The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

John Viner

Staff retention means keeping the right people on the bus

A long and costly recruitment cycle is just one of the things a school has to endure if they can't keep their eggs on the bus  and their foxes at bay.

At the sharp end of budget matters, school business managers are likely to have a very good idea of the cost of recruiting a new member of staff.

Let’s assume for a moment that an experienced and long-serving teacher comes to the headteacher and says, ‘I’m fed up with jumping through hoops - I’ve decided to go and work somewhere less stressful’.

It may, of course, be a complete surprise to the headteacher. The teacher is effective enough, knows what she’s doing and gets good results. He tries to persuade her but she says, ‘no, my mind’s made up. I’m going at the end of term, in five weeks, and, because I’m not going to another school, I can.’

While the headteacher swings into action to find a replacement, in an office somewhere the SBM starts to add up the cost.

Recruitment costs: let's do the sums

Perhaps we could work that cost out between us. Here are some items: you add the cost as it relates to your setting. Then tot it up and make a note.

  • A meeting of the SLT and the governors’ personnel group. The meeting takes an hour. Coffee and biscuits are available.
  • Since the vacancy will have to allow for normal notice periods, the cost of a supply teacher for a term less the savings from the resignation.
  • Time taken inducting the supply teacher and monitoring their effectiveness for three weeks.
  • A meeting of the headteacher, SBM and governors’ personnel group to sketch out a job description and person specification. Printing of these details for potential applicants requesting a hard copy.
  • Placing an advertisement in the education press and online.
  • Clerical time for receiving applications.
  • Time for relevant people to read through the applications as they arrive.
  • A two-hour meeting of key people to shortlist the applicants. (More coffee and biscuits.)
  • Sending out reference requests with stamped and addressed return envelopes. Sending invitations to interview (time and materials).
  • An hour-long meeting of key people to plan the interview activities.
  • Materials, personnel, admin time to run the interview process. This includes the cost of senior staff observing lessons. Assuming a one-day event and three to five candidates.
  • Time for feedback to the successful and unsuccessful candidates
  • Admin time for setting up new member of staff, reproduction of key documents,
  • Cost of the induction process.

It does not take long to get the wrong side of £10,000, does it? How many schools can afford that twice a year or more?

All aboard

Re-run the tape for a moment. Suppose the teacher had not felt she was jumping through hoops? The financial savings are important but so is the disruption to the school and the interruption of pupils’ education.

We worry about recruitment, but it’s the retention that we need to get right just as urgently. In July, my colleague John Rees and I are running a workshop focused on raising standards through better staff engagement. But it's about more than that: it’s about valuing people like our teacher above and helping them to feel that they are a part of the team.

In 2001, Jim Collins published his landmark book, Good to Great. Although a study of businesses rather than schools, his model of The Bus has become familiar to us all. The London Challenge made much of his injunction to ‘get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats.’

This is the challenge for school leaders. As the driver, not only do they need to know where they are going, they also need to drive carefully. My dad drove a London bus for almost half a century and he used to frequently say that a good driver drove as if he had eggs, not people in the seats.

My dad drove a London bus for almost half a century and he used to frequently say that a good driver drove as if he had eggs, not people in the seats

But what about the people who need to get off the bus?

Different beasts

As long ago as 1987, Simon Baddely and Kim James from the University of Birmingham gave us the four axis diagram, ‘Owl, Fox, Donkey, Sheep’.

  • Owls are wise – they know a lot and they are signed up to the mission.
  • Sheep don't know much – maybe NQTs – but they are signed up and want to learn.
  • Donkeys, as the name suggests, don’t know a lot and don't care much. Typically, they have been teaching for 20+ years and getting away, for most of this time, with the minimum.
  • Foxes, on the other hand, know quite a lot; they are up to date with current thinking, they may be excellent subject teachers, but they don’t necessarily agree with the leadership and the strategic direction of the school. They are often the ones who undermine leadership in staff meetings.

The quandary is how to manage each of these four types. While it’s important to lead with compassion, staff retention may also mean that we retain the right people, not necessarily all the people.

While it’s important to lead with compassion, staff retention may also mean that we retain the right people, not necessarily all the people

Jim Collins pointed out that it’s not that people are our greatest asset; it’s that the right people are our greatest asset. Convention has it that the sheep can be trained and are likely to become effective so, for them, retention lies in the intrinsic reward of knowing they are part of something great. 

The donkeys are a bigger problem – if they can be encouraged and rewarded for their contribution, they can convert to sheep and thence to owls. If not, and if they cannot be worked around, then they probably have to get off the bus. And compassionate exiting is often just what they are looking for: sometimes, by enabling access to the right training, they can move into an area where they are much happier than when they struggled in a job they did not realise they had come to dislike. 

It is the foxes that present the greatest challenge. Most agree that they need to be neutralised so that they do not become sappers of collective energy. If that can be done by careful and compassionate nurturing – and many foxes’ discontent is rooted in not feeling valued – then they can join the wise owls.

However, many commentators also agree that, failing this, foxes need to be ‘shot’, whether that is to greater heights through promotion out or held to account for their negative impact.

A fox hunt

Staff retention is every bit as important as staff recruitment. Keeping the right people may exert pressures on school leaders that are greater than the headache of getting them in the first place. 

With the current crisis of recruitment, it’s a seller’s market. What looks like an owl may just turn out to be a fox. Caveat emptor.


  • Collins, J C. (2001), Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, William Collins.
  • Baddeley, S. and James, K., 'Owl, Fox, Donkey or Sheep: Political Skills for Managers', Management Education and Development 18/1 (1987), pp. 3-19. 

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