The urbanist Edward Glaeser argues that we often fall into the trap of thinking about cities as collections of skyscrapers, bridges and famous landmarks when, in reality, they are concentrations of people. Cities are “made of flesh, not concrete”.
We make the same mistake with schools, where policymakers regularly fall into Glaeser’s trap by spending too much time and resource advocating for different ‘types’ of schools, changing their legal status or rebuilding them.
These policies tend to have little or no impact because schools, like cities, are best thought of as collections of people. That should be our overriding focus. Indeed, research consistently shows that teachers have a powerful influence on their pupils’ exam results, soft skills and even earnings in adulthood. Good schools are built on good teachers.
But despite what we know about the importance of teachers, the profession is not in good shape. Research shows that job satisfaction is low
relative to other countries and that retention is declining
Research also points to some solutions. In particular, the quality of teachers’ working environment
– the way in which colleagues, policies and norms help or hinder teachers’ ability to do their job – is strongly related to retention. Important aspects of working environment include workload, collaboration and supportive leadership.
But improving the working environment in a school is not straightforward. Where should leaders focus their efforts? How can schools take an evidence-based approach? And how can leaders verify whether meaningful improvements are being made?
New joint project
ASCL is collaborating with researchers from UCL Institute of Education
(IoE) on an innovative new project that can help. The IoE researchers have developed a questionnaire which carefully measures the aspects of teachers’ working environment known to improve teacher job satisfaction and retention. Thirteen ASCL schools have already taken part in a pilot and we are now opening up the opportunity to all ASCL members.
How does it work? Schools sign up on a specially designed website and provide the email addresses for their teachers. The anonymous questionnaire is then distributed to teachers, along with targeted reminders. The questionnaire takes just 11 minutes to complete. We then confidentially provide heads with the results, broken down across four areas: collegiality, workload, behaviour and leadership. Leaders can also look at a detailed breakdown of responses to each individual question. Crucially, participating schools can view their results compared to other (anonymised) schools with similar intakes or locations, allowing for meaningful, contextualised comparisons.
Coming next spring
Our plan is to run the ASCL/IoE survey in spring 2020, and again in the following two spring terms. This will allow schools to track progress and collect compelling evidence of improvement, including on workload – which is now part of the Ofsted framework. We will also host meetings each year at ASCL Annual Conference
so that schools can ask questions, discuss the findings and compare notes on how they are responding. The anonymous data collected through the project will also be used in academic research, helping to shed new light on the drivers of teacher job satisfaction and retention.
In return, we are asking for two things:
- Schools help us cover the costs of administering the survey (£100 per school, per year). This goes toward the cost of website hosting, survey software and providing any necessary technical support to schools.
- Headteachers ensure a good response rate from their teachers. Our website allows heads to track response rates in real time, in order to make this as easy as possible.
Schools are built on teachers. Our survey can help school leaders ensure that theirs are built on a solid foundation of engaged and committed staff. But, to make it a success, we need schools to get involved. To register your interest in taking part, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Sam Sims, Research Fellow at UCL Institute of Education