Gary Wilkie

The wellbeing charter: tips for implementation

Despite being education’s most important asset, teachers’ welfare is often neglected by policymakers – an oversight that new government guidelines aim to address. But schools also have a duty to ensure that they create a supportive environment for staff, says Gary Wilkie, who explains how he is making the charter work across his multi-academy trust

The wellbeing charter: tips for implementation

Supporting teacher wellbeing has long been an uphill struggle for schools. But once the coronavirus pandemic hit, that uphill climb suddenly became a whole lot steeper.

However, schools now have access to a new tool to support their efforts in this area. The Education Staff Wellbeing Charter, which was unveiled by the Department for Education (DfE) in May, sets out a series of commitments for schools and the government that should have a positive impact on staff wellbeing and mental health.

How far the charter will help the profession as a whole in practice remains to be seen. But, for Gary Wilkie – chief executive of the London- and Essex-based Learning in Harmony Trust, and a member of the advisory group that helped to develop the charter – it has provided a useful lens through which to reflect on his leadership.

He explains how he has begun to implement the recommendations across his schools.

Tes: Why do you think we need to look again at teacher wellbeing?

Gary Wilkie: The education sector’s greatest asset is its workforce but we haven’t always looked after that asset as well as we could.

Our profession can be great at challenging staff and equipping them with the tools they need to teach, but we are not consistently good, and certainly not systematic, about making sure the environment in which they work enables them to flourish.

This is something that needs to be improved at a macro level: in how the DfE and Ofsted set the tone in their relationships with school leaders.

Yet there is also work to do at a micro level. Individual schools need to make sure that they are taking steps to create a culture in which staff feel supported.

This is where you hope the Education Staff Wellbeing Charter might help. Can you explain how it works?

Within the charter, the DfE and Ofsted have set out guidelines by which they will now operate, in a move to acknowledge their role in the problems that exist around teacher wellbeing and take steps to address that.

However, the charter also sets out 11 commitments for schools that should provide leaders with a starting point to help them focus on improving the wellbeing of their staff.

The idea is that, by signing up to the charter, school leaders send a clear message to staff that they aspire to uphold and entrench a set of values where staff are prioritised, valued and supported.

Isn’t there a risk that schools could simply sign up to tick a box?

This is always a risk but that’s why I believe it was right to make this a charter and not a quality mark.

Quality marks usually come with a set of rubrics and the goal becomes achieving the quality mark rather than making a real difference. I’ve done it myself as a headteacher in the past. What happens is that you subconsciously spend time trying to find ways to demonstrate that you are meeting the standards (however tenuously) instead of considering practical steps you can take to actually improve things.

This charter is meant to be used as a lens for schools to look through as part of an ongoing process of self-reflection. The idea is to stop thinking in terms of achieving “best practice” and get used to constantly striving for “even better practice”.

You have started to implement the charter’s recommendations yourself. How has that worked?

Schools don’t need to tackle all 11 commitments in one go. We began by identifying which commitments we would focus our attention on first. Immediately, one jumped out at us: drive down unnecessary workload.

We decided to make this a key priority by regularly reviewing levels of workload across the trust and identifying what is really necessary, so that we can take away the unnecessary parts.

To support this, we’ve worked with our trustees to develop a document called What’s important now?, which has been reviewed and developed further by staff. The idea is that this document provides a framework to help us manage the workload review process.

At the same time, we have started to ask staff more explicitly for feedback about what is and isn’t working for them, in terms of their workload and more generally across the trust.

Everyone has a role to play when it comes to wellbeing and, by asking regularly for feedback, we help to make everyone feel that they are part of the solution.

How do you make staff feel comfortable offering honest feedback?

It’s all about creating a culture of communication. Pre pandemic, we had already introduced a trust-wide wellbeing team to act as a link between staff and leadership. However, this only got us so far.

So, during the early days of the pandemic, we produced a guide to communicating in uncertain times and emailed this to all staff.

This really helped because it got staff thinking not just about the communication that they wanted to receive, but about their own role in improving communication. This supported our long-term work on helping people to realise that feedback is a gift and that staying silent doesn’t help with either your own wellbeing or in identifying necessary improvements that will make things better for everyone.

Obviously, the charter is not a silver bullet that will solve existing staff wellbeing issues overnight. What else do you think needs to change?

At a policy level, the DfE also needs to practise what it preaches and understand that it’s the small things that make a difference.

For instance, the recent announcement about changes to pupil funding was made during half term, which meant teachers were unable to switch off.

If the DfE had thought about this through the lens of wellbeing, it would never have made such a major announcement during the school holidays. Simple things like that make a real difference.

That’s the key for schools, too: recognising that not every shift needs to be a huge change. Often, it only takes a small step from leadership to make a big difference to staff.

Gary Wilkie is chief executive of the Learning in Harmony Trust

This article originally appeared in the 16 July 2021 issue under the headline “How I...Implemented the charter for staff wellbeing”

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