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Workplace survey results at independent schools | A post-COVID analysis by Louise Parkes

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In an engaged team, school staff are committed to their jobs, pouring their passion into helping students and making the school the best it can be. 

We are happy to share valuable insights from the notes of Dr Louise Parkes, Principal Consultant at Xref Engage, that were presented last October 2023 at the Independent Schools HR Network Day in Sydney.

About the Survey

The survey data includes feedback from 3736 staff in 21 Australia-based independent schools, including primary and high schools, surveyed from the beginning of 2022 up to September 2023. 

Xref Engage conducted an analysis with the same survey data during the COVID period. A comparison of pre and post-COVID data, along with the analysis by our Engage consultant, reveals how things have changed.

Key observations from the survey results

  • The data challenges some of the rhetoric we’ve seen in the media over the last year on teacher shortages and wellbeing, or at least shows these issues are not as prevalent in the independent sector as perhaps in the public sector.
  • There are signs that initiatives to improve the efficiency of processes are beginning to take effect (at last!).
  • Yes, pay was an increasing area of dissatisfaction (not just in schools). But schools have the edge when it comes to benefits.

Measuring the outcome

The survey aimed to measure workplace Engagement, Wellbeing and Progress as the 3 main key outcomes.

  • ​​Engagement for staff is high, with 85% of survey respondents indicating they are engaged. As an industry benchmark results are 6% higher than is typical in other workplaces.
  • Wellbeing is moderate, with 69% of survey respondents indicating they feel well at work.
  • School Progress levels are moderate, with 79% of survey respondents indicating they are satisfied with their school’s progress and success in delivering outcomes. As an industry benchmark results are 9% higher than we find in other types of organisations.

The results showed that, as expected, independent schools have high levels of staff engagement and staff confidence in the ability of their schools to make an impact. 

Data from the school survey is compared to our benchmark of a wide rage of industries that includes over 600 organisations across the Australian economy. 

The results from Engagement and Progress are above average compared to other industries.

Xref branded green graphic with results of Engagement and Progress from independent schools survey

The results for Wellbeing are slightly lower among teachers than professional staff, but still not significantly different to most workplaces (-4%). Perhaps surprisingly, the survey results reveal levels of staff wellbeing are no different to what we find in other industries. 

Xref branded green graphic with results of wellbeing from independent schools survey

The results reflect some unique advantages of school cultures that support Wellbeing, and balance out the challenges that the survey revealed. 

Challenges faced by staff

Creating career paths for staff within the school is difficult, but this is a common challenge in line with other industries.

By contrast, independent schools score significantly below other industries in employee ratings of flexible work practices and capacity to manage workload. This difference is particular to teaching staff only and in the order of 20-30 percentage points.

Schools are also generally perceived less favourably on environmentally responsible practices.

Xref branded graphic with a quote from Louise Parkes, Principal Consultant, Xref Engage

An overview of the schools' strengths 

Independent schools are strong communities united around a common purpose, values and faith. These schools are well-resourced and prioritise staff health, safety and wellbeing. 

Staff feel well supported by colleagues and team leaders, and respectful interactions amongst staff are reinforced with a low tolerance for inequity or poor behaviour.

Compared to other workplaces, independent schools are more adept at using technology, have greater clarity and focus on achieving their vision, and leaders tend to be more value-aligned. 

Contrary to reports of teacher workforce shortages, independent schools are perceived to be better at attracting job applicants than in other workplaces.

Priorities for the leadership team

Analysis of what is most important for supporting employee engagement, wellbeing and school progress, highlights the significant impact of staff confidence in the senior leadership team, feeling valued and recognised, and being involved in decision-making.

Important practices that are currently underperforming, and provide high-impact opportunities for improvement, include efficiency of processes, workload and career opportunities.

Shifts in the workplace practices post-COVID

When averaged across all questions, satisfaction ratings show a small but constant upward trend since COVID lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. 

After a sharp rise in 2020, satisfaction with respect, technology use, and job control have been maintained or continued to improve. 

Satisfaction with workload and communication, despite an initial drop in 2022, has picked up again over the last year.

There are only two areas that have bucked the upward trend. Satisfaction with pay has been on a constant decline since 2020, consistent with the downward trend we’ve observed across all industry data, reflecting current economic conditions. 

Although other industries have also seen a drop in satisfaction with benefits, satisfaction with benefits in schools remains high. 

“There are big shifts occurring with pay increases across both public and independent schools, so hopefully, we’ll see a turnaround in these results next year”, said Louise.

The other area that has seen a consistent downward trend in satisfaction is with Processes. This started well before COVID-19 but appears to have levelled out, and results from 2023 hopefully indicate that efforts in this area are starting to have some positive impact. 

Processes have been on the priority list for most of our independent school clients for some time.

Despite expectations to the contrary, perceptions of the ability of independent schools to attract new employees has not dropped. 

While survey results indicate greater difficulty recruiting new hires across other industries since COVID, there has been no change in this area amongst independent schools, and in fact, there is greater satisfaction with the quality of new recruits.

From ‘safe’ to ‘great’

2023 observed many schools using their surveys to identify and assess psychosocial hazards, in line with the new Work Health and Safety regulations and codes. In the language of the codes of practice, the key risks linked to staff wellbeing are high job demands, low job control and poor procedural justice. 

Additional potential hazards specific to schools that have been identified in staff feedback include role ambiguity/conflict, poor change management, inadequate support for student behaviour management, bullying and harassment from parents, and emotional job demands with the increasing wellbeing/welfare needs of students.

While the surveys have been helpful in supporting safe workplaces in independent schools, they continue to be a driving force for making schools not just safe, but great places to work. 

In 2023, SCEGGS Darlinghurst won their second “Best Workplace” Award. The award recognises exceptional workplaces across more than 40 industries, where staff give clear feedback that they feel supported and engaged.  

More than 80% of SCEGGS staff responding to the Xref Engage survey rated their workplace practices positively. The overall results were also more than 10% above Xref’s industry benchmark for the independent school sector. 

Final Thoughts

In summary, Louise Parkes' presentation at the Independent Schools HR Network Day illuminates the dynamic and evolving landscape of the independent school sector. 

Through comprehensive data analysis and feedback from our recent surveys, it's clear that independent schools are making significant strides in areas like staff engagement, technological adeptness, and leadership alignment while also addressing challenges in workload management and environmental practices. 

The positive trends observed post-COVID and the recognition of schools like SCEGGS Darlinghurst as exceptional workplaces underscore the sector's commitment to not only maintaining safe environments but also cultivating workplaces of excellence and innovation.

If you would like to know more about how Xref Engage collaborates with school staff to drive strategic changes and improvements, click here to get in touch.

Xref branded graphic with quote on a Schools HR Networking event from Louise Parkes, Principal Consultant, Xref Engage

About Louise Parkes

Dr Louise Parkes is a Principal Consultant at Xref Engage. Louise directs Xref Engage's research and development activities and is regularly presenting at academic, industry and public forums. With almost 20 years of experience consulting our customers, Louise particularly enjoys working with not-for-profit clients, and at both ends of the life spectrum - in aged care and schools. 

About Xref Engage school surveys

Xref Engage school engagement survey enables schools to identify ways to improve staff engagement and wellbeing and collaborate with staff to drive strategic changes and improvements.

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