Recruiting, retaining and sharing experiences |

Recruiting, retaining and sharing experiences

Before attending Driving success in special free schools, organised by NSN in partnership with the National Association of Independent Schools & Non-Maintained Special Schools (NASS), I believed I was adept in my understanding of issues relating to the recruitment and retention of teachers. Having focused a great part of my MA research on teachers’ identity in Britain and developing professional learning communities for teachers, I am familiar with many of the issues that mainstream teachers are facing.

Two minutes after the beginning of the event, three of the four headteachers at my table told me their biggest concern was recruitment. My expertise took a hit. I understood, at once, that I had focused exclusively on mainstream teaching – though, seemingly, special schools are hit the hardest. They face the same recruitment and retention challenges as their mainstream counterparts, as well as having to deal with a unique set of additional needs. In the minutes following this realisation, I learnt that special schools are more likely to be using temporary or agency staff, that over 50% of headteacher vacancies are advertised more than once and that they face particularly acute challenges in recruiting subject specialists.

Ofsted’s new framework recognises that there has been a development of a school culture around data (divorced from meeting pupil needs) and teaching to the test. Accountability has often been misunderstood and led to an overly demanding workload, diverting schools’ cultures away from the real substance of education. Published on the 28th January 2019, the Department for Education’s Teacher recruitment and retention strategy seems like progress in addressing the challenges of the current teaching culture: the strategy promotes a supportive school culture, encourages more assistance for early careers teachers, urges for more flexibility in teachers’ career paths and facilitates additional pathways into teaching.

The new framework and strategy may be aiming to address entrenched challenges but how can schools implement these recommendations? How can leaders and governors translate these expectations into reality? And how do special school leaders – who feel they are an afterthought in the funding and development of new approaches – resolve their specific challenges?

One of the key traits I noticed through my work with outstanding school leaders is that in moments of vulnerability, their response is not to retreat into self-defeat but to find creative solutions through reflection and collaboration. This typically begins with a process of revisiting the school’s vision, mission and values. Then, consulting with colleagues from other schools to identify best practice that could be adapted to your school’s vision, values and circumstances. At the event with NASS, this was happening all around. It was an opportunity for a number of school leaders to look beyond the challenges they face, to work with colleagues in similar circumstances, to engage with experts and specialists and thereby develop or continue developing solutions.  

If special schools are often an afterthought, I wondered which lessons learnt in mainstream settings might be useful. Below are some examples we’ve heard of how free schools are dealing with teacher recruitment and retention:

  • Schools need to be really clear about their vision and which skills and abilities they require in teachers to fulfil this. At the Oasis Academy South Bank, the founding headteacher, Carly Mitchell, mentioned to NSN that the school’s culture is key. She shared with NSN that when recruiting new teachers, she looks at their ability to integrate with the colleagues to create a strong culture of pastoral care amongst staff, ensuring there are opportunities for support of each other.
  • The Fermain Academy will consider passion above experience. If an applicant has clearly bought into the vision of the school and has a real thirst to work in the environment, the school will pay for relevant teaching training to keep the vision at the heart of the staff body.
  • It is crucial to know how to promote your school and be creative with recruitment strategies. Think about your networks and what they may be able to offer. NSN has been told by free school leaders that when looking to recruit, they have reached out to their colleagues to source ideas and benchmark their offer. Special schools seem to be particularly successful at recruiting teachers that have dropped out of the profession as well as others who are keen to make the switch from mainstream to special. The questions to think about when marketing include: what advantages can special and AP schools offer? What type of people are suited to the work? What are the professional and career opportunities for teachers in special and AP?
  • In order to retain staff, many free schools ensure a strong wellbeing culture. This can range from rewards to Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to simplifying your accountability systems. The TBAP Multi-Academy Trust, for instance, has identified staff wellbeing as a priority in their trust’s culture. The trust has introduced a workload audit, appointed Staff Wellbeing Representatives and promotes CPD, ensuring their teachers feel valued and invested in. At Kings Leadership Academy Warrington, teachers follow a CPD programme aligned with the school’s focus on character education so that the staff is always focused on the core vision and purpose of the school, while at TBAP’s 16-19 AP Academy, teachers have CPD sessions on secondary trauma and have developed a desire to pursue this expertise.
  • Recently, Elliott Hudson College hosted a NSN Spotlight visit where the senior management team stressed the importance of collaboration, encouraging and listening to feedback from teachers. Among other things, this has led to the development of a bespoke and easy system to track data which is available to all staff. In order to support teachers developing personalised approaches to students, the Lighthouse School Leeds has developed school passports for each student. These record personal interests, achievements and areas of success. ARK John Keats Academy has cultivated a collaborative and supportive culture by introducing a structured CPD programme, with weekly coaching for every teacher, by other teachers, collaborative planning sessions for each subject department and training sessions reiterating the school’s vision. They also stress the importance of using ‘coaching’ as a term in performance management, to assist in the entire staff feeling supported.
  • In addition to CPD, many free schools have become flexible employers. At Oasis Academy South Bank, for instance, staff can take planned leave as long as they find their cover.

There are many free schools that have worked hard on teacher retention and creative staff recruitment strategies. The one element that they have in common is their passion and commitment to deliver a vision with heart, a vision where teachers happily help young people to develop.

For more guidance on staff recruitment, please see NSN’s guidance on staff recruitment. NSN organises spotlight visits and can help you to visit special, AP and mainstream free schools. To find out more see here or contact us at or on 020 7952 8559.

Blog topic:
Running a school