The summer holidays and the start of term are also an opportunity for reflection. We have good reason to be really optimistic this year, as we look forward to (hopefully) uninterrupted education and celebrate the successes of pupils who demonstrated in the summer exams their remarkable resilience following two years of massive disruption from the pandemic. We also know that it is going to be a challenging winter for many children and families and indeed staff, as the economic crisis and the increasing cost of energy begin to bite. School leaders will be thinking about what they can do to mitigate some of these impacts.

The culture of a school is the key determinant in its success

I have been thinking back on nearly twenty years of school improvement during which I have been privileged to visit and work with hundreds of schools and considering what have been the common factors in those which have been most successful. The more I have seen, the more I am convinced that the culture of the school is the key determinant in its success. Culture is so difficult to define yet so easy to see the impact when it isn’t right. Quality assurance systems, self-evaluation processes, behaviour management routines, the curriculum and so many other fundamental aspects of the ways schools work are all tangible and can be measured. Culture is different. I’ve been to schools where the headteacher and senior leaders know the strengths and areas for development of the school, have clear processes for teaching, monitoring, behaviour, that everyone understands and follows, but still the school remains stuck. Staff aren’t really happy, and they worry about workload and appraisal. I have been to other schools where there have been so many apparent similarities in routines, expectations, quality assurance processes, workload, but staff have demonstrated a real and infectious ‘buzz’ about their work.

Positivity is contagious

So, what’s the difference? The best example I can give is of a school several years ago which made a lasting impression on me where staff worked, and were expected to work, incredibly hard. Yet they were, without exception, overwhelmingly positive about the school and the leadership. This culture of positivity and optimism was transmitted to the students who were enthused by their learning and were actively engaged in a wide range of extra-curricular activities. When I asked staff about workload, they all said that, yes – they felt they worked very hard, but they didn’t mind. They felt genuinely valued, an intrinsic part of the school and its direction, were well-trained and supported, but most of all that they felt that the headteacher genuinely cared about them and wouldn’t ask them to do anything that wasn’t necessary, didn’t have a real purpose and that s/he wouldn’t do themselves.

What really matters

There is a huge focus in schools at the moment on staff well-being – and rightly so. But I wonder how often that focus really gets to the heart of what staff need? How many staff attended well-being sessions on Inset days at the start of this academic year, while really thinking that their well-being would be better served by using the time to get ready for the students’ return? Treats in the staffroom on Friday and offers of yoga, meditation and mindfulness sessions all have their place. Yet when I talk to staff, most of the things that really add to their stress are linked to poor communication, not feeling part of the school’s vision or sense of direction, feeling poorly supported and lacking in high quality CPD, not understanding the purpose or value behind what they are asked to do, and a fear of the way monitoring and appraisal are conducted.

Key questions leaders should be asking

  • Are messages from senior leaders at key points in the academic year always framed as positively as they could be? Are they communicated clearly and unambiguously? Yes, it’s imperative that students make good progress throughout their time at school but, as far as possible we want them to do it because of a vibrant and challenging curriculum and teachers who foster a love of learning.
  • Have leaders consulted with staff about what the barriers to well-being are and specifically addressed them, or have they made assumptions? Do leaders make explicit the different types of support which are available for staff?
  • Are there regular processes for collecting student and staff voice and are their views acted upon?
  • Do staff really understand and feel empowered to do what is asked of them? Is the leaders’ vision and sense of direction expressed clearly and taken on by staff? Sometimes, senior leaders say to me ‘but we’ve told them that’ or ‘we’ve had a session on that’. But the same leaders wouldn’t dream of teaching children in that way, recognising with them the importance of modelling, scaffolding, chunking, checking…
  • Are the reasons why the staff are being asked to do something made clear when requests are being made?
  • Is there a carefully designed CPD programme that meets the needs of all staff? There may be those who are towards the end of their careers and have vast experience to offer but may need reinvigorating. There will also be excited and ambitious new starters who want to climb the ladder.
  • Do associate and admin staff feel that their development needs are considered and that they have a part to play in the life of the school? What about those who simply want to stay in the classroom and be the best teachers that they can be, or those who are new to senior leadership? It’s easy to forget that no matter how skilled staff were in their previous role they will always need support and development when they start a new one.
  • Are monitoring and appraisal seen as an opportunity for professional development, or a threat? Are lesson observations ‘sold’ as the best and most personalised CPD that a teacher is going to get, or a means of judging and criticising?
  • How and how frequently are successes – even the smallest – celebrated?

It is always a privilege to support schools across the UK with all areas of school improvement, including well-being. I hope the insight provided above has been beneficial, however if you would like a specific assessment of your school, please request a free consultation.

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