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Examining the development and retention of staff in schools and Multi-Academy Trusts

A photograph of a teacher helping a young student with their class work. Both teacher and student are smiling.

In this article Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith, Associate Lecturer at The Open University for Master of Education, Professional Doctorate and BEd Education Studies programmes, discusses some of the key challenges that schools and Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) face in relation to staff development and retention and how the OU can help address this.


The UK Government suggested in a March 2022 white paper 'Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child', that all children will be taught within a family of schools by 2030. The term ‘family of schools’ refers to Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), and the report states that schools must already be in a Trust within this timeframe or have plans to join or form one.

Schoolteachers and leaders have greater freedoms within MATs, as they are typically free from the control of Local Authorities. This means that they are empowered to decide how to spend their budgets and deliver the curriculum.
However, despite the increased autonomy, MAT leadership comes with its challenges.

Staff Retention

A 2021 survey published by the National Education Union (NEU) found that nearly half of the teachers and leaders surveyed do not think that they will still be working in a school or trust in 5 years’ time.

Commonly cited reasons for this are a concern for high workload (51%), lack of government trust (53%) and the reduced status of the profession (66%). Official data from the Department for Education on teacher recruitment and retention in England shows that teacher retention has been improving since 2013, but there still seems to be a problem retaining teachers who are at the start of their career - 22% of newly qualified teachers were reported to have left the profession within 2 years, 33% within 5 years and 29% within 10 years.

In a 2018 Department for Education report, those who left education recommended improving in-school support for teachers, reducing their workloads, and increasing the focus on professional recognition and progression opportunities.

Committing to Continuing Professional Development (CPD) could therefore play an important part in retaining staff. It also encourages employees to learn a new skillset, update their existing knowledge, and explore the latest trends and developments within their area of expertise.

Improving the quality of teaching and learning

National policies have come together to create a work environment that some teachers and leaders feel restrictive. Such feelings can adversely affect professional trust and create a focus on the operational parts of professional development, rather than the strategic. This type of training does not always make a direct impact on improving the quality of teaching and learning, nor will it usually provide a direct sense of fulfilment. It often results in an experience which deters and detracts staff who are already facing a heavy workload.

More often than not, teachers and school leaders get into education to support children and students’, not to support the school or Trust itself. Staff will therefore want to understand how to improve their professional practice and want to see how theories and research are directly relevant to their own classroom or leadership practices.

 It is therefore important that all schools and trusts provide opportunities for continuous professional learning that address not only the operational aspects of the MAT, but the areas in which staff really want to engage and develop their own professional priorities.

Leadership pipeline

Encouraging an evidence driven profession has been prioritised by both the teaching profession (read this article on developing a school-wide research evidence-informed culture from the Chartered College of Teaching) and the government (as seen in this 2017 report on evidence-informed teaching).

As Teaching Assistant’s (TAs) work towards becoming qualified Teachers, Teachers towards Middle and Senior Leadership positions, and Senior Leaders towards becoming System Leaders, different knowledge, skills, and attributes are required. Schools and trusts need to consider developing a pipeline of professional staff suitable for the many different roles and levels within the organisation and wider system. This is partly to retain good employees, partly because growing people 'in-house' is cheaper than to recruit externally, and partly because schools and trusts play a vital role in civic leadership – they impart knowledge, skills and traits that have a positive and lasting impact on individuals and their local communities.

Therefore, a challenge for schools and trusts is how to provide professional learning experiences that address the different career stages and levels of leadership.

Flexible professional development as a solution

Based on the above challenges, it is clear that providing staff with development and progression opportunities is the key to developing and retaining an informed and skilled workforce. However, any approach to CPD must be flexible, given that there is significant pressure on staff time and a continued squeeze on budgets is likely.

Learning solutions from The Open University

The Open University’s approach to Continuing Professional Development is to help employers make a meaningful investment in staff development by providing them with the necessary resources, support, and expertise.

The courses on offer range from free online learning modules to professional short courses and recognised qualifications, providing learning solutions for school and trust staff at all levels. As the only university in the UK dedicated to distance learning, The Open University’s courses were created to be flexible. This enables teachers and leaders to make the most of the precious time that they have away from teaching.

Supported online learning from the OU also provides the flexibility needed for TAs all the way through to System Leaders to achieve a recognised undergraduate or postgraduate personal qualification as part of their organisations professional practice. They are portable too, which means that they can be used in different roles, specialisms, contexts, or locations.

Everyone benefits with this method, which is crucial to getting the ‘buy in’ from the learner to take on the commitment and see it through successfully, as well as being vital to justifying the funding. In addition, it creates a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship and increases the commitment from both employee and employer, leading to staff retention and efficient talent development.

As well as recognised qualifications, Continuing Professional Development (CPD) through The Open University encourages learners to develop their own professional practice and theoretical understanding.

For school and trust staff seeking a more informal learning opportunity, the OU’s OpenLearn platform contains thousands of courses and resources which are free to access. For CPD with greater professional recognition, but without the time commitment, a short course known as a Microcredential can enhance teaching skills and offer an insight into inclusive learning. Microcredentials are perfect for CPD and allow learners to achieve new skills in as little as 12 weeks. Created by world-class OU academics, many of the OU's microcredentials are endorsed by high-profile industry partners. A survey conducted in 2022 showed that 97% of learners rated the quality of audio and video highly. 96% went on to say that they felt the skills they gained from the short course were “excellent” or “good”.

Discover the range of OU courses for those working in schools and Multi-Academy Trusts.

Photograph of Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith facing the camera and smiling.

About the academic

Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith EdD MA (Ed) MMus PGCE BA (Hons) FCCT FRSA

Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith is an award-winning leader with a passion for making learning meaningful for every child.

As Director of One Life Learning, Fiona provides strategic education consultancy services to schools, professional learning providers and edtech companies. She is also an Associate Lecturer and Consultant Researcher at The Open University, teaching and supervising postgraduate research and taught programmes as well as undergraduate education degree courses in education, pedagogy and research methods.

Fiona sits on the board of a number of charitable trusts and is a regular contributor to books, panels, and events addressing Education, Pedagogy and Education Technology.

Named by Education Business as one of the 50 most influential people in education in both 2021 and 2022, Fiona has been recognised for her contribution to the teaching profession and across education with Fellowships awarded by both the Chartered College of Teaching and the Royal Society of Arts.

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