St Stithians College CHRO Kim Urquhart on tackling HR issues in a school setting

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Kim speaks about being one of the first to occupy such a position at a school.

It is not every day that a school employs a head of human resources, but St Stithians College in Johannesburg, is one of the few that does. With a collective eight schools under their banner and a staff complement of more than 850 – including teachers, professional support staff, operational and grounds staff, part time sports coaches, contract service providers – the school is larger than some companies in the country.

Originally from Cape Town, Kim Urquhart, joined the school in 2007 after stumbling across a newspaper advertisement for the position while on maternity leave. She was employed as the divisional HR business partner for Woolworths at the time. She acknowledges that working at an educational institution is obviously very different from a retailer, and schools are a lot more complex than many people may think.

“In retail, I enjoyed relevant opportunities to be involved in the launch of cutting edge shopping initiatives, for example, in-store bakeries and delis, mobile phone providers. Yet, although the element of serving people is the same, working in a school is much more challenging, yet also very rewarding. The core difference is that our ‘product’ is nurturing and developing young people who we hope to see as future leaders in our country. Our ‘clients’ - the parents and guardians - have a profoundly vested interest in the schooling journey and many wish to be very involved in the day to day running of the College. Owing to the nature, size, and complexity of our school, it sometimes feels like a 24/7 job, but it is deeply fulfilling”, says Kim.

Kim explains that the College is made up of a Junior Preparatory, a Boys’ Preparatory, a Boys’ College, a Girls’ Preparatory, a Girls’ College, the Thandulwazi Maths and Science Academy, Kamoka Bush School and an online school, which is currently being repositioned.

“Not many schools have an HR capability but, with 2600 students on the campus every day, we are a large school so there is always enough work to go around. For instance, Thandulwazi is a unique community engagement school where one of the initiatives is a teacher training programme: over 40 young people, who are completing their studies to become teachers, are placed within our schools to receive valuable workplace experience while they are studying.”

Unique setting

When Kim joined St Stithians she was the first HR professional to be employed at the college and is most proud of having established an HR department from scratch and initiating a range of new programmes and initiatives over the years. These have proved to be not only beneficial to the school and staff, but she has also been able to share her knowledge and experience as one of the founding members of an HR association within South African independent schools.

“Although a noble calling, teaching is also an emotionally draining career. The majority of our staff are educators, and their entire day is people focused and psychologically taxing, not only in relation to the 2600 children that enter the classrooms each day, but also in responding to the parents and extended family members who form part of the St Stithians community. There are bereavements, divorces, crime, trauma - all of that comes to school. It is because of this that overall wellness, and holistic well-being, are a big part of our focus.”

Kim says helping to ease the pressure on the school leadership has also proven to be beneficial. “The role of a Head – or Principal - is very lonely and in many schools, they are responsible for the overall running of the school including, HR, finance, marketing etc. St Stithians is blessed to have a professional shared services team including a cohort of four in HR. My role is to be a sounding board and provide solid support to my line partners. Schools are becoming more complicated so having a thought partner helps provide insight.”

Speaking on some of the hardships that come with being HR lead for a school, Kim puts it down to the duty of care in the safeguarding of children, which is not something that one necessarily deals with in a corporate setting. ““This is the thing that would keep one up late at night. As an HR head, it is imperative that we ensure our vetting processes for all staff are extensive. Parents place their children in the care of teachers and therefore their role in loco parentis is critically important.”

Another challenge – or opportunity – she says, is how teachers’ well-being is being affected due to high demands and expectations from parents. COVID has impacted the development of children in many ways and teachers are constantly needing to adjust their teaching styles to ensure they are best able to support the needs of the children in their care, Kim notes.

She says her team offers various upskilling opportunities to assist teachers with soft skills and leadership training. Holistic staff wellness is vitally important and is supported via a full employee assistance programme dealing with financial, physical and psychological wellness, to name a few. The College is privileged to have 10 full time psychologists and counsellors, as well as five chaplains stationed by the Methodist Church, who are readily available to support staff, parents and students at the College to provide spiritual guidance and comfort.

Where to from here?

After 16 years in the role, Kim says she is only getting started as the College continues to grow - which means the demands of the role are continually changing.

Staff wellness and wellbeing remain a key focus into 2023. To proactively manage staff wellbeing, the HR team is working on updating their wellness strategy to ensure it is a holistic proposition for employees, and staff are fully aware of what is already on offer and any areas where it can be improved. “Our aim is to provide a programme that assists staff in becoming more resilient to better deal with stress and see challenges as opportunities,” she says.

Staff rewards and appreciation are also a big focal point for her, with the Saints reward scheme now in full swing. “The scheme works in such a way that staff are rewarded with Saints Bucks via an online platform as a form of appreciation or acknowledgement to use as they wish.”

Kim also believes upskilling has never been more critical. “For organisations to succeed, focusing on adequately supplying and developing the skills pipeline isn't enough. To remain competitive and relevant, upskilling is critical for enterprises – even (perhaps especially) schools. To deliver results, there is a need for the HR team at Saints to review the development needs and skills gaps, and to ensure that the learning and training methods available to staff are varied, personalised and include informal and formal learning.”

The other goal is around organisational design and efficiency. “In 2023, HR needs to embrace its role as a driver of purpose and meaningful change. As with solving any new challenge, we need to look at what’s not working in order to create something that has greater value. And, as such, we are focusing our attention on unlocking the power of our eight-school model, that we hope will inspire our employees to stay with the college and acquire the skills that can advance their careers, or allow them to transition into more fulfilling roles.”

The Future

Kim is keen to get to a place where she can pass the baton on to the upcoming generation. “For me, it isn't about climbing the corporate ladder but rather about being able to give back. I want to pass on my skills to newly qualified graduates and mentor younger professionals. We need to keep the profession invigorated and responsive to a perpetually changing world.”

 

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