What can we learn when we ask?

In each of the last five years or so, we have conducted a survey of all 300-odd employees at my school. We ask them all sorts of questions about how content, challenged, supported and engaged they are as well as their views on the fairness of their pay, the leadership of the school and how their (professional) lives might be improved. My colleagues cover every function of the school from cleaning through grounds, maintenance, nursery, boarding, admin to teaching. The survey is anonymous and is now conducted across all United Learning schools on our behalf by an independent polling organisation better know for its political polling. Fortunately and thankfully, my colleagues are brutally honest when giving their assessment and explaining their reasoning in their many extended responses.

I say fortunately because there is little point in conducting this exercise if its only value are a few statistics about the general picture of health & well-being at the school. These stats are useful when looking for trends from year to year but I want to know what needs to change and ensure that it does - as far as I am able and as far as I agree, of course.

  • The key headline factors are:
  • Overall engagement: an employee’s willingness to put discretionary effort into their work
  • Alignment: How closely individuals’ objectives, values and aspirations match with those of the school
  • Involvement: How involved people feel with their job
  • Loyalty: The emotional tie people have to the school as a whole e.g. how proud they feel, their outlook

Obviously, our aim is to ensure that these headline stats are as positive as possible in absolute terms but also relative to national comparators - hence the reason for using a national polling organisation. Just like your temperature, these stats are indicators of health rather than anything more discerning. In order to get a proper understanding of what lies beneath we delve into the detail of the individual responses to each question.

I read every one of the hundreds of comments and suggestions. Some are cringeworthy for their undiscriminating praise of everything and everyone. Some are equally cringeworthy for the converse reason - you need a thick skin to read some of the comments. However, these outliers are recognised for what they are and do not have undue influence on my thinking. The vast majority of comments are pleasingly thoughtful and helpfully critical.

So, what sorts of things crop up and how has the organisation changed as a result? The key questions we ask include:

What is the best thing about working in your school?

What I am hoping for here is to get a sense of how well my colleagues understand the values of the school and can reflect these in heir own words. If this is not so in a large proportion of cases, then there is little point in proceeding much further as being in tune with our values is essential. For example, do they understand that our first priority is the needs of the pupils? This might seem obvious but I've been in plenty of schools that are run for the benefit of the adults. Many colleagues talk about enjoying working as part of a team to get the best out of the children and their delight when this work well.

What one thing would improve the education we provide for our children?

Often these responses talk about little changes such as improving the resources in a subject or organising events in a slightly different way. Again, this is a good gauge of how people are thinking and their mood. When positive suggestions predominate it indicates a healthy state of mind.

What one change would make your school a better place to work?

Typical responses here are to do with improving communication, providing better mechanisms for having a say in decision-making and paying people more. It would be easy to dismiss these responses as inevitable whatever one did but that is not our approach. So we have changed our pay scales to enable all staff to earn more - we still have a job to do to explain precisely how this works. We have introduced regular open forums without a set agenda to provide a mechanism for anyone to ask questions of me and give their view on developments in the school - attendance so far has been disappointing so we will need to think of other mechanisms. I have taken to writing regularly about my thinking and spending most afternoons walking around the school talking with people along the way. All of these things have made a difference; small but perceptible.

What lessons have I learnt?

  1. Value the comments made even if they are not to your liking as they are often insightful of how others see the world.
  2. Act on the results of the survey. We provide all employees with a copy of the survey results and an action plan of how we are responding.
  3. Recognise that you cannot change everything so work on the areas which will have greatest impact.
  4. Be prepared to disagree and have the confidence to follow your own judgement
  5. Understand that you cannot change your personality but you can change they way you behave - often small changes have a massive impact.

As well as general surveys of staff, we also conduct an annual survey of my personal leadership - that reminds me that I need to buy a new flak jacket as the current one is worn out - and of pupils and parents. The summaries are all relayed back to the participants along with what actions arise from them.

Does all of this activity make a difference to the pupils' experience and the quality of their education? You bet it does! Year after year we have seen a steady rise in "satisfaction" from parents, staff and pupils.

By Mike Buchanan, Ashford School