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Rethinking Appraisal for Support Staff


In April 2019 I was sitting, slightly bored, at a conference, when a speaker, who I’d never heard of, got up on stage and started talking about happiness in the workplace. His name was Henry Stewart and he changed my professional thinking forever.

Henry Stewart is Founder and Chief Happiness Officer of London-based training business Happy Ltd. Happy was rated one of the top 20 workplaces in the UK for 5 successive years and now helps other organisations create happy workplaces. Sounds cheesy? I thought so too, but take a side step around your cynical scepticism and indulge me. If you know me, you’ll know I’m not the kind of person who falls for gimmicks and clever marketing. Unless that marketing is for shoes and stationery, in which case I’m anyone’s. But Happy isn’t a product, it’s a state of mind, an ethos, a way of being. It is based on getting the very best of our staff by removing the constraints of traditional management and leadership practices, and allowing your employees to fly.

The Happy Manifesto forms the basis of the Happy approach. Read it, please, it’s fascinating, and inspirational (and free), but these are the 10 Core principles:

“The 10 Core Principles

The Happy Manifesto outlines 10 core principles to create a happy, productive workplace.

  1. Trust your people. Step out of approval mode. Instead, pre-approve and focus on supporting your people.

  2. Make your people feel good. Make this the focus of your management team.

  3. Give freedom within clear guidelines. People want to know what's expected of them. But they want freedom to find the best way to achieve their goals.

  4. Be open and transparent. More information means people can take responsibility and ownership.

  5. Recruit for attitude, train for skill. Instead of qualifications and experience, recruit on attitude and potential ability.

  6. Celebrate mistakes. Create a no blame culture, to enable people to innovate without fear.

  7. Community: Create mutual benefit. Have a positive impact on the world and build your organisation too.

  8. Love work, get a life. The world, and your job, needs you well rested, well nourished and well supported.

  9. Choose managers who are good at managing. Ensure your people are supported by somebody who is good at doing that. Find other routes of recognition for those who have other strengths. Even better, allow people to choose their managers.

  10. Play to your strengths. Make sure your people spend most of their time doing what they are best at.”

Copyright © 2020

But it’s different in schools

Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? We’d all want that in our ideal world. But I’ll bet my last custard cream that whilst you were reading those principles you were also thinking “Well yes, that’s fine in theory, but you can’t just let people do whatever they like. Imagine what <insert name of problematic member of staff>, (let’s call her Mary), would get up to if I didn’t have them on a tight rein.”

We all know that principal and practice are two very different things, and that privately owned corporations have a lot more freedom in managing staff than we do in schools. The education sector is so tightly tied together with policies, procedures and red tape that it’s a wonder it can move along without tripping itself up. One look at teachers’ Directed Time Budget shows quite how insanely prescriptive we have become. Teacher appraisal is also pretty tightly controlled, but the appraisal process for support staff is frankly, all over the place and absolutely ripe for a re-think.


So let’s think about Mary again. Mary hates performance management. She’s quite happy doing her job and working her hours, and, frankly doesn’t want to meet a target or take on any new tasks to do, just because some fancy appraisal process says she has to develop herself, thank you very much. Mary thinks appraisal is a way of getting hard-working support staff to do even more, for no extra money. Mary’s got a point.

Mary is really good at the bits of her job that she likes, but there are few bits of the role that she hates. And she avoids doing them to the point that it becomes a problem. Every year her manager sets her targets that focus on those areas, and she just about scrapes by doing the bare minimum a couple of weeks before her appraisal meeting, to get the jobs done. The majority of Mary’s appraisal meeting is spent talking about those poorly-performing areas, about how Mary’s attitude could be more positive about them, and what training she might need to get them done more effectively. Mary spends the hour hating every minute. Mary’s boss spends most of their time thinking about ways of dealing with Mary’s reluctance to engage, and trying to push Mary into either fixing her bad attitude, or leaving.

Mary's great work, in the areas that she excels at, is ignored. Mary feels under-valued and disenfranchised. Mary’s attitude to performance management, towards her boss, and her work, deteriorates.

What Mary wants is to be given work to do that she enjoys and that she can excel at. She doesn’t want pointless targets, but she does want to talk about her successes, to feel valued, and to maybe try her hand at something a bit more challenging. She wants to talk about a slight shift in roles within her team, so they can all play to their strengths and not be tied to all doing bits of the job they don’t like, because they’ve got the same job description. Mary’s pretty sure that Jackie would be brilliant at doing the bit she doesn’t like, and she could then take on more of Steve’s job, because he’s run off his feet. But Mary never said any of that at her appraisal meeting because her boss spent the whole time banging on about the pointless targets that she never wanted in the first place.

If it’s broke, let’s fix it

So let’s be honest here too, we’ve all invented targets for a team member, just to fill in a gap on an appraisal form, or set a target that is easily achievable for a high-performing employee, who we need to keep fully focused on their main role.

I can honestly say that in all the years I’ve been carrying out appraisals for my support staff teams, I’ve never really found anyone who enjoys the process, or who has thrived as a direct result of them. So I decided to take my inspiration from Happy Henry (find him on twitter @happyhenry ) and do something about it. With a strong wind and a fabulous headteacher behind me, I rewrote our appraisal process, ditching formal targets, and making the process a self-led review, drawing on a coaching methodology and with the employee’s strengths and achievements at the heart of the process. If I had the freedom of an academy trust set-up, or a less-prescriptive LA, I would ditch any type of formal meeting at all.

The LA which I work in still requires a formal appraisal outcome, in order to determine pay progression, but I’ve stripped out the formality to the point where the pay determination is made on the basis of success and growth, not tick box targets. Formal meetings are replaced by informal termly snapshot reviews

What about CPD?

I also linked the CPD process directly to the snapshot reviews, with development and training firmly embedded into the conversation. Support staff are asked to complete CPD equivalent to a weeks of their contracted working hours, as per teaching staff, but the definition of CPD has been widened to include the following:

  • In-house training

  • Online learning

  • Formal training courses

  • Network meetings

  • Research

  • Departmental training

  • Coaching

  • Visits to other schools

  • Or any other activity which increases professional knowledge

CPD can take place at any time of the year (unless it is compulsory safeguarding or all-staff training which takes place on INSET days), and can be undertaken at evenings and weekends, with lieu time taken at a convenient time. Support staff are then freed up to attend to urgent start-of-term administration tasks which traditionally take place on INSET days, meaning Support Staff training traditionally gets overlooked or ignored.

So where do you start?

I’ve shared the skeleton documents on for anyone to consider and adapt as they might wish. I hope you find them useful, or that they at least spark a discussion with your support staff teams to find a process that really works for them.

But the over-riding factor should be that your performance process gets the very best out of your people and allows them to develop and grow. Staff should be encouraged to explore, grow, suggest and control their own development, based on the principles of happiness, wellbeing and success. After all, who doesn't want happy, successful staff?

Support Staff Appraisal and CPD - Suggested Guidance and Overview of the process

PM Snapshot - a template for a termly informal discussion

Support Staff Annual Appraisal form - where one is still required by policy

Support Staff CPD log - for recording all professional development and learning

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