Tough HR lessons being learned in schools

The Covid pandemic has increased compliance work for people teams in the education sector – and refocused their approach, says Samantha Hulson

Many of us are parents of school-aged children and have a vested interest and curiosity in just how our schools are managing, as well as being aware of some of the key HR issues facing the education sector. For starters, HR is having to provide daily advice and guidance to help effectively manage staff absence to ensure safe and compliant pupil-teacher ratios. A recent survey by Teacher Tapp found the number of teachers self-isolating jumped to 8 per cent in the last few weeks – almost double that reported before half term. This is leaving schools frantically trying to organise cover to ensure their schools can remain partially or fully open. While some people have genuine anxiety about the safety of classrooms and/or if they need to self-isolate, it’s a fine line to judge whether this is an excuse not to come into work at all. 

Birch-HR is working alongside headteachers, looking at every employee relations case based on its own merits and according to government guidance, employment law, relevant policies, wellbeing and fairness. We also take a risk management approach before advising on the best course of action. 

The pandemic has forced extra compliance work on to school HR teams and refocused their approach. We are helping school leaders keep on top of all manner of employment, culture and workforce changes. This includes dealing with virtual recruitment, virtual teaching, rising absenteeism, home working (for the first time), over-reliance on supply staff and all the budgetary management pressures this brings. Ultimately, this has led to an increase in redundancies and restructures. Some governors or trust boards have delayed restructures for as long as they could, but are now having to start the process of reducing headcount. 

Added to all of this has been pressure on HR and governors/board of trustees to update and sign off policies online, and to make tricky decisions about executive/leadership performance management outcomes at a time when school improvement priorities are so different to when initial objectives were set back in 2019.

Teaching is already a profession where more than half of all teachers (51 per cent) and senior leaders (59 per cent) want to quit because of their workloads, according to the latest Teacher Wellbeing Index published by Education Support. The survey also found a worrying growth in poor mental health, with stress levels rocketing to 89 per cent by October this year. HR is having to provide strategic human resource management advice such as ensuring there is sufficient workforce flexibility and seeking ways to innovate and drive culture change across trusts to help prepare the whole school workforce for continuous change. 

This is all while being supportive to headteachers, who themselves are struggling. Several headteachers we have spoken to have said this was the toughest year of their career. It’s clear that this is a sector that is starting to exceed its capacity to cope.

School HR professionals are working constructively during the pandemic with the trade unions to ensure that restructures, hearings and settlement agreements are managed sensitively and timely. For the first time we are seeing many of the consultation meetings, disciplinaries and grievances in schools being held virtually – at one point our HR consultants undertook 13 individual consultation meetings in one day. 

Key pointers for HR are to be well prepared and resilient and don’t ever be afraid to ask for an opinion from your HR colleagues and trusted network. Really get to know your key procedures and processes to deal with the volume of casework and get to grips with the complexity of governance/employment in schools. Keep gaining experience and confidence while tapping into some key webinars and ongoing training. Identify a good mentor or coach if needs be.

HR is very much in the spotlight in schools right now. Significant flexibility and knowledge is needed to ensure HR advice remains relevant and supports leaders to help keep schools open and maintain a safe working environment. But thanks to the efforts of thousands, Department for Education statistics show that more than 99 per cent of schools have been open since the beginning of term and that’s fantastic.  

Samantha Hulson is co-founder of Birch-HR