Supporting staff wellbeing at the moment probably ranks somewhere between challenging and impossible. To make matters worse, we’re due an Ofsted visit.
How can we prepare for a grilling on staff wellbeing without sacrificing our own along the way?
Just when you thought that 2020 couldn’t possibly get any worse, eh?
Yes. Ofsted is back. But a softer version, at least – one hopefully more suited to visiting schools in the wake of a global crisis.
Indeed, if you do get "the call" before January, you’ll be treated to an "interim visit", less like the Spanish inquisition and more like a supportive fact-finding mission, if early reports are anything to go by.
There’ll be no tours or lesson observations, no inspection framework or policy review. Nor will there be any kind of judgement, either on school performance overall or your response to Covid-19 over the spring and summer terms.
In Ofsted's own words, the purpose of these visits is to "reassure and inform parents, government and the public about how schools are managing the return to full education for all pupils".
Even more promising is the news that these visits don’t require any pre-written planning, self-evaluation or documentation; that Ofsted is keen not to add to workload by having staff complete what would usually be referred to as "Ofsted evidence".
At last, the kind of Ofsted I can get behind. And it only took a global pandemic!
How to prepare for an Ofsted visit
So aside from being ready to chit-chat about curriculum, behaviour, safeguarding and, yes, wellbeing – all from a two-metre distance, of course – there’s really nothing to worry about.
You undoubtedly will worry, though. Because you’ll obviously want to showcase the efforts of staff and SLT. Because even a softened version of Ofsted will still induce anxiety, adding to the pressure on staff about ready to pop.
And didn’t someone say that Ofsted could convert it to a "no formal designation" inspection if it noted significant concerns about safeguarding or leadership?
Even when you’re told that paperwork isn’t necessary, you may feel a need to compile a list of initiatives that demonstrate the school’s current approach to staff wellbeing – if only to alleviate your own anxiety and clear things up in your head.
There’s nothing wrong with this. You just don’t want to become an oxymoron, working yourself into the ground by evidencing how you’re not working people into the ground.
So what’s the answer here? A little interview prep, perhaps. Before an inspector asks, "What are you doing to support staff wellbeing?", why not challenge yourself to explore, "Why would people want to work here?" or "What happens in school to keep staff feeling respected and valued, safe and supported?"
Just because there’s been a lot to react to lately, it doesn’t mean our overall approach can’t be proactive. Nor does being interviewed by Ofsted mean that we should focus more on what it might want to see than what we know our staff need.
Besides, it stands to reason that if our focus is geared towards the recruitment and retention of staff – if you’re genuinely determined to prioritise mental health, rather than simply appearing to do so – then your results will speak for themselves.
Promoting teacher wellbeing
Of course, you’ll want to draw attention to what you’re doing well, to what’s working, but this doesn’t require a huge amount of time and effort. It does, however, require time and effort in the right places. Work smarter, not harder – isn’t that what we say?
It’s useful here to consider the Pareto principle, or 80/20 rule, which dictates that for many events, 80 per cent of the results arise from 20 per cent of the efforts.
With this in mind, consider what you are doing as a school – or could do – that’s having the biggest impact on mental health and morale. What initiatives, policies and procedures make up that 20 per cent of what’s truly effective? Why? How do you know? These are the things that you’ll want to highlight and explore. The rest are all secondary.
Don’t waste your time trying to paper over the cracks – no one expects perfection, even less so as things currently stand. Instead, strive to demonstrate that you know where the current threats to wellbeing are and how you’re trying to alleviate them.
Show that you listen
As for evidence, put down the SLT action plan and pick up the staff feedback, surveys, meeting notes or whatever it is that demonstrates that you listen to your staff on a regular basis and act on their concerns wherever possible.
Wherever you can directly tie what you’re doing to support staff to the comments of said staff, this is worth oodles more than any kind of wellbeing policy put together by an isolated member or members of SLT.
We need to remember that whilst there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to wellbeing – a tick list that would allow any outsider to fairly judge a school – the quality of staff relationships, communication and collaborative efforts offer a useful window into school culture.
Put yourself into the shoes of an outsider and ask yourself what you might see if peering through that window?
Ultimately, we’re still at the mercy of current events. Events which, if nothing else, have inspired many of us to focus on what matters. In this case, that’s looking after staff, looking after each other and looking after ourselves, regardless of who’s watching.
Jo Steer is a former leader now working with schools as a wellbeing consultant