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Dangerous talk leads to heart-searching

Robin Precey answers your leadership questions

I have been made aware of comments being made in the staffroom which are, in my view, unacceptable. They refer to colleagues and pupils in a way that is unfair and demeaning. As the headteacher what should or can I do?

Yes, you should do something, and you will need to come up with a carefully thought-through strategy. Your question goes to the heart of the issue of the exercise of power and ownership of values in schools.

Whose territory is the staffroom in your school? Staff do need a place to unwind and occasionally let off steam (heads have their own offices to do this in). As the head, do you define the staffroom as your territory? It is part of the school so you do have a responsibility to be aware of and, if necessary, intervene in what goes on there.

But there does have to be a distance between you and the staff so you can maintain objectivity and give others a bit of space. Other members of the leadership team may be better placed to spend more time than you in the staffroom. But this does not mean that heads should never set foot there.

Some feel it is important to try to create time to do this. Others pop in when they can. But most of us do occasionally experience instantly terminated conversations when we enter the room.

Staffrooms are, in fact, not private places for teachers in most schools.

Support staff who work alongside teachers, student teachers learning the trade and visitors are often present. Any comments made contribute to the tone and ethos of the school and the morale of staff - although not necessarily in the way the comment made was intended. Staff do think for themselves.

Comments may well go outside the staffroom, even if thought to have been made in confidence, and gossip and rumour can be poison in any community, including a school. So if you hear an unacceptable comment yourself or it is reported to you by a trusted colleague, do not ignore it. How you deal with it will depend on the nature of the comment and how power is distributed and managed in your school. Some staff may do what you want purely because of your charismatic personality. For most of us this is not true and it is not a very healthy basis for leadership. You may try to run your school and impose your values through fear. Again, this is not recommended to get the best out of colleagues. If comments are sexist or racist then the staff responsible need to be pulled up firmly and quickly by you. One would expect others, including staff, to support you in this.

After confirming the validity of the comments (if you were not actually present), you will need to see the person concerned in private. Express your views (including your disappointment and disapproval) in the context of the values of your school - which I assume includes respect for all. If you actually hear unacceptable comments yourself, you have to decide whether to confront it on the spot or deal with it in private. You have to be the best judge of this in relation to the context in which it occurs.

Another judgment you will have to make is whether to go straight into disciplinary measures. This is a difficult one and will depend on the nature of the comment, the person concerned, the strength of the evidence and the attitude of the person when confronted. These things are rarely straight-forward. It is often a good idea to involve any local authority's personnel staff sooner rather than later for detailed advice. If you decide to deal with it informally be sure to keep a written record of any conversation since it may lead to further disciplinary measures if it reoccurs.

Your power and authority rests in getting your staff (and pupils) to adopt and live by the school's values both consciously and without thinking in their day-to-day lives and interactions with each other. This will involve picking up those who fail to act out these core values but also praising those who do so effectively. Thankfully there are many more of our colleagues who deserve the latter and use their tongues in the right way than those who require us to take the difficult actions described.

Robin Precey has been in education for 31 years, the past 12 as head of Seaford Head community college in East Sussex. He is also a consultant on the National College for School Leadership's New Visions programme. Do you have a school leadership or management questions? Email karen.thornton@tes.co.uk

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