As the Omicron wave of COVID-19 continues to spread throughout our communities and schools, the start to this year has been anything but easy for many in the sector. Staff shortages due to illness or isolation have been increasing over the past two months, and schools are struggling. Recent data from the Department of Education outlines that nearly a quarter of schools had more than 15% of all staff and leaders absent by the end of January. Overall 9% of teachers and school leaders were off for illness on the 20th of January (this was up 8.6% from the 6th) and 4.7% were absent for COVID-19 related reasons.
The schools and trusts we work with have also felt the impact of these absences, remarking that with these losses of staff, they fear that functioning will be an ongoing struggle and their leadership teams too are feeling this burden. Some schools find it challenging to get substitute teachers (either because of short notice or a shortage of substitute teachers), and others see retiree age staff retire early due to burnout. Other schools and trusts have referenced that the tutoring programme hasn’t helped with staff absences.
1) Accept That These are Extraordinary Circumstances
These aren’t normal times, it is ok if you find your school or trust not retaining it’s usual schedule.
Certain schools are carrying on with parent-teacher evenings in January despite the hardship. Setting up expectations like these (and discovering later that cancellations need to be made) can bring a lot of stress, exhaustion, and disappointment. If you have not done so already, this might be a time to admit that these are indeed extraordinary times and business-as-usual is impossible to achieve.
As a consequence, you might consider:
Postponing new initiatives:
Now is the time to do all you can to lighten the load on your teachers' and leaders' shoulders. While new initiatives are important in the long run delaying the roll-out is imperative in the short term while staff are understaffed.
You cannot expect an uninterrupted curriculum in your schools in the period, nor can you expect everybody to come well-prepared to the weekly strategic check-in. However, if you clearly state that “we do not expect everybody to keep delivering on long-term work right now” you will both reduce the guilt and pressure and will make it easier for yourself to raise the bar again later.
2) Take particular care of the school leaders
School leaders have been particularly affected by the ever-shifting landscape of the pandemic.
In the Leading in Lockdown research report by Toby Greany, published with NAHT and ASCL, 23% of school leaders reported to be “sometimes” or “mostly sinking” when asked to describe their experience.
One of our partner trusts described their experience, sharing their struggles to find supply and substitute teachers, which has added to their ever-growing list of logistical priorities and has then translated into a leadership gap: initiating the retirement of multiple school heads and causing difficulties filling leadership positions.
Ensure your schools’ leadership teams know what concrete support is available to them and that they can always seek your help. If you find yourself in a situation where there is little to help them, tactfully sharing your appreciation with your team is always welcome. Our research has shown that appreciating staff efforts is a key predictor of their continued success in your schools!
3) Be Aware of Long-Term Consequences
The most important wellbeing work is prevention and building resilience.
To set your school or trust up for future success, focus your attention on these 3 questions:
Do we have a clear wellbeing vision?
Wellbeing is an abstract concept that is different for each individual, let alone each organisation. Defining a wellbeing vision that is impactful and consistently explained across your trust is the foundation of moving beyond fire-fighting and maintaining sustainable improvement. Our work with UCL Institute of Education identified 6 factors that contribute to wellbeing and staff retention — feel free to borrow from our research in shaping your trusts' vision.
Do we have a clear policy to achieve that vision?
Your trust improvement plan should outline a realistic proposal on how to approach the wellbeing vision, and more and more trusts set it as their priority. Our “Trusting in Trusts” report provides two case studies of trusts that have made a clear commitment to wellbeing, and gives a good idea on how to implement a wellbeing strategy.
In one case study, South Pennine Academies reflected on the steps they had taken to ensure wellbeing — from communicating with staff effectively to conducting individual risk assessments. Jane Acklam OBE, their CEO, put the spirit of their strategy clearly: “We are experiencing this pandemic as humans, not as school staff in a particular role.”
Do we know where our strengths and obstacles lie?
Focusing on easily measured outcomes — such as staff retention rate — can often be too late, so leading indicators of wellbeing should be introduced.
As a survey company, we have seen dozens of trusts get a much more clear picture of their situation and adapt their policy based on our Staff Experience and Wellbeing survey. Asking a consistent set of questions across the trust, comparing responses school-by-school and role-by-role, and the safety of anonymity all allow clear insights to emerge from a well-crafted questionnaire.
However, you can collect data on your progress in many other ways — we've seen focus groups and individual conversations work as well!
How Can Edurio Help During This Tough Time
We would be happy to assist schools and trusts looking to inform their wellbeing strategies with a reliable dataset that describes your priorities. Our Staff Working Conditions and Wellbeing survey provides opportunities for leaders to understand how staff feel — we would be happy to hear from you if you'd like to begin preparations for after the Omicron wave has subsided!
Developed in collaboration with the UCL Institute of Education, with guidance from multi-academy trusts and school leaders across England, this survey gathers information on aspects of staff members' lived experience in the workplace. Using this survey, you'll be able to evaluate staff wellbeing and understand the key risks surrounding staff retention in your school or trust. You'll also be able to compare your scores against England's largest national benchmark (more than 500 schools surveyed last year) on the subject.