HR director at Latymer Upper School, Tricia Howarth, on the specific challenges facing HR teams in the education sector, and why recognition of HR as a strategic force is well overdue
Given that she’s the only member of her family not working in the teaching profession, there’s something serendipitous about Tricia Howarth’s appointment as HR director at Latymer Upper School, in Hammersmith, last year. Following a wide-ranging career that’s included HR roles in the public and private sector in organisations such as Royal Mail, United Learning and Haringey Council, she now leads a team of three supporting around 350 staff at the prestigious independent school.
Howarth spoke to CIPHR about the unique challenges facing the education sector, her approach to professionalising HR, how HR has evolved during her 30-year career, and why improving staff diversity is a key priority.
What’s been the reception to your arrival? What approach have you taken to getting stuck in?
I think naturally it was a bit of a change for the teaching staff, because it is different; while I can relate to teachers on a professional level, I don’t have the same depth of teaching knowledge as my predecessor, who was a deputy head. I think support staff felt it was absolutely fantastic to have another member of support staff on the senior leadership team.
This wasn’t a school I needed to come in and ‘sort out’ – it’s been more about me learning to understand the school and looking at how to improve and develop what was already here. I’m using my first year to get to know people, to get to know the school, and to really understand its rhythm. I don’t think I’m quite there yet as I have yet to complete my first full year – but that’s not to say that I don’t have lots of ideas, and there are many things that we have already achieved. Introducing CIPHR, for example, was one of the first things I did in September. That’s created an opportunity for quite a lot of change in HR.
How does your typical day differ in term time and school holidays?
My typical day is quite different in term time and school holidays. Term time is very hectic, with a relentless amount of activity and, as a result, the HR [work] can become more reactive – you are dealing with many staff issues as they arise, responding to resignations, recruiting for vacancies. Time is very short.
The holidays are a time to reflect – to really think about what you are doing, and look at where improvements can be made. That’s the time I develop strategy and undertake policy reviews, because you know you aren’t going to have quite so many people knocking on the door. But that change does bring a challenge all of its own, too, because there’s an element of life and energy that is missing during the holidays.
What are the specific HR challenges that schools face?
It’s a very cyclical year; activities are very much based around the academic terms, with things happening at certain points. For example, one of the challenges you wouldn’t necessarily get outside education is that teachers can only resign at three points in the year, so you can have a mass of resignations and recruitment activity at these focus points.
There are obviously challenges around the perceived difference between teaching and support staff, and while all staff contribute to and are needed to create a successful school, it is a slightly different working experience depending on whether you are a teaching or support staff member. There are also national challenges; teacher recruitment is one that I’m sure every school is having to address at the moment. And there is the further challenge of work-life balance and wellbeing. Teaching is an incredibly demanding career – probably even more so in the independent sector, where everything is concentrated into even fewer teaching weeks.
Budgeting is also often difficult, for maintained schools and academies that are dependent on government decisions and in the independent sector, where your main source of income is derived from parental fees. There is a sensitive balance to be struck between the cost of delivering an excellent education, and the affordability of school fees.
How do you support teachers’ wellbeing?
We do a lot of work with pupils to help them be resilient around exams and deal with the pressures they experience, and I think we probably need to extend that learning to our staff as well. We have a sports centre that provides a range of facilities and sports clubs and is free to staff. We also provide subsidised acupressure, which is extremely popular, and have recently introduced a dedicated staff counsellor. I would say we are probably at the beginning of our staff wellbeing strategy, but it is a key part of our strategic plan for the next three years.
What else is one your radar?
Recruitment and retention is a growing challenge for us. You increasingly need to work hard to attract and retain candidates. In education you need to work especially hard and be really efficient at hiring, because everyone is recruiting at the same time – there is an obvious element of competition. Not only do you have to clearly articulate your employee proposition and brand, you also have to act quickly, otherwise you can draw up shortlists only to find people have been appointed elsewhere by the time it comes to interview.
We’re also thinking about our recruitment strategy and its impact on diversity. If we are trying to encourage bursary student applications from truly diverse backgrounds, we need to be looking at the diversity of our staff population as well. While this is not going to be something that will change overnight, there are definitely things we can do to improve diversity in every way – not just ethnicity, but gender, age and disability, too.
For example, one of the things we learned from our gender pay report was the fact that we need to encourage more women to step into middle-leadership positions. We have good female representation at a senior level, and a roughly 50-50 gender split across our staff body, but we don’t have good representation of women in some of our key middle leadership positions. We need to address any unintended barriers that may be preventing avenues for progression.
How has HR changed as a profession during your career?
When I joined the profession, it was ‘personnel’ and my experience was very much focused on the processes that support employees through their lifecycle. That’s absolutely the bedrock of HR but, for me, HR being seen as intrinsic to business decisions and adding value at a senior, strategic level is something that was well overdue. It’s fantastic that, as HR director, I’m on the senior leadership team. I’m not just involved in HR decisions, I’m also involved in wider organisational aspects and decisions. When HR is recognised as an integral part of the vision and development of the school, that is a great place to be as a director of HR.
Discover more about Latymer Upper School’s experiences with CIPHR in our customer success story