Schools are workplaces too…

Rightly, schools focus on the environment they provide for student learning and development. This endeavour, however, can overshadow the fact that they are also a work environment for staff – one which can promote or undermine staff engagement, wellbeing and performance. One school that has been using the Voice Engagement Survey for Schools to develop their workplace is Inaburra, an independent Christian K–12 school in the Sutherland Shire, NSW.

The school’s Principal, Tim Bowden, introduced annual school surveys in 2012 to inform the school’s strategic planning process and to evaluate progress. He explains: I was looking for a way to gain input from staff with reference to their experience of working at Inaburra. A number of the results confirmed my impressions but others were genuinely surprising.”

Inaburra School Survey Findings

High engagement, purpose and progress

Tim says that he was encouraged by the early Voice reports that indicated strong staff alignment and engagement. Compared to other industries across Australia, schools have some of the highest proportions of engaged staff, with around 80% of teachers passionate about their job and their school and intending to continue working at their current school.

Positive drivers of engagement in the school work environment include a shared belief in the values and work of the school that provides meaning and purpose, and a sense of progress towards, and pride in, the school’s objectives and individual student outcomes.

Retaining high performers

However, it is the third key driver of engagement, participation, is often missing in schools. Few staff express satisfaction with involvement in decision-making and consultation around change. Professional development is rarely supported through performance evaluation and feedback, and is not clearly linked to career planning. These are key opportunities for schools who want to sustain the motivation of, and retain their high-performing staff.

At Inaburra, seeking feedback through the survey, and responding to the results, was one way of improving staff involvement. Tim resolved to be as transparent as possible about the results, engaging staff in analysing the results and identifying the way forward.

“Each year we have trialled engaging staff in the results through a different approach. We conducted debriefs through cross-faculty groups facilitated by an Executive Team member, conducted focus groups facilitated by the Voice Project, concentrating on a couple of specific areas, and a meeting of all our middle leaders.”(Tim Bowden)

Staff wellbeing

Voice Project’s research across more than 100 schools has identified that a challenge common to most schools is how to support staff wellbeing and work-life balance – particularly in independent schools. Unlike many other organisations, schools can find it difficult to provide flexible working conditions for teachers such as working from home, flexible hours, part-time work, or control over workload.

Tim says the open-ended comments in the survey were particularly helpful in understanding the experience of staff. “We were alerted to a range of issues associated with workflow management that were having a negative impact on wellness and work-life balance, including lack of consultation regarding change, deadlines being imposed or changing with little notice, and a range of calendaring issues.”

Inaburra focused on work-flow changes for middle leaders, who experienced the most challenging workload issues, leading to improvements of more than 15% between 2014 and 2015 in workload, work-life balance and flexibility for middle leaders.

A work(place) in progress

The input from staff has had a significant effect in shaping priorities in the life of the school. Between 2012 and 2015 Inaburra saw significant improvements, particularly in the areas of:

  • Technology (+20%),
  • Learning and Development (+12%), and
  • Performance Appraisal (+12%).

Tim encourages staff to share ownership of the survey results:
“While the feedback is immensely useful for the school’s management, it should also be something that informs the practice of all staff. If we want a more encouraging culture that acknowledges the efforts of the staff, we all have an opportunity and responsibility to build that culture."

“There are also challenges that emerge simply from naming an issue and making it public… once something has been named, an expectation emerges that the ‘problem’ will be solved. We have resisted the temptation to obscure the results, but I can understand its powerful attraction!"

"As the educational landscape continues to be disrupted by all sorts of influences, we need to make sure our staff are able to thrive in the work, not just survive.”

Read More

This is an abridged version of the full article published in Education Today 2016 16(2) which can be found at

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