On HR in Schools: Interview With Stephanie Readhead, Head of HR & Compliance at Pocklington School

The challenges and rewards of HR in schools


“In HR, you’ve got the opportunity to make a tangible difference to the bottom line of an organisation, but also to the individuals within it. […] You’re making across the board difference that filters across every part of the organisation, and that’s quite unique.” – Stephanie Readhead, Head of HR & Compliance at Pocklington School, speaks to us about developing a career in HR Leadership.

As part of our commitment to supporting candidates to develop fulfilling careers, we’ve invited some HR Leaders to share the secrets of their success.

This week, we had a great conversation about HR in schools with Stephanie Readhead at Pocklington School, who began her career as an HR Administrator at Barnardo’s before moving to Nestlé to work as an HR Advisor in 2001. This was followed by positions as a Senior HR Business Consultant for Scarborough Building Society, and an HR Advice Team Manager for Comet. In 2008, Stephanie joined the education sector as Director of HR, Support Services & Special Projects for Headlands School, and in 2013 joined the HR team at Pocklington School, expanding her responsibilities from Head of Human Resources to her current role in September 2019.

Can you tell us how you got into HR and why?

It was completely by accident, really. My early interest was science, so I studied the sciences and Maths at A-Level, then undertook a Human Genetics degree, as well as some interesting classes in business and economics. The ethical future of genetics was looking a bit questionable at the time, and I found myself enjoying business and economics more, so I took a bit of time to reassess what I wanted to do.

During that period, I took on a temporary assignment in HR at Barnardo’s, and it’s been a 20-year career since. It’s a challenging and rewarding career, and I think it stuck because Barnardo’s gave me a great start and pushed me to do the qualifications. I also had a manager who was great about involving me in what she was doing. Although I was new to the career and lower down in the hierarchy, she gave me a really good insight into the rewards of climbing the career ladder.

In HR, you’ve got the opportunity to make a tangible difference to the bottom line of an organisation, but also to the individuals within it. One minute, you’re sat looking at the strategy, what you’re going to bring in and how it’s going to impact the business, and the next you’re talking to an individual who needs your support and help. You’re making across the board difference that filters across every part of the organisation, and that’s quite unique.

Can you tell me about the key themes or challenges that you’re seeing across the HR sector?

I’ve had a really diverse career, but HR in schools particularly is a very unique and challenging environment, and is quite complex. There’s a unionized aspect, and navigating the various terms and conditions of a school setting, but also the external expectations put on schools. I’ve not worked in an organisation before where I get 24 hours’ notice of an external body coming to assess my work, and if my work isn’t up to scratch, it has the potential to close my business down. A big part of school inspections focuses on the HR side of things, and if you haven’t done what you’re meant to do in the way you’re meant to do them, that reflects on your school, and you can fail the inspection.

There are actually an awful lot of demands, pressures, and things that happen that you have very little say in but you have to follow through, and that can be difficult when you’re trying to do project work—particularly in the maintained sector, because your hands are a bit more tied than in the independent sector, so you have to be more inventive and find the way around the red tape.

I think HR in schools is becoming much more of a key role in the sector, both because of an increasing business focus and a desire for shared resources across academy trusts, as well as the increased workload that changes in legislation have put on local authority centralised HR functions. It’s grown rapidly into being a much more focused and specific role in schools, whereas before it was something that used to be done by non-specialists with the support of the local authority. It’s an up-and-coming area with much more demand for it these days. Neither school I have worked for had a specialised HR role before I started, but most schools have an HR representative onsite now.

We’re also seeing recruitment shortages across the teaching profession, so attracting and retaining talent is a key thing for us in schools, especially when we’re competing in an international recruitment market to a level we’ve never seen before—I think there’s a need to evolve in terms of the way we look at things like flexible working to retain staff while also being inventive with the resources we have in order to offer them benefits. Schools are increasingly being run much more like businesses, and we need to be able to meet the changing expectations of staff as a result.

There’s also a very real threat to the existence of independent fee-paying schools within the sector, and whatever your view is on that, I think we need to understand that there’s a real personal impact behind moves like adding VAT to fees or stripping schools of their charitable status; not just for us, but for our students, our workforce and our local community. We are the largest employer in our locality so what impacts us can have wider ramifications.

What career advice would you offer to someone either working towards a career in HR in schools, or someone just getting started in their HR career?

I would say that HR in schools is an area that there’s a lot more demand for these days, so it’s probably a good place to get into if that’s your desire.

More generally, though, you need to know your business well and build your business acumen, especially if you’re working in larger organisations. It’s not just about getting your HR knowledge, but the wider business knowledge that gets the fact that you’re contributing to the whole business noticed. HR is a critical part of the decision-making process, but you need to understand that wider business context as part of that.

Most business change will impact the workforce in some way, so being early in the process is much better than being told what’s going to happen. To do that, you need to be able to articulate any stumbling blocks or barriers you may see and offer viable solutions that work for the business. Too often, HR can be seen as a barrier to change, but we’re in a great position to be the facilitator of it, as we work across the whole business. Get that knowledge built up, and it will serve you well.

Definitely build resilience. HR is often an isolating role, so looking after your own wellbeing and that of your team is vitally important.

I would also say that if you can master the skills required of HR, you’ve got a great set of transferable skills that can open up additional career routes for you, so don’t just think about HR, actually get into organizations and gain those skills that can give you the edge over those without HR experience and push you elsewhere.

Stephanie has been working in HR at Pocklington School since 2013, and provides strategic and operational HR support across all areas of the school, including the development of HR policy and practice and ensuring the school’s continued compliance to a range of internal, external, and legislative standards.

If you are interested in having a confidential conversation about your career or would like support growing your team, please get in touch today.

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On HR in Schools: Interview With Stephanie Readhead, Head of HR & Compliance at Pocklington School