To survey or not? (part 1)


To survey or not? (part 1)

15 Dec ’19 Leadership 0

Over the past year, Bruce Greig, (entrepreneur and school governor), and I have been discussing the use of whole-school staff surveys (we also discussed the use of surveys generally, students, class, department staff, parent/carer and stakeholder). We bumped into one another via discussions on school communication and surveys on social media and went onto debate and challenging one anothers views and actions on the effective use of whole-school staff surveys. We ended up discussing school introspection, primarily as a strategy for of self-improvement, although this insight is a powerful evidence base or case builder for inspection. At some point we moved our conversation to a shared document and recently we agreed to tidy up and share our notes / thoughts for further and wider scrutiny. Just for the record, this is not a post about creating effective surveys or question construction.

Part 1- summarises our conversations, discussion and notes on whether or not a surveys offers insight and value? Whether the insights justify the investment (ROI). Second, we underline that surveying is not a neutral act and that it comes with a warning notes. Part 2 – considers the survey variants of open, confidential or anonymous surveys? Finally, Part 3 benefits from Bruce’s and wider business insights. (We are also aware in a working GDPR environment*)

To survey or not?

Here is the thing. Without trust in the school, any whole-school (or group) survey is vulnerable to interpretation and misinterpretation. Is your school ‘ready’ or sufficiently trustful to ask for staff opinions. A warning shot – surveying has the potential to do more harm than good. Where ‘good’ – is not determined one’s ‘good intention.’ Where almost any act of leadership, is an act of communication. Deciding to share a survey may, on the surface, feel benign, it is far from it. A survey is an act of communication, as are the conditions attached to the survey and the questions the survey consists of. As what does (or does not) happen with the responses. Surveys are deceptively precarious and equally powerful. You can’t un-hear or un-know the responses.

What are you communicating to your staff when you present the opportunity to feedback (or not, recorded or anonymous)? What are staff hearing / thinking when you present the opportunity to feedback (or not, recorded or anonymous)? These are not the same thing. Will this be a single, stand alone survey, or part of a series? When you survey matters? Who to survey (inclusive / exclusive)? Who will see the responses? What conditions are attached to my responses? There are possible even more questions than these that we present.

These are not small considerations. They are significant and noisy. By noisy, I mean loud and important considerations / communications with the casual potential to lack a precise clarity that effective leadership action demands.

Questions of readiness and ROI (return on investment) or value

Only you can decide if your school is ready and secure enough to hold a survey. I will say again, you can’t un-hear or un-know the responses.

Following the numerous, apparently simple and practical, considerations there is the investment cost of surveying. After you take into account the time required to create and share survey, the time staff need by to read and respond to the survey fully, the administration effort of chasing omissions, (whether responses are chased is another communication itself), then reviewing and summarising responses, then discussing and enacting upon the insights… do you have the time and resource to proceed?

I will ask again, is your school ready? Are you ready? Does this strategic decision to survey hold enough potential insight to proceed? Is there value in this process? Here it is important to note that in our experience (that is Bruce and I), survey information becomes most insightful and informative when collected over a number of cycles. So it is not just the case of a investment cost of a single survey rather multiple surveys. A point clearly illustrated by Ross Morrison McGill’s Teacher Workload Influences survey – thanks for sharing the results Ross.

You can make your of deductions from the graphic but you can clearly see our point.

Again, we hold up a warning. Choosing to survey or not, as well as what and who you survey, the questions you ask or decide “not to ask,” how and when you do survey, will all have a consequence on your results, your school and on your staff’s perceptions of your leadership.

Next set of questions?

You could investigate almost any educational line of enquiry. Possibly, the question that needs our focus is “What is our core business?” Followed by “How do we get better at it?” Feedback about which aspects of school we enable, so that you can build trust, capacity and improve or secure, is all part of any cycle of self-development. As we said, this not a post about creating effective surveys and question construction, however, how many questions and type of questions you employ, clearly important. As we have said, over and over, choosing to survey, looks on the surface, as a simple and benign task. It is easily done, and can easily be done poorly, when it is actually really tricky and fraught with pitfalls.

How will feedback be received and treated? 

Again, we ask you to ask yourself. Is your school / department ready? Are you ready? We do not think we are being over cautious, though you may think we are? You can’t un-hear or un-know the responses. You can not forecast what will be reported however you should plan for an ‘unexpected’ response or disclosure and how you will handle it.

You have decided that the school / dept is ready. Before you share the survey consider how, where and when the survey will land? Get your wheels down. How will staff perceive the survey? Ask you senior team, ask a selection of middle leaders and staff? Ask one or your trusted critics for their opinion? Take the temperature. Will staff see it as an important communication opportunity or a chance to air genuine grievances or personal dissatisfaction? You may well want to model what what professional or constructive contributions look like and read like.

If surveying staff is in fact, as important – as ‘we’ think it is. Treat it so. More often than not, a survey will be sent out as an email link. Most likely sent out via (hidden in amongst) the many, many emails staff encounter every day. To everyone at the same time. In the name of efficiency. Some time without even a “thank you” message displayed once sent. Does that communicate the importance and valuing staff opinion? That does not support the rhetoric of “your views are important to us.”

A few delivery thoughts for your to consider (at the very least). In advance, in person, at the very least, share with staff why their views are valued. Be open and clear about the survey process and the aims. Outline when / how the survey will be shared and what the next steps are for the responders (responders is a better term than recipients). When should the survey be returned. Outline who and how their responses will be handled. Share how the information will be employed in the short-term and long-term (hopefully this survey will be part of a series).

Only then, share the link, at a time when staff have the time to consider the questions fully and to offer their own professional insights. We would recommend that you again promote the link… before it lands. If the survey is important enough (and it is, considering the organisational investment) schedule and make time for staff to respond – thoughtfully. A second benefit of scheduling time to complete the survey is that your are then enabled to keep the dates clear and relatively close (taking into account of part-time staff, a week-cycle should be sufficient). Thank early responders. “You were in the first 50 staff to return our survey, thank you for taking the the time to prioritise sharing your professional feedback. We look forward to sharing the insights with you in next Thursday in staff briefing.”

A survey offers many opportunities. Many more than first meets the eye.

An opportunity for you, the school leaders, (class teacher / team leader,) to think hard about what it is you want to know and what you anticipate the responses (and return rate) will be? Comparing your forecast against your results, is insight. It tells you, to some extent, how well you know your stakeholder base. Even the response rate offers feedback with research suggesting a moderate relationship between survey participation rates and employee engagement levels. For your reference, smaller organisations (<50) should be aiming for a 80-90% response rate, larger organisations (50–500) get a good sense of where they are at with response rates 70%-90% even though higher rates suggest a stronger sense of involvement psychologically.

Short-term – post survey

A survey offers you the opportunity to delve into the hive mind of your school, your department, your team, your class. To test your hypothesis, to tease out strengths and weaknesses, to pool ideas and to seek recognition of others. If you have other ideas or suggestions for insightful survey questions, we would love to hear them. A survey may provide you with the opportunity to address some of those misconceptions you felt were festoring below the surface, have now surfaced or your are trying to surface. Be ready to gain experience, where experience is “what you get, when you don’t get want you want.” You may need to be resilient and be receptive. I will say, yet again, you can’t un-hear or un-know the responses.

A survey may provide insight and opportunities for you to support staff more effectively. It may require you to step up, step back, go back to square one, to get a move on… (Remember, learning and development opportunities and leadership are most cited reasons for employee engagement, how are you doing as a school in these areas?)

Mid to long term – post survey

A single survey is informative (it can be damaging). Is it reliable? Pending the response rate, question construction and various other factors, to some extent. Is it insightful? Possibly.

We would suggest that you keep a consistent bank of questions. We would recommend looking at key global questions or strong value based questions, possibly one or two questions an inspectorate may pose and then track these over time A point clearly illustrated by Ross Morrison McGill’s Teacher Workload Influences survey above. Consider adding no more than two of three local questions, at most. Tracking questions responses, is powerful. You may also offering a key quantitative engagement question also.

Tracking and presenting the trends creates insight. That is where the true value of your investment may be redeemed. The value redeemed in showing your have heard staff feedback, listened, in sharing the insights and then actions with responders. Then fulfilling those actions. Not completing these importance final steps, of course, can lower organisational trust, trust in you, and potentially undo all your hard work invested in the survey in the first place, even damage the organisation.

Back to that warning shot – surveying has the potential to do more harm than good. Where ‘good’ – is not determined one’s ‘good intention.’

Next we explore the different types of organisational surveys, open or confidential or anonymous surveys? Or not at all?

Now for the expert. Tony Sheppard, Head of Services at GDPR in Schools is a long-time, trust friend and advisor. Tony is very pragmatic.

First, “data protection is not a separate thing” that schools do. It is something schools “already do.” We just need more conversations like this one Kristian. Making this decisions ahead of time, not as an afterthought.

Tony Sheppard at his best!

Tony goes on to say…

In most schools, surveys about educational aspects, teacher workload and so on are more closely linked to a task undertaken in the public interest or in the exercise of the school’s official authority (generally jointly referred to as Public Task).

Is Survey Monkey is GDPR compliant? Is the wrong question? We don’t know? What data are you getting recorded? What is it being used for? Who has access to it?

Tony Sheppard

His only note of caution was if you were collecting data that is of a “Special Category Personal Data (medical, race, religion, union membership, etc.)” or if you are recording sensitive data – then you must take extra care to protect the staff and consider a risk assessment. Whilst it is worth sharing Tony’s comment, I can not think of a time where I have included such a question in a staff survey. There is more guidance here at the DFE Data Protection Working Group.

He closed in typical Tony fashion.


About the authors: 

Bruce Greig is an entrepreneur and school governor. He served as Chair of Governors through two Ofsted inspections and four headteachers. He set up after discovering how enlightening an anonymous staff survey can be and decided to make it easy for every school to run them. So that, eventually, they won’t need to.

Kristian Still is a career teacher working his way up to Headteacher and currently back full-time as a classroom teacher. He is also a qualified Coach and Mentor. He has had a professional interest in Organisational Development, particularly the development of trust in schools and use school surveys to inform his leadership.

We (Bruce and Kristian) bumped into one another via discussions on school communication and surveys, debating and challenging one anothers views and actions on the effective use of staff surveys in schools.

We are not data protections specialists – but Tony Sheppard is!

Tony Sheppard is an award-winning Educational Technologist with a history of collaboration with leading schools and educationalist. Tony works with schools and their DPOs to support them on their understanding and integration of data protection.


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