Reward excellence

  • 4th July 2024


Navigator Law’s HR business partner Ruth Gladwell completes our special focus by reviewing how we reward staff


Basic pay and associated salary scales remain the main framework for how staff see their reward package. With a heightened attention to public sector pay in general, along with the minimum starting salary for teachers increasing to £30,000 in 2020, independent schools have been challenged to maintain their pay differential. While independent schools can highlight the many positives of the sector, including smaller class sizes and a personalised approach to learning, the lure of fewer hours, a guaranteed pay increase, and retention of a government pension with inclusive benefits does lead some teachers to seek the perceived greener grass of the public sector. However, there’s much more involved in strategic reward.

Reward systems in independent schools play a crucial role in attracting, retaining and motivating staff. In schools, rewards can include opportunities for professional growth and awards for teaching excellence, research contributions, or service to the school.

Financial benefits may include fee discounts and salary increments for promoted posts – rewards such as bonus payments for outstanding performance are less common in education compared to other workplaces.

Strategic rewards should ideally be based on the following principles:

Equitable: Fair distribution based on contribution and achievement.

This is a challenge to address within the independent school sector as historically there has been a divide between the benefits provided to professional support services and teaching staff. However, operating a total reward strategy does avail the opportunity to address parity.

Timely: Prompt recognition to reinforce positive behaviour.

While employee benefit reviews generally take place annually at a budget planning period, regular reviews with staff will reveal areas of where professional development is sought, and when success has been achieved on delivery of a project. An immediate acknowledgement reinforces the desired behaviour and encourages its continuation.

Meaningful: Tailored to what is valuable for the staff.

Finding out what is sought by staff during their career with the school will enable that time to be positive and rewarding. Traditional benefits of ill-health retirement may be beneficial to some staff, but a multigenerational staff group will look for a variety of schemes including exchanging parts of their salary for bike or car purchases, and are likely to have a leaning towards more ethical and sustainable benefits.

Professional development

Investing in staff professional development is a reward that benefits both the individual and the institution. Opportunities for further education, training and attending conferences are highly valued rewards that contribute to career advancement. That said, the school would be looking to ‘protect’ any investment. Clawback agreements can be an effective method to set out terms of investment recovery. However, such agreements can be unwieldly from initial implementation through to debt recovery and the effectiveness of such agreement depends on their design and the legal framework within which they operate. Other strategies might include thorough recruitment processes and continuous training and development programmes. Ultimately, the best approach depends on the specific circumstances and how the school will realise the career aspirations of the staff member.

Pension schemes have been a reward subject under particular scrutiny over the past few years within the independent education sector. The Teachers’ Pension Scheme with fixed employee and employer contribution levels and inclusive benefits, has been seen as a critical component of the overall reward package offered to teachers. The scheme which includes an unfunded, defined benefit pension, death in service insurance and long-term sickness benefit has been perceived as providing long-term financial security and deemed as a significant factor in employee retention. The pension scheme offered to the professional support staff is highly likely to be different, with a money purchase, defined contribution scheme where there are varying levels of contributions. During the lead up to the long-awaited increase in employer and employee contributions for the Scottish TPS in spring this year, considerable research was being conducted to understand the consequence of any uplift for both the employer and employee. With the employers’ contribution rate being announced at 26%, along with the availability of phased withdrawal, schools have been considering various options.

Considering the broader reward scheme may go some way to equalise the divide that is likely to be felt by professional support staff and, by gathering insight from employee engagement surveys, the school is likely to be able to identify what the staff perceive as benefits (both tangible and intangible). Essential elements within this are likely to include extra days holiday, health and wellbeing benefits and access to discounted leisure facilities. These benefits demonstrate commitment to staff longer-term health and happiness.


Reward systems within the independent school sector are multifaceted, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Schools continually seek the ‘best-in-class’ reward model that addresses the financial imperatives faced by both institutions and staff. Operating with benefit models that are outside the control of independent schools may provide staff with assurance that there is alignment to external market forces, however it may lead to the schemes becoming outside the affordability zone, or sitting at odds with any internal equality programmes; it is most definitely a difficult area in which to consider change.

By tailoring rewards to encompass financial, professional and personal aspects, schools can better meet the diverse needs of their staff. This approach fosters a culture of appreciation, leading to a more engaged staff group that supports retention and attraction. Ultimately, the art of rewarding employees lies in understanding their individual needs and recognising their contributions in ways that resonate with them personally.

Finally, whatever strategy is considered, remember to reflect and measure the impact, as any solutions implemented will require tailoring.

Ruth Gladwell
(Photo: ©Lesley Donald)

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