After a quiet two years on the recruitment front, many schools are bracing themselves for their biggest-ever intake of new staff. But how do you ensure that you integrate so many new starters as smoothly as possible – and keep existing staff happy, too? Grainne Hallahan at TES finds out.

After two years of teachers largely sticking in their current roles, it seems this summer everyone’s opted to twist at the same time.

“Recruitment this year has been hectic,” explains Katherine Childs, head of English at a school in the South of England. “We’ve had people leaving and starting mid-year, and this September we will have four new people in our department of 10.”

Laura May Rowlands, a middle leader in a secondary school in Southampton, says she has seen a similar pattern – not just in her school but in her local area, too – calling it a “record year”.

“Even in my own school, where we are typically very stable, we have almost double the number of new starters in September,” she says.

Perhaps most dramatically, one school leader, speaking to Tes anonymously, described how before the 31 May deadline, every leader in the maths department tendered their resignation at once.

“The maths department [is a] core curriculum subject and somewhere we desperately need stability – and in the last three weeks I have received resignations from the head of department, the two deputy heads of department, and the KS3 lead, who has been at the school for almost 20 years,” the leader says.

Image supplied by TES

Ask anyone in education and they have similar stories. And the data backs up the anecdotes. For example, recent research from School Dash shows that secondary school job advertisements are up 47 per cent on last year and 14 per cent on 2019 – the last pre-pandemic year.

Basically, after two years of stagnation, the recruitment market has bounced back like never before, with three years of job switches all seemingly happening at once.  

That’s creating problems filling roles – and this is where most of the attention has focused thus far. But what is getting less attention is how schools induct, integrate and support all of these new starters. 

Of course, schools will already have processes in place for onboarding staff – after all, it is something they do all the time. But how, with so many new starters at once, do these same processes work? Do they require tweaking – or are entirely new ideas required?

We spoke to a raft of experts and school leaders to get their tips on how to ensure that the “Great Onboarding of September 2022” works for everyone.

Teacher recruitment: how schools can cope with the post-Covid bounce

1. The art of induction

Induction happens every year in schools, so the temptation for most leadership teams will be to simply scale that existing process up. So rather than a small induction meeting with two people over a coffee, you host 20 in a room and put on a presentation, perhaps.

HoweverDr Marc Thompson, a senior fellow in strategy and organisation at Saïd Business School, at the University of Oxford, says that while this may be tempting – and seem to save time – it could backfire by making the process feel impersonal and cold.

“What you don’t want to do is get them all in the room, give a slideshow, talk about the values – because what you’re doing there is talking at them, not talking with them,” he warns.

Instead, Thompson says that when you’re working with large numbers of new starters, what you should be doing is ensuring that the new members of staff feel known as individuals.

This should include getting senior staff involved in a way that allows them to have “actual dialogue” with new staff, so they can have “conversations with their teachers” and get to know them one on one.

Dr Thompson explains that this is important because it feeds into what he terms the “psychological contract” that a school and a new member of staff enter into – and this is just as important as any work contract.

“The relationship with the organisation is driven by our psychological understanding – this is the psychological contract,” he explains. 

The “psychological contract”, Thompson says, is about how the new teacher can relate to the new school setting.

He says that one good approach is for leaders to ask the new staff member things like “What would you like to bring to this school?”, “How can we avail ourselves of your talents?”, “What impact would you like to have?” and “How can we make the most of you?”

Thompson says speaking to staff in this way will allow teachers to “fill their role in a meaningful way”. He adds that when teachers move schools, it could be because they are looking for “somewhere they can express themselves”.

Someone who is planning on taking Thompson’s approach is Becky Hipkins, head of staff development for The Pioneer Academy, where she facilitates training programmes across the 14 different schools in the academy trust. 

After two years of reduced staff movement, this year the MAT will be welcoming 33 teachers into new roles across its 14 schools, including four new leaders in their first leadership position, 12 early career teachers, three training teachers and five specialist subject teachers. It’s almost worthy of a Christmas song.

Even though it is a large number, she says they will still be offered the same one-to-one opportunity to meet with the leadership team to talk about their goals. She adds that this is not a one-off. 

“We have a six-month probation period with meetings run by a senior teacher or the school business manager,” she says.

“This is an opportunity to verbalise and note all successes, and it gives the new member of staff a chance to ask questions and to find out if they would like further training.”

She adds that she would be wary of scaling these processes up in an effort to save time.

“We would always do these meetings one-to-one, as it can then be individualised to that member of staff,” she says. “If you didn’t, you would run the risk that it wouldn’t be personalised.”

Not only that, says Hipkins, but if there were more people in the meeting, she worries it would also put a new starter off asking important questions, and that they “would not be given the opportunity to raise a concern”.

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2. Buddying up

Another staple of new starter programmes is the “buddy” system. Tamsin Brown, head of school at Noel Park Primary in North London, says that more new starters may mean more existing staff becoming buddies, and this could be difficult to arrange. However, she says that corners should not be cut by moving away from one-to-one pairings or “making do” with the make-up of pairings.  

“For some staff, having the buddy makes all the difference in helping them settle in, so it’s really worth getting the pairings right, and even in a busy year, making the effort to ensure this part of induction is done properly,” Brown explains.

At her school, every new member of staff is assigned either a mentor – if they are an early career teacher (ECT) or trainee – or a buddy, and these staff members are tasked with having conversations with the new starter to get feedback on how they think they’re settling in and what their induction programme needs next.

Buddies can help with everything from how to log in to the virtual classroom to how to gain access to CPD on teaching students with English as an additional language.

“Some people just take a little longer to find their feet. It helps them to feel like we’re here to develop them professionally and they are part of the team,” says Brown.

Of course, this relies on existing staff being willing to be buddies – something that requires a lot of time during an already busy period. And in a year when even more staff are moving, it will be especially demanding.

Indeed, Amrit Lloyd, assistant principal at Rivers Academy West London, part of Aspirations Academies Trust, which is comprised of 16 primary and secondary schools across England, says this is something she is aware of this year.

“It can be particularly difficult if it’s a whole team you’re recruiting or if you’ve got lots of new inexperienced staff,” she explains. “It can be difficult matching mentors and buddies. Logistically, there is a lot going on behind the scenes.”

However, to overcome this, her school will be taking advantage of its place in a multi-academy trust to help spread the buddy load around.

“In this situation, we put other teachers from the trust in to support the new member of staff and put mentors in place,” Lloyd says.

This is a strategy that her trust has employed in the past when the number of new starters has been high, and it intends to repeat this approach again this year. So how does it work?

“If we have a new head of department joining a department where, for example, there are not many other experienced teachers, or where all of the staff are also new starters, this could be very challenging for the new starter,” she explains.

In this scenario, Lloyd says a head of department from one of the trust sister schools will be “paired” with this new starter, so even though they’re not in the same building, that new starter will have a person they can go to for help and advice – be that on curriculum-based or more day-to-day issues.

“These pairings mean we can hold trust CPD days where it gives them a chance to share best practice – and for a brand new team, it means they can share resources and curriculums when they are paired up with another more experienced department,” she says.

Get all of this right and you’re on your way to a good induction process.

3. Cognitive load theory for new staff 

Just as we talk about cognitive load in the classroom, we have to think about this for new starters, too – after all, the first few days of any new job are a mix of energy, excitement, nerves and introductions, so it’s unrealistic to expect all the new information to stick.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that, just because we present information, it is actually retained,” says Leidy Klotz, author of behavioural psychology book Subtract and a consultant to organisations looking to operate efficiently.

When it comes to new starters, Klotz says schools should ask themselves: “What is a reasonable amount of information to load on? How does this new information scaffold upon itself?”

Given that the answer is unlikely to be “tell them everything on day one”, he says schools should look to spread out induction information over a longer period.

“Cramming a whole bunch of orientations into the first few days won’t be as effective as spreading out the new information over a longer period,” he explains.

In a situation such as this September, when many new staff will be starting at the same time, it will be hard to know who is paying attention to – or has misunderstood – a piece of information.

Brown agrees and warns that things will quickly go wrong if you “assume they are fine because they’ve been shown once”.

“Mistakes will be made if you don’t follow up on what you cover in the induction process,” she says.

Ideally, Brown says, a mini pre-induction should be run in advance of the September start so that there is not so much “shock of the new” when they turn up on their first official day.

“These visit days are useful as it allows you to do a class handover with the teacher who is leaving,” she says. “The new member of staff can meet their class and perhaps even join in with the planning day. Then, come September, you’re recapping information already given, and things feel less overwhelming.”

For ECTs starting their first job, finding time to do this may be easier, but even for staff coming into middle-leader or senior roles, it is still worth the effort, as Hipkins outlines.

“Induction is crucial for all staff, whether you’re teaching, support or temporary,” she says. “Everyone needs an induction programme. Schools can make the common mistake of not properly planning for induction because they make assumptions about that staff member.”

Rowlands says that even when someone enters the school as a middle leader, their induction needs to be as thorough as that of an ECT.

“Just because you’ve got lots of experience in a school, and even leading in a school, that doesn’t mean you are in any less need of a full induction when you go somewhere new,” she explains.

In fact, Rowlands says that inductions need to be even more “detailed and thorough” for experienced members of staff, because “unlike [with] ECTs and younger teachers”, the other staff are “less likely to offer help, as they might assume you already know how things work”.

4. Don’t rush things

Lloyd notes that this September, with so many new teachers starting at once, it may be tempting to try and get them up to speed as quickly as possible on all elements of the job, in order to make up for the loss of school knowledge from those who have departed and avoid any drop in outcomes.

However, she cautions against this and says it will be better in the long run to give them time to get used to their surroundings and their job.

“Don’t throw them in the deep end,” she says. “It is important that you take it slowly in the first term and give your new teachers a chance to observe, co-plan and co-teach.”

5. Take time to build the team

Childs says that, as a leader, you need to find the time for new starters to get to know the rest of the team they will be joining.

To do this she will be hosting a department lunch on the first Inset day. “The new starters can get to know the team in a less formal setting,” she says.

Childs says this is not something she would normally do for a solitary new starter, as when you’re the only new person meeting a big team, it can feel a little overwhelming. But given the “higher ratio of new staff”, it feels like a good way to welcome them in.

Brown agrees that this is important for existing staff, too: they will have to adapt to a different work environment than the term before and perhaps step up to help while new staff get up to speed. “When a lot of people start, it can put a lot of pressure on the other staff at the school,” she says.

As such, helping the new and existing staff to mix will ensure that there is more of a sense of teamwork and togetherness, rather than an “us and them” mentality.

6. Don’t forget existing staff 

Meanwhile, Dr Thompson says it is vital that existing staff are not overlooked because they will be feeling uncertain about their future, given that so many old colleagues have left and new staff are joining.

“There are clearly issues of loss – the remaining 50 per cent are feeling the uncertainty about who is joining and what they can bring to the teaching group,” he says.

Thompson suggests schools need to look at the months ahead as a chance to “build a new team as a whole”, and this requires buy-in from everyone. 

So what can help with this? Thompson says traditional social activities are trusted for a reason – they work: “Social activities will be important in building relationships – these can cover ice-breakers, getting-to-know-each-other sessions, social meet-ups. Getting to know each other personally is critical: things like your interests, hobbies, family, favourite food, etc [matter as much as] their teaching philosophy,” he says.

However, he does have one left-field idea up his sleeve that a brave school may want to try out: group singing.

“One approach I use to build relationships when I’m working with new groups is a singing activity,” Thompson explains.

He suggests using an external person to lead it (unless, perhaps, you have an eager drama teacher willing to cajole everyone along) and says: “The scientific research shows that the act of singing together is very good at building connection.”

Perhaps because, if nothing else, it’s a memory for everyone to look back on and laugh about.

7. Exit interviews

Finally, although the focus here is on how best to integrate new staff, it is vital not to overlook the importance of correctly managing the staff who are leaving, says Hipkins. She suggests exit interviews are essential.

“You must find out the reasons for leaving and look for trends,” she says.

“Schools could potentially make the person who has handed in their notice feel as if they don’t matter, but in our exit interview, we want to learn from them.

“When a member of staff moves on, we want to hear what we can do to improve – and it’s important we end their employment on a good note.”

Hipkins adds that this could be the difference in a departing employee being willing to recommend the school to a potential future new hire.

“We want that member of staff to recommend working for our academy, and to end on a good note and keep the door open for them to return in the future,” she says.

Of course, all of this is going to be important not just for September, but for the upcoming 2022-23 school year, too.

Reports suggest that recruitment will continue to be disrupted as the teacher supply model adjusts after the impact of the pandemic. For some schools, this may mean huge turnover and staff rooms that look very different to 24 or even 12 months earlier. For others, it may be that a contented workforce stays put

But without a crystal ball in your classroom, predicting what staffing levels will be like in your school next academic year is impossible. The best thing to do is ensure that new starters have a welcoming and smooth start at their new school – and existing staff have good reason to stick around.