HR in the education sector

Published on: 11 May 2016


Having an instinct for attracting and retaining the best teachers is a key skill for any HR professional working in the education sector. HR also has its work cut out proving itself in a sector that hasn’t traditionally been as welcoming to HR as other industries. Sally Wood, HR manager for Framlingham College in Suffolk, a co-educational boarding and day school for pupils aged 13-18 says, “Schools have a unique culture and HR doesn’t always have the profile it has in other organisations. This requires making an impact individually, to be viewed credibly in order to make a strategic contribution.”

What’s the culture like?

Individualistic: Julian Duxfield, HR Director at Oxford University says that one thing that has struck him more than anything else is the individualistic nature of Higher Education: “There is a very high degree of respect for individuals more so than in other organisational cultures I have come across. At Oxford University there is less team work, it is very much more individualistic.”

Term-time v holiday period: There is also a marked change in role between term time and holiday periods. Wood says: “It is a popular misconception that we work term time only, whereas most of us are actually here all year round. However, I have found that there is generally more scope for flexible working within an education setting, and I enjoy the cyclical nature of working in school terms.”

Duxfield has also experienced this: “During the term, I spend a lot of time attending committee meetings and dealing with individual academics about specific issues. During the holidays it is more about one to one meetings.”

Which HR skills does the Education sector demand?

Experience of other sectors: Wood says that a lot of HR skills are transferrable from other sectors: “I don’t think there are necessary specific skills that you must have, and I have found most HR generalist skills are transferable to the education sector. We are bound by additional regulation and compliance, but I see this as a challenge rather than a drawback.“ Tara Higby, HR Compliance Manager for Kids Planet Day Nurseries which has a total of 17 nurseries across the North West of England says, however, “An understanding of other sectors is beneficial because it contributes to developing the commercial success of the business.”

Strong communication skills: Duxfield says: “Oxford is a world class institution. You need to be prepared to work with people who are very bright and enjoy that, you also need to be able to respond in a truly appropriate manner. Many of our academics have a strong belief in what they are doing and don’t respond well to people with big egos.” 

Higby also notes that you need to feel comfortable dealing with constant change. It is a sector that is subject to constant review and regulation and reacting to that is a key skill, yet for many teachers that have dedicated their whole career to their profession, managing that change requires a great deal of sensitivity and this is a key skill for any HR professional in the sector.

What are the HR challenges in the Education sector?

Hiring and retaining: Lateral movement by teachers, attracted to competitors in like-for-like jobs can be a problem and, low pay, particularly in early years’ education can be a challenge, Higby says: “Managing employee expectations in terms of pay and benefits – meeting the NLW levels has been a challenge for the business particularly in light of the investment required in terms of premises and resources to meet the needs of the children.”

Wood says that for her it’s the verification of candidate’s profiles that can be a strain: “The amount of pre-employment vetting checks we have to undertake before confirming employment offers can also be challenging, especially within the operational departments where managers may be short-staffed and requiring a candidate to start as soon as possible. Luckily, many of the systems we have to use for these checks are now online, which has sped the process up hugely compared with when I started here ten years ago.”

Complying with school specific regulations regarding the hiring of staff is a further obstacle. Wood says: “We are governed legislatively by the Department for Education and our recruitment practices are subject to strict safeguarding regulations. Guidance is often not forthcoming and often received after the regulations are in place, making compliance a challenge.”

Measuring success: Duxfield says that evaluation can be tricky: “It is very difficult measuring success in Higher Education. In the commercial world it is much easier with clearer metrics.” Ofsted reports do go some way towards providing an evaluation framework but often that works in a team-focused way rather than assessing levels of individual competence and it can also be a source of added stress for HR. Wood says: “Independent schools are subject to short notice inspections by the ISI (Independent School Inspectorate), our equivalent of Ofsted Inspections. Lack of compliance would most likely result in an immediate fail, making this a stressful time for HR.”

Training: keeping up to speed with latest teaching methods and technologies for the classroom is a key focus for HR who need to implement the right training programmes for staff. Higby says: “Childcare has previously been perceived as an easy option for job choice. However, there is so much more to the role than playing with children. Individuals who work at our nurseries have to be qualified, trained in safeguarding, understand the development stages of children, conduct observations and provide stimulating activities for children.” 

Sharing ideas: Wood admits that a lack of knowledge-sharing within the sector is a source of frustration: “Although there are many opportunities for networking within HR, there is little I have come across that is specific to schools. It would be so beneficial to have more networking events for those dealing specifically with the challenges faced within the education sector in order to compare notes and exchange ideas and best practice. I am currently setting up a ‘HR in Schools’ LinkedIn group, specifically for this purpose.”

What do those in the sector say about working there?

“Working in central government as the HR Director for the Department for Transport has given me really useful experience for working in the Higher Education sector. In many ways the structures are fairly similar, in Government ministers make the decisions and the civil servants implement these, in higher education the academics make the decisions and professional support staff implement these. To survive in HR in education you need to have a long-term perspective and be prepared to work with people that challenge you and you need to be comfortable with a level of ambiguity about things.” Julian Duxfield, Director of HR, Oxford University