In this issue, we share our experience of using staff surveys for the first time – what worked well and what we learned about the process

One change to the new Ofsted Framework since September 2009 has been the introduction of a formal staff survey. We live in a time when student voice is given a high profile in schools, but how many of us go to the same lengths to canvas staff opinions? I am sure that all schools could provide an answer by stating that the array of meetings such as all staff, department, year team and so on create opportunities for two-way dialogue, however, this many such meetings are dominated by discussion of administrative issues. It is a very different proposition, too, when you explicitly solicit opinions from all staff.

When faced with the prospect of the Ofsted staff survey, I was certainly challenged by the fact that I had not, in my time as headteacher, regularly gathered the views of staff through a questionnaire format – something I did frequently as a deputy headteacher. Was this an attempt to protect myself from the more critical elements within school in a way that I didn’t have to as a deputy headteacher?

In order to confront this new approach, we set about adapting the Ofsted questionnaire and decided to use it with all staff in September 2009. It is important that all staff means all staff and not just teaching staff, as the questionnaire format identifies the respondent’s role in school. In sending this out to staff we had some initial concerns:

  • Would sufficient numbers of staff complete the form?
  • Would staff treat it seriously, or as an opportunity to complain?

As it turned out, the first attempt was a bit of a disaster. The response rate from staff was a healthy 70%, however too many questionnaires were returned with some questions completely missed out, or responses to individual questions were deliberately placed between two possible answers making it difficult to use the response for data analysis purposes. Rather than try to make the best of what we had we decided to repeat this process but with more clear guidance. This entailed:

1. A brief staff meeting to cover the following:a. communicate the genuine desire to acknowledge staff perceptions of a number of school areas and respond to themb. outline the problems with the first attempt

c. make clear what was required in terms of completing the form

This more systematic approach clearly worked, because the response rate rose to 90%, with all forms being completed to the required standard.

What next?
As with all questionnaires, they only serve to prompt more questions as opposed to providing answers and this was no different. The senior leadership team did the initial layer of analysis, but it became abundantly clear that there was too much conjecture and hypothesis on our part. What was needed was to go back to staff to test out the findings and dig deeper for more meaningful information. Interestingly, some of the senior leadership team felt that this was unnecessary and would only serve to provide a forum for complaining.

Despite the reservations of some, we held a follow-up staff meeting. It would have been difficult to avoid this, having said at the outset of the process that there was a genuine desire to identify staff opinions. Before the meeting, all staff received a copy of the final results table for each question broken down by staff categories. I decided to focus the meeting on about five of the questions where there appeared to be general agreement that things were not good and also on the questions where there was widespread disagreement. An example of the latter was ‘the school operates smoothly on a day-to-day basis’.

During the meeting staff were placed in their staff categories in groups of no more than six to encourage everyone to contribute and a scribe was assigned to record the views. The format of the meeting enabled me to focus on these five areas and prompt discussion by asking pertinent questions, of the sort the leadership team had been doing in private. Following each series of questions there was time for group reflection and then a brief discussion involving everyone.

One of the key aspects of this approach is that it encourages people to back up their views with evidence. For example, it is easy to say that the school does not operate smoothly on a day-to-day basis on a questionnaire, but it is an entirely different matter to have to sit and justify your position to a group of colleagues. The quality of the discussion was very pleasing and a number of pertinent and revealing observations were made that have enabled the school to make changes that have been welcomed by staff. What was most interesting was the positive response from staff about the way the results had been shared and discussed in a very transparent manner. They acknowledged that the process could/would have been most uncomfortable for senior leaders and appreciated the willingness to confront the brutal facts (or at least the perceptions of staff). Interestingly, this process featured strongly during our assessment for Investors in People with staff offering it as an example of how the leadership of the school valued staff, listened to them and responded to their concerns.

Back in October we agreed to repeat the process before the end of the academic year to review our progress and we are to do just that within the next two weeks. Our only change to the process is that we have put the questionnaire online using a software package so that the data analysis can be done immediately. The next change will be to make revisiting the questionnaire a feature of the school planning calendar to ensure that, as with so many good intentions and ideas, it doesn’t just fizzle out.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in June 2010

About the author: Kieran McGrane and the leadership team at Federation of West Sleekburn Middle School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland