From education to employment

‘Educators need to improve leadership quality or continue to lose talent’

teacher writing on board

Schools, colleges and universities need to improve their leadership and management to avoid a worsening retention crisis, a think tank has warned today.

A survey by the Social Market Foundation – a cross-party think tank – in partnership with the Chartered Management Institute – found that one in four (26%) of education leaders and managers thought that their senior leadership performed poorly when it came to motivating staff.

The survey also found that morale and motivation were among the top three factors to determine organisational success.

The findings come as the education system continues to struggle to both recruit and retain staff post-pandemic. Only half of the required number of trainee secondary teachers in England have been recruited this year, and teachers are leaving at the highest rate in four years. According to TES, the Department for Education is set to miss 2023-24 targets for teacher recruitment. The Government is also planning an update to its “Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy” to attract and support highly skilled teachers.

One education expert, whose comments are reported in the paper, pointed out that if you get leadership right  “everything else will follow”. Copious amounts of research evidence back this up. Yet, despite the undoubted value of leadership and management to the quality of education, it has received less policy focus than curriculum reform and changes to the teaching profession, the SMF noted.

The SMF’s survey of 455 education leaders and managers found that leadership quality and workforce motivation/morale respectively ranked in the top three factors for organisational success – at 39% and 29%. Yet a significant minority of leaders and managers in schools reported their senior management as performing poorly (30%) when it came to motivating their staff.

Managers and leaders at the trust level (34%) and in colleges (35%) were particularly likely to criticise their bosses for doing ‘poorly’ or ‘very poorly’ at motivating staff. The SMF report finds that from 2017-2023, an average 30% of schools and colleges received a Ofsted rating of “inadequate” or “require improvement” for their leadership and management.

The SMF study did, however, find success stories. Three in-depth case studies (with three further education (FE) colleges and one university) across the country – Oldham College, Exeter College, and London Metropolitan University – show how effective leadership and management practices can drive-up organisational performance and ultimately improve outcomes for students.

This report is the second in a series from the SMF’s  partnership with the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) that  investigates how leadership and management can  bring about improvements in the delivery of vital public services across healthcare, education and local government.

Niamh O Regan, Researcher at Social Market Foundation, said:

“Even before the pandemic, British educational institutions have been under immense strain – and have been lagging behind comparable countries for even longer. Unfortunately, and despite the undoubted value of leadership and management to the quality of education, it has received less policy focus than curriculum reform and changes to the teaching profession. As the sector faces an acute retention crisis, it must look inwards and consider improving its leadership and management practices. The evidence in this report, most notably in the case studies, tells us that better outcomes will follow.

Anthony Painter, Policy Director at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), said:

“The findings from the SMF research are clear. We need the best trained managers and leaders in our schools and colleges. Schemes such as high level management apprenticeships have been critical to improving standards and we need to keep investing in them and other upskilling programmes. If we invest in the best management and leadership in education then we are also investing in the future of kids and learners of all ages. That also means we are investing in our economic future and so much besides.”

The SMF’s recommendations for improving the quality of leadership and management across England’s educational settings:

  • Politicians and policymakers should make the quality of leadership and management across the education sector a priority issue.
  • Build on the current Teacher Recruitment and Retention Strategy and develop a more comprehensive approach to reducing the numerous barriers to maximising the contribution of leadership and management to organisational success of schools and colleges
  • Revamp leadership NPQs and mandate them for all those aspiring to be or already in leadership and management roles in state funded education, and develop them for other parts of the (e.g., higher) education sector.

  1. The SMF report, Top of the class?, will be published here on Thursday 16th November 2023.

Figure: Which three factors are the most important for success for organisations in the public sector: education


Source: SMF Opinium Survey March-April 2023

  1. Research methodology and data:
    1. A SMF convened expert roundtable on leadership and management in education.
    2. A survey of public sector leaders and managers across the UK. Opinium was commissioned to poll 1,000 leaders and managers in the public sector. Among survey respondents was a sub-sample of 455 leaders and managers in education.
    3. Qualitative and desk research was undertaken into four education institutions in England where leadership and management has made a notable difference to their performance. These are presented in the four case studies in this report.
  2. An earlier SMF report, Managing it better, that highlighted existing research on leadership and management in the public sector and its role in helping bring about improvements, can be found here.
  3. The report is sponsored by Chartered Management Institute. The SMF retains full editorial independence.

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