Leadership & staff retention: A no-blame culture (part 4)

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Our five-part series on the links between leadership approaches and staff retention and recruitment continues. In part four, Matt Bromley considers how a no-blame culture is essential to success and what this looks like in practice

So far in this five-part series, I’ve argued that, if schools are to successfully stymie the crisis in staff recruitment and retention, they need to appoint, recognise and reward “architects” – school leaders who create the right environment for teachers and the right school for its local community by improving student behaviour, increasing revenue, and improving teaching and leadership.

Then, schools need to allow these architects to build organisations based on the “commitment” model: in other words, schools which engender a sense of trust among staff that entices everyone to work harder and stick together through setbacks.

School leaders, I have argued, should invest heavily in professional development. They should value making employees happy over quick results and gift teachers more decision-making authority. They should foster a strong culture and ensure that new recruits fit that culture.

Last week, I shared some tips for improving the organisational effectiveness of schools and explored ways of increasing teachers’ intrinsic motivation so that their job satisfaction and wellbeing improves.

In particular, I said that schools need to allow teachers and other staff to develop autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is important, I said, because people need control over what they do, when they do it, who they do it with, and how they do it. After all, if someone is in control of their work, they are more likely to be motivated by it and more likely to excel.

Mastery is important, I said, because people need to be challenged. After all, people are only motivated to get better at something they are engaged in and enjoy. And I said that purpose is important because people need to feel that what they are doing will have long-term meaning and a meaning in the world. People need to feel they are doing something worthwhile and impactful.

I ended last week by saying that, as well as developing their staff’s autonomy, mastery and purpose, school leaders need to display kindness – an oft-underestimated and undervalued trait. Kindness plays a significant part in developing momentum with regards school improvement because, when people feel valued and cared for, they repay that trust by valuing and caring for the place in which they work and for the people with which they work.

What’s more, by publicly displaying kindness, the best leaders – and, in turn, the best teachers – model the behaviours they want their students to develop. In short, teachers who are treated with respect show respect for their students and that way a school becomes a community, a family.

Gotta get that feeling

I am lucky enough, in the course of my working week, to visit a lot of schools and I’ve become attuned to this dynamic. In the best schools, I can sense – almost immediately upon walking through the gates – the love and care that children and adults feel towards one another.

In the best schools, the staffroom remains a hub of the school – it is busy with staff sharing and listening; off-loading and laughing. Conversely, in the least successful schools, the staffroom is either non-existent or deserted; instead, staff work in departmental silos or, worse, alone in their classrooms.

In the best schools, the canteen and corridors are calm, friendly places – respected and kept clean by everyone. People are polite, greeting you with a smile; and they are purposeful, focused on learning and teaching.

In the least successful schools, meanwhile, there’s a threatening atmosphere of chaos and confusion. There are no-go areas, behaviour isn’t tackled because there is no leadership from the top: rather, behaviour is regarded as a teacher’s responsibility and if they can’t manage it, they alone are to blame.

In the best schools, leaders develop a “no-blame” culture. They believe that, just because someone has made a mistake, this doesn’t mean they should suddenly forget the important contribution which the same colleague makes every day. In fact, in such situations, they know that staff need to feel supported and trusted to learn from their mistake and to move on. When things are going well, meanwhile, the best leaders are generous with their praise and recognition.

The no blame game

No-blame cultures have proven vital to the success of all sorts of organisations.
In Black Box Thinking (2015), Matthew Syed says that the most successful organisations in the world – and he frequently uses the example of aviation – show a willingness and tenacity to investigate the lessons that often exist when we fail, but which we rarely exploit.

A no-blame culture, Syed argues, is about creating systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them.

After all, practice – which we teachers tell our students is a vital part of the learning process – is all about harnessing the benefits of learning from failure while reducing its cost. As Syed says: “It is better to fail in practice in preparation for the big stage than on the big stage itself.”

Or, as Eleanor Roosevelt put it, we should “learn from the mistakes of others (because we) can’t live long enough to make them all (ourselves)”.

Syed says the “paradox of success” is that it is build upon failure. Everything we know in, say, aviation, every rule in the rule book, every procedure we have, we know because someone somewhere died.

As Syed phrases it: “We have purchased at great cost, lessons literally bought with blood that we have to preserve as institutional knowledge and pass on to succeeding generations. We cannot have the moral failure of forgetting these lessons and have to relearn them.”

And yet we can only learn from failure if there is an openness to admit to mistakes. If staff feel threatened of owning up to errors, they are less likely to do so and so that rich seam of intelligence will be lost to us, we’ll keep on making the same mistakes over and again. Only if we operate a no-blame culture will colleagues willingly admit when they get it wrong and then we can work together to get it right next time.

This is why the best teams seemingly make the most mistakes. In actual fact, they don’t – they just admit and record them more often and more willingly.

Closeted teams, meanwhile, who fear failure and blame, don’t record their mistakes – they hide or deny them – and so appear, to the outside, to be more successful.

This is one reason why the world of medicine appears more infallible than the world of aviation: doctors, particularly in the US where there is a litigious culture, rarely admit to making surgical mistakes. Rather, when things go wrong it is about the realisation of inherent risk and factors outside their control.

Pilots, meanwhile, alive through testimony and dead through black boxes, openly articulate what they did wrong so that the profession can learn from it and make flying safer and safer.

Surgeons leading “bureaucratic” or “autocratic” schools (see part two) create a closed-shop culture built on a fear of failure and a prevalence of blame. Architects leading “commitment” schools, meanwhile, build trust and openness, and thus develop autonomy, mastery and purpose. They build for the future, they develop sustainable models by investing in their people and reducing attrition.

So look to schools where staff turnover is relatively small. Fear those schools who haemorrhage staff every summer. Talking of which, let us now take a closer look at the matter of teacher recruitment and retention...

The crisis of recruitment and retention

There is, it is no exaggeration to say, a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention in England. Before I explore ways to resolve the issue, let us be clear about the challenges school leaders currently face and why.

First, pupil numbers are growing. This is due to a demographic bulge which is travelling through the education system, causing a large increase in pupil numbers at secondary level.

The secondary school population – not counting year 12 and 13 pupils – is projected to rise from
2.72 million in 2017 to 3.03 million by 2021, a rise of 11.5 per cent over four years. What’s more, by 2025 there’s projected to be 3.3 million 11 to 15-year-olds in English schools, which is an increase of half a million compared to 2015. If we are to ensure these children are properly educated, we will need an extra 26,500 teachers in the classroom.

Second, not enough new secondary school trainee teachers are coming into the sector. Initial teacher training (ITT) figures for 2016/17 show a decrease in the overall number of recruits compared with 2015/16, with only 93 per cent of places being filled. The overall contribution to the secondary target was 89 per cent, meaning nearly 2,000 places went unfilled.

But the reality is even worse than these figures suggest because, since 2015/16, ITT figures have included applicants for Teach First who were previously excluded from these statistics. This therefore boosted the overall figure for 2016/17 by more than 1,000 applicants. However, despite the inclusion of Teach First applicants in the ITT statistics, the overall Teacher Supply Model (TSM) target was still not met, just as it hadn’t been met for the previous four years.

In 2016/17, the only subjects where the TSM recruitment target was met were biology, geography, history and PE. All other secondary subjects were under-recruited, and some by a significant margin. For instance, maths only recruited 84 per cent of the required number of trainees, physics 81 per cent, and computing just 68 per cent.

Third, not only are we failing to recruit enough new teachers, we are also losing too many experienced ones. Teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers. One in 10 teachers left the profession in 2016. Of these, an increasing proportion left the profession for other sectors rather than retiring, suggesting their working conditions rather than their age were driving them out.

And the consequence of falling recruitment and retention rates? The number of unfilled teaching post vacancies is at a record high in secondary, with 23 per cent of schools reporting an unfilled vacancy in 2017, up 15.9 per cent on 2010.

The retention problem is most pronounced in multi-academy trusts which have a higher than average rate of teachers leaving the profession, compared with single-academy trusts and maintained schools.

And the leaving rate is highest among teachers who teach non-EBacc subjects, which might lead us to suggest that they have been incentivised to leave the profession because their subjects are no longer being taught as the school curriculum narrows, or that they have become more frustrated or disaffected at their subject receiving less priority.

A survey by the then National Union of Teachers (NUT) in March 2016 found that nearly three quarters (73 per cent) of school leaders were experiencing difficulties in recruiting teachers, with 61 per cent saying that the situation had got worse (42 per cent) or much worse (19 per cent) over the last year.

The greatest problem areas, according to the survey, were in maths (36 per cent of schools leaders were struggling to recruit in this area), science (34 per cent) and English (23 per cent).
The crisis in teacher recruitment means that while schools are struggling to fill vacancies, large numbers of pupils are being taught by unqualified teachers – or at least teachers who do not have a relevant qualification in the subject they are being asked to teach.

In 2016, for example, the NUT found that only 63 per cent of physics and 75 per cent of chemistry teachers held a relevant post A level qualification in the subject they taught. For maths and English, these figures were 78 and 81 per cent respectively.

But high levels of attrition among qualified teachers is not only costly in financial terms; it also has an impact on the quality of education that schools can provide. In November 2016, for example, there were 500 fewer qualified teachers in service than in the previous year.

Conversely, there were 1,400 more teachers in service without qualified teacher status than there had been the year before.

In conclusion, therefore, there is a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention.

So far in this series I’ve argued that, if we are to solve this crisis and improve our schools, we need to appoint more “architect” school leaders and they need to build school cultures predicated on the “commitment” model. Next week (February 1), in the fifth and final part of this series I will share some more tips for haemorrhaging the flow of teachers from our schools.

  • Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with more than 18 years’ experience in teaching and leadership. He is the author of best-selling books for teachers including Making Key Stage 3 Count and Teach. His latest book, The New Teacher Survival Kit, is available in paperback and various ebook formats. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk or follow @mj_bromley. To read the previous articles in the series or Matt’s archive of best practice articles for SecEd, visit http://bit.ly/1Uobmsl


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