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Breaking us-and-them culture

Patricia Denison answers your leadership questions

I am aware that there is tension between our office staff and teachers. Our office staff can sound quite officious: for example when asked to book coaches, follow up absences or deal with poorly children during the day, they respond as though they are reluctantly bestowing a considerable favour, and talk darkly about "interruptions". Our teaching staff are much younger, and are often spoken to as though they were children. Should I just ignore this or can I do anything about it without upsetting anyone?

This is a problem which has a tendency to lurk beneath the surface in a school, rarely being addressed. It shows an unease with the status quo and ambiguity about roles and procedures. Where teachers are comparatively young, mainly single people not long out of university, it is not uncommon for more mature women who have made their domain the school office to respond to them in a manner which ranges from fond parent to open irritation. Inevitably, people who provide administrative support in primary schools are women, often with considerable skills and life experience who are used to managing a home with all its complex demands.

These women who run the office genuinely feel that they run the school. As the terms turn into years, they become expert in systems and procedures, and they have little truck with those (teachers) who don't follow them.

An additional irritant may be the salary differential - the finance officer, who is fully cognisant of all salaries, could bear some resentment that she is paid significantly less for a job she considers to be at least as important. But whatever the reasons for this tension, it is worth doing something about it. In the comparatively intimate context of a primary school people feel better (and are therefore more effective) if there are no barriers to well-being. Dealing with these supposedly minor conflicts can be incrementally wearing, and condoning behaviour leading to them makes you complicit in sustaining an unhealthy norm. So, what to do?

First of all, it is important that every one in the organisation is clear about how they make an important contribution to the school's core purpose.

A good way of doing so is with a staff get-together. Teachers, classroom and administrative support staff, caretaker and governors need to develop understanding of their own role and that of others. An effective way to do that is to invest in a whole-school team-building event, skilfully facilitated, which breaks down stereotypes and builds relationships. Small irritations, attitudes and assumptions can be discussed within a safe environment; and individuals from different groups can gain insights into "what it's like to work here". From this, your workforce should move towards an interdependent culture which will result in deepened awareness and recognition of individual expertise, and therefore heightened mutual respect.

Now you need to identify all the day-to-day happenings in a school which could usefully be dealt with by systems and procedures. How do you book trips and visits? How do you deal with money collections, absences, sickness and injuries, ordering of stock, tidying public areas, distribution of letters, internal and external communication and the myriad of tasks which make the running of the organisation efficient? It is useful to get these procedures documented and included in a staff handbook.

Now job descriptions need to be renegotiated and agreed, so that areas of responsibility are clearly defined. Thereafter, all staff should engage in regular one-to-one dialogue with their line managers, so that roles and responsibilities are reviewed, constraints are addressed and contributions acknowledged and celebrated.

Once you have a workable structure, you might turn your attention to less formal ways of getting together. Outings, parties and other social gatherings build relationships and enable every one to get to know one another and mutual understanding develops. You should all then enjoy a culture of working together, valuing very different contributions and creating a healthy environment which promotes joy and equilibrium.

Patricia Denison is head of a primary school near Woking in Surrey. If you have a leadership question, email

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