Many businesses are moving away from the ‘HR’ moniker and instead adopting ‘People and Culture’ to head up the department that looks after staff. Is a rebrand on the cards for HR in our schools and MATs?

Well, 25% of education professionals who answered our recent survey on the matter told us they don’t think the term ‘human resources’ is still relevant to describe the department. 38% think it is still, 21% felt it was ‘sort of’ relevant, and 8% were ‘unsure’. 

Could this suggest that the sector might be shifting closer to a ‘people and culture’ rebrand sooner than later? Or, does the term ‘HR’ remain relevant in fully representing the breadth of people-management activities that go on in our schools and MATs?

They’re two big questions, and two that we discuss next to the full findings of the survey below!

What is ‘People and Culture?’

First, let’s define what we mean by ‘People and Culture’ (P&C). It’s a newer term that does what it says on the tin. It shifts HR away from looking at staff as a ‘resource’ to be managed, but people to be developed in a workplace that emphasises a positive culture.

In an education setting, P&C works to show staff their value in the school or MAT they’re part of. ‘Culture’ can be defined as the ‘attitudes, behaviour, opinions, etc. of a particular group of people within society’. If a positive culture is missing in your school, you’ll see and feel the ripple effects across the board, from staff absence levels to student results. It’s in any school’s interest to make the employee experience as enjoyable as possible to boost staff satisfaction, encourage retention, and support recruitment.

59% of survey respondents have heard of People and Culture departments, compared to 25% who haven’t.

What is HR?

On the other hand, HR (human resources) often gets associated with the more transactional services that are needed to support an organisation’s employees. From developing and distributing mandatory documents and policies to providing training and reviewing employee performance, the list of responsibilities of HR staff is huge – particularly within school settings.

In fact, it’s so huge that turning parts of the service into literal transactions can make for a more efficient department – like submitting a request for annual leave. It’s much quicker for an employee to log into their self-service employee portal and electronically request the date(s) they’d like off rather than walk over to the HR office and manually submit them (an office that might be on a different school site!).

Which description best reflects HR in your school or MAT?

Yet, when we asked survey responders to select which of three descriptions is most reflective of their organisation’s HR department, the least popular answer was the one that included the statement ‘the HR department is transactional’.

Respondents favoured descriptions that were more employee-centric, suggestive that school or central MAT HR teams have already begun to take a more people and culture focused approach to human resources.

Though, it’s important to remember that responses can be prone to bias, be it conscious or not! People may have answered this question with a view of how they would like their HR department to be perceived (rather than what it actually is).

Q: Which of the following descriptions do you feel is most reflective of your organisation’s HR department?

1. Voted for by nearly half (46%) of respondents:
‘The HR department advocates for our employees whilst supporting our organisation’s structure. It promotes employee wellbeing and upholds a good reputation, making the setting a positive place to work.’

2. Voted for by 29% of respondents:
‘The HR department exists to support employees at work and uphold compliance to policies and procedures. It works with employees to add value to a range of activities, from performance to attendance.’

3. Voted for by 25% of respondents:
‘The HR department is transactional – it provides a service that is responsible for managing employee-related activities, from hiring and training to payroll and annual leave.’

People and Culture: The argument for

The education landscape is always evolving, and the most successful schools and MATs are those that see change as a continuous activity, not a checkbox exercise. Just as schools adapt to new student needs and demands, the department looking after staff should be continually reviewing existing people-management ideas. They need to ensure they’re still current, relevant, and in accordance with the organisation’s values and mission.

That could look like taking more of an employee-led focus on career development. Or, updating policies to reflect progressive legislation, like the new flexible working guidance which is set to come into play this April.

Indeed, around a third of respondents in non-HR roles told us that they interact with their HR department ‘daily’, compared to 8% who said ‘weekly’ and 8% who said ‘monthly’. Surely these everyday points of contact are for more than just ‘standard’ HR transactions?

Respondent breakdown by role:

  • HR Leader (e.g. HR Director): 36%
  • HR Professional (e.g. HR Administrator): 18%
  • Business Manager/SBM: 9%
  • Office or Central Team: 9%
  • Senior Leader/SLT: 5%
  • Other: 23%

‘Other’ included roles like ‘IT’, ‘HR Business Partner’, and ‘Business Lead People and Culture’.

What are the main roles of school HR teams?

In our survey, we looked to find out what respondents feel are the main roles of their organisation’s HR department by asking them to select all roles that applied from a set list. The top role was ‘recruitment and onboarding’, voted for by almost all (91%) of respondents. ‘Pay, benefits, and compensation’ came in second with votes from 83% of respondents. Tied in third were ‘employee wellbeing and health’ and ‘policies and procedures’, with votes from 79% of respondents. The least popular answer was ‘branding and reputation’, voted for by a third of respondents.

Given that a number of the top answers included words that would fall under the P&C moniker (like ‘benefits’, ‘wellbeing’, and ‘engagement’), are we seeing a hint that staff are already viewing human resources as less of a transactional and more of a value-added ‘people’ service? Or is the HR-People and Culture debate not as clear-cut?

What we do know is that more respondents would favour HR rebranding to ‘People and Culture’ (or a name with words to that effect) than not – 36% against 14%. In comparison, 32% were ‘neutral’, with 5% ‘unsure’.

What does ideal people-management look like? 

You can’t have a department responsible for recruitment and onboarding without the policies and procedures that support. So, would ideal people-management in a school be a department that incorporates both elements?

It’s true that the output of school and central MAT HR teams is tremendous when you look at the scope of their responsibilities. It’s also true that as a department, HR has its share of mundane administrative tasks that eat away at time that often feels like it could be better spent. Better spent talking to a staff member about their increasing levels of absence, rather than spent logging the absence in multiple systems, for instance!

To add to this point, one respondent told us they are ‘currently looking at separating [their] finance and HR functions’, which highlights how HR might have become an umbrella term for the all-encompassing number of activities that in some major or minor way relate back to staff. Similarly, there were nine different ways in which the typical ‘head’ of HR was referred to in respondents’ schools and MATs – from HR Manager to Trust Business Manager, even through to Director of People & Culture. With such a variety in a name alone, it’s no wonder that the lines between what staff think HR is, what they’d like it to be, and what their HR department actually stands for feel a little blurry.

HR and People and Culture in tandem 

In a person-centric landscape, tweaks to names don’t go unnoticed. This said, one respondent asked us ‘do we need another name change, they’ve only just got away from personnel?!’. It’s interesting that this organisation has decided to move away from a people-related title when the results of our survey seem to favour the shift!

It’s a discussion that we’re sure is set to be ongoing in schools and MATs, and one that we’re interested to watch play out. For now, we’ll leave you with one of the replies we got to ‘is HR still relevant to describe the department?’:

"It’s more complex than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer!"

Whilst how we view HR and what it represents in a school setting is changing, it’s there for a reason. The closer HR integrates with the school’s overall strategy, future vision, and long-term goals, the more holistic the approach to employee-management becomes. And the more People and Culture values it brings in.

Fancy letting us know your thoughts? Take our survey about People and Culture and see how your results compare!