Accelerator, the company behind Welbee. “School leaders are incredibly busy and lack time and capacity; some lack expertise and understanding about where and how to start looking into staff wellbeing, and what to focus on, so an online evaluation and staff wellbeing improvement tool can help. But it is what happens after the survey that is most important – how to develop solutions and engage the staff.”
At Brentwood School, staff are encouraged to engage with the wellbeing support on offer throughout the school year in an atmosphere of openness. “We are explicit about the kind of culture we want at the school and what our values mean to us,” says Alice Miller, Brentwood’s deputy head staffing, co-curricular and operations.
“Our Values Committee has been up and running for about a year and their main mission is to make sure all staff, students and parents understand what we mean in our values ‘Virtue, Learning and Manners’ and that these values are fully embedded into all things we do at the school. It’s an interesting development and has staff and student wellbeing at the centre of it.”
A big part of this wellbeing-focused culture change is the public and private recognition of staff members’ efforts and engagement. “We actively involve staff in co-creating our vision and implementing it,” says Miller. “We regularly hold celebratory events and make sure everyone knows they are invited – we have as many operational staff as we do teaching staff and everyone plays an important part in running the school.”
Creating a supportive working environment for teaching and non-teaching staff can pay dividends for schools in business terms
Other facets of Brentwood’s approach include a strong benefits package and a confidential 24-hour, life management and personal support service, as well as open access to the senior leadership team and action on staff suggestions. “Staff talk openly about the culture at the school being a positive one where they genuinely feel heard and valued,” reports Miller, “but this is something as an SLT we can never stop working at, and we must never stop being open to changing things that aren’t working.”
Exit interview feedback
Another useful source of feedback is the exit interview – a staff member resigning their post in favour of a very similar job in the same area rings alarm bells. Every staff member who chooses to leave Brentwood School is invited to attend a face-to-face exit interview and asked to complete an online exit survey, the responses to which are analysed and considered by SLT.
“Both the survey and the interviews provide us with useful information at a time when staff typically feel comfortable being frank,” says Miller. “We also survey all staff biennially and have a whole section on wellbeing and staff feedback at every INSET day. This is crucial, because we find that when people are happy at work they are more creative, more up for trying new initiatives and have better relationships with the students. There is also generally less absence from work, and we retain more staff.”
So, there is a growing realisation across independent schools that it is vital to support the wellbeing of school teaching and non-teaching staff in order to ensure that they are ready and able to support the wellbeing of pupils and, in turn, enable them to get the very best out of their education.
Case study: ‘We are Brentwood Awards’
Launched in April 2022, staff at Brentwood School are invited to nominate colleagues to celebrate in six award categories: Team Player, School Spirit, Unsung Hero, Compassion, Going the Extra Mile and Wise Sage. Staff can submit as many nominations as they like anonymously via an online form – the first event attracted over a thousand – and can volunteer to be on the ‘Panel of Peers’ who independently read the nominations and select their top three in each category.
From these, winners are selected by Alice Miller, Brentwood’s deputy head staffing, co-curricular and operations. “It’s a really joyful event,” says Miller. “Every single nomination is printed and pinned up on display at the awards event and offered to the nominee to take home and keep.”
● Pay (88% of teachers; 79% of support staff)
● Workload (67% of teachers; 41% of support staff)
● Protection of TPS
According to the results of a survey of 1,200 NEU members working as teaching and non-teaching staff in UK independent schools, published April 2022.
Main image: Wycombe Abbey’s ‘Gratitude’ staff festival