Putting staff engagement at the heart of school leadership

By David Weston

Tuesday 4 October 2016

NFER has shown that engaging staff lies at the heart of retaining them but how do school leaders put that into action? The report suggests that there a number of aspects of staff engagement that are particularly associated with staff retention, including job satisfaction, having adequate resources, reward and recognition, and being well-supported by management.

This finding is aligned with a 2011 US study from Johnson, Kraft and Papay that found:

“although a wide range of working conditions matter to teachers, the specific elements of the work environment that matter the most to teachers are not narrowly conceived working conditions such as clean and well-maintained facilities or access to modern instructional technology. Instead, it is the social conditions- the school’s culture, the principal’s leadership, and relationships among colleagues – that predominate in predicting teachers’ job satisfaction and career plans. More importantly, providing a supportive context in which teachers can work appears to contribute to improved student achievement. We find that [favourable] conditions of work predict higher rates of student academic growth, even when we compare schools serving demographically similar groups of students.”

School culture is clearly an important part of how staff are engaged, with leaders having a vital role to play.

Interestingly, NFER also found that

Several engagement factors are not significantly associated with a greater desire to leave or stay. […] These included the school providing appropriately for a teacher’s professional development.

This is an unexpected finding, and my theory is that teachers tend to generally have very low expectations of what “appropriately providing for professional development” actually looks like, meaning that they are likely to report a positive for this on self-report surveys even if the quality is relatively poor, hence the low correlation with intention to leave.

As the new Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development suggests:

Effective professional development […] requires a pervasive culture of scholarship with a shared commitment for teachers to support one another to develop so that pupils benefit from the highest quality teaching


It requires headteachers who prioritise not only the operational aspects of teacher development but also, as Ofsted put it in their September 2015 handbook, “a motivated, respected and effective teaching staff” in “a culture that enables pupils and staff to excel”.

Effective leadership of professional development is inherently highly engaging, respectful and motivational. It involves giving teachers a great sense of control and autonomy over their own practice and learning. It ensures that teachers feel that they are supported, that they are trusted and that they are able to develop self-confidence.

If we are to ensure that we tackle the increasingly urgent issues around teacher retention and wellbeing then we need to focus on a sharp shift away from top-down leadership and toward more supportive and bottom-up cultures.

David Weston is the Chief Executive of the Teacher Development Trust and Chair of the Department for Education’s CPD Expert Group. Follow him on Twitter at @informed_edu