'The loneliness of school leadership can lead to long, dark, sleepless nights'

The necessity of making difficult decisions, such as over exclusions or redundancies, weighs heavily on senior school staff, writes one school leader. And yet somehow we just get on with it...

Hilary Goldsmith

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Remember that joke in which a voice says, "I don't want to go back to school. The kids all hate me, and all the teachers hate me," and the another voice says, "You have to go in, dear, you're the headteacher"? Some days school leadership can be just like that.

On other days, hopefully most days, being a school leader is a great job. You can make decisions that change lives for the better, and seeing a child beam with pride as they achieve their personal best is second to none.

But there are dark days, difficult times, when you are called upon to carry out some pretty awful tasks, make some heart-wrenching decisions and take the flak when you aren't able to fully explain your actions because of safeguarding, confidentiality or a reputational issue that might otherwise damage your school.

Many school leaders will have lain awake at night not knowing whether to exclude that child for whom exclusion will be the final nail in their educational coffin or to try again to keep them in school, and put that child's teachers and classmates through the trauma of dealing with their behaviour once again. They will have felt their hearts sink when a child is caught cheating in a public exam, knowing that their signature on the submission report will destroy a future. How easy would it be to let it go, to pretend it didn't happen? But we don't. We can't.

Likewise, there are times when you have to put a struggling colleague through a disciplinary process. You might well know that there's a situation at home that they're coping with, a relationship breakdown or a family problem, but even so, they've committed some infringement, and it's your job to apply the process, fairly and without bias, even though you've worked with them for years and you know this will destroy them.

Between a rock and a hard place

In leadership roles we will all have to manage some awful situations; to discharge a keen but woefully ineffective probationer, to write management cases for disciplinary hearings where you're recommending dismissal, knowing full well that employee will struggle to find suitable work again. To write a list of potential redundancies that includes people you consider friends, because you have to be seen to be completely impartial, but deep down you know they haven't been pulling their weight.

Those times are tough, but somehow you harden your heart and put the school's interests first. And the policy is your bible, your friend, your shield, and behind it you can justify being a heartless villain in the name of education. But it still hurts. It hurts when you see the looks you get in the canteen. When it goes quiet when you walk into the staffroom. When you read the comments on the leaving card of the person you're letting go and you put some money in the collection but you don't sign the card.

All alone at night when there's just you and your morality, it hurts then, too, but we reset, we refocus and we get up and do it all again, because that's the job, and the best you can do is what you're doing. And the best you can hope for is that the decisions you make are the right ones, for the right reasons, for as many people as possible, for most of the time.

Hilary Goldsmith is director of finance and operations at Varndean School. She tweets at @sbl365

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Hilary Goldsmith

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