The human resource

Ian Buss, of Education Banking, explores the benefits of HR services – both on retainer and as an unlimited service – as well as how to work out what works best for your school

The staff in your school should be your biggest asset; they are also your biggest expense – so it always fascinates me to see how senior leaders in schools get support to ensure challenges and issues are dealt with effectively. I’ve worked with many school HR support companies over the years, and I recently asked the one I believe to be the best what are the five top HR issues they see schools needing support with, and how they approach that support.
Top five issues:

  • Restructuring.
  • Extended sickness absence.
  • Disability issues.
  • Disciplinary issues.
  • Capability issues.

With continued budget pressures as they are, it is hardly surprising to see restructuring in the top five – and I don’t think any of us would be surprised to see that capability and disciplinary make the list. What is the most common barrier to schools having these issues managed quickly, effectively (and legally)? In my experience, it is schools getting their HR legal support involved too late. If a school wants a resolution – without the risk of a staff member having a successful result at a tribunal – I would always recommend getting your external HR legal support involved at the slightest hint of a challenge, and certainly before having conversations around any of the issues listed above.
For some schools, this is tricky, as HR is often bought-in as a limited number of hours on a retainer, with additional support being undertaken on a pay-as-you-go basis. This, understandably, results in the school questioning whether or not they should use the support in all situations. Some schools have moved to unlimited support models, which allows them to ask for support as often as they need to. But which is better?
Retainer or unlimited?
It will boil down to a combination of cost over the contracted term and the quality and responsiveness of the support given. As schools operate on a known budget, a set price unlimited support model has its attraction, as it is easy to budget for – but are there any other influencing factors?
A retainer model would, typically, mean you pay a monthly fee for a certain number of hours, with additional hours being charged on a pay as you go basis. An unlimited model would normally see you paying a higher monthly fee but, with unlimited support, you could call your solicitor every day (or more often!) if you need to and the monthly fee would remain the same.
Which is likely to be more cost-effective over a period of time,? It’s a bit like asking if Blockbuster video rental or Netflix is better and more cost effective! Many years ago I used to rent movies from the Blockbuster store in town for about £3 a time. I tended to only rent them very occasionally, as every rental added to the overall cost. Today, I have Netflix; it costs me more than renting a couple of films each month, but my viewing habits have changed, and my tastes and experiences have broadened significantly.
Similarly, if a school is able to pick up the ‘phone, and double check even the smallest and most innocuous of HR scenarios without the fear of ‘using up’ pre-paid support, or clocking up extra costs, then its HR decision-making will, almost certainly, be more productive than a school that waits until matters have become protracted and formal before seeking advice. Personally, I like unlimited usage because, like the TV scenario, unlimited HR means you should end up reviewing and tackling scenarios that you may not have, ordinarily, considered.
It’s also interesting to consider the issue from the provider’s point of view. The unlimited business model has to have efficiency at its core; it is naturally incentivised to be efficient -they will want your HR issues solved in the quickest and most cost-effective way possible. Conversely, with the retained model, and pay-as-you-go for support outside of the contracted hours, there is no motivation to resolve issues quickly; after all, taking longer generates more income to the provider (and more costs for the school).
Projecting for the future
All schools should be providing three-year budget projections; as such, a significant benefit of unlimited support is financial certainty because the school’s HR support fees are fixed for the duration. It doesn’t matter if the school has two grievances, a restructure and three disciplinaries in 2021; this won’t impact the school’s HR support budget at all.
When it comes to reviewing and benchmarking your HR support, there are a number of questions you should consider:

  1. What is your contracted monthly HR support fee over three years?
  2. How much have you paid in additional HR support (over and above your retainer) in the last three years? The sum of the two items represents your ‘real’ HR support cost – and, of course, these are still variable.
  3. What is the monthly price for unlimited HR support for three years?
  4. Would you find it useful to be able to get ad hoc HR advice at any point or frequency without incurring additional costs?
  5. Does your HR support specialise in schools and employ legally qualified HR lawyers?
  6. Does your HR support focus on getting the outcome you want for your school, or does it focus on the path of least resistance?

Ultimately, every school will have a slightly different view on how they approach HR support but, with restructures more common, capability and disciplinary challenges more frequent and a greater appetite for litigation among disgruntled staff, your HR support should be a resource you have unfettered access to at all times.
At Education Banking Consultancy we are not HR lawyers – but, working in the education sector for 15 years, I have seen almost every type of HR support and HR challenge a school could experience. I have seen companies offer fantastic HR support for schools, as well as organisations where the support is very much lacking. Do get in touch if you want to hear more!
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