I remember sitting in a training course once, part of a leadership programme, where a roomful of new and aspiring leaders were learning how to become less operational and more strategic. The starter activity was to list the number of jobs you might do in a single day. It became an unspoken competition to write a list longer than the person sitting next to you, to prove how great a leader you were by the amount of work you got through in a day and the implicit unpaid overtime you put in while doing it.
This was, of course, the opposite of the point. It was one of those sessions where you can hear pennies dropping across the course of a morning, as a great speaker managed to convince their somewhat defensive audience that great leadership is not a competition to see who works the hardest, who peddles the fastest, but it's about having the ability to step back from the front line and to start to plan out the best strategy for your whole school to move forward.
For many of the audience, taking a day out to attend a training course was a guilty pleasure in itself, workloads were heavy and in leadership there's no supply teacher to cover your day, it's all still waiting for you when you get back. As the day went on, more and more of the delegates began to realise that they were doing leadership wrong. We learned to rise above our action plans and GCSE targets and look beyond, to visualise our schools in five, 10, 15 years’ time, and along with that, to try to imagine the workplace that we would be preparing our students for. It was fascinating and liberating – to think that the children we were teaching now would be the educators of the future, that what we did now, the plans we put in place, would be the building blocks to create this new exciting vision for education, in a world so very, very different from our own.
As a group, we came away full of ideas, oozing strategy and vision, with a new-found passion to be part of something world-changing. We saw our place, albeit small, in creating something powerful and real, and we saw that in order to do that in our own schools, in our own contexts, we needed to step away from the operational, reactive world of our collective busy days and to build in time for strategy research, imagination and reflection.
'We planned and we led'
It took time, but over the course of the programme and over the next few years we all got much better at it. The group stayed in touch. As an advanced driver learns to read the road five to 10 miles in advance, we learned to read education, to be able to see where it was heading and how to steer our schools successfully into the future. We empowered our middle managers to become leaders of their own departments, we stepped back from "doing" and instead we coached, we planned and we led.
And then came the funding cuts. Little by little, as our income diminished and our ability to deliver the essentials came under threat, we were forced to start trimming, pruning, cutting: a little bit here, a snip there, removing those non-essentials from our schools, to balance the books. And still the funding shrank. We have now had to cut further to the point where whole roles have disappeared, departments have been restructured and all that leftover work has had to be absorbed, somehow. Because despite the cuts, despite the fact that we have less of everything and that morale in our profession is at an all-time low, the standards, the expectations and the demands continue to rise.
While support staff and middle managers have taken on a good deal of this, a large amount those responsibilities have been absorbed upwards by school leaders. With decreasing teams, SLT are under pressure to teach more classes, lead more departments, appear more regularly on cover and on-call rotas. As faculty structures revert back to departmental models, so line management responsibilities move upward. In short, our strategy time has vanished. The time we might have once had to plan, to research, to collaborate has been stretched so thinly that it no longer exists in the school day – and instead happens in our own free time, in the evenings and at weekends, at unpaid networking events, conferences and on social media. As leaders in schools, we're back on the front line, firefighting.
And boy can we firefight; day in, day out, coping, fixing, responding, managing, supporting, analysing, delivering. So far we've just about been able to keep our ships afloat, by running around plugging holes as they appear and by pushing the engines way, way beyond what they're built to withstand. We're bailing, and we're bailing increasingly fast.
So, DfE, if you're reading this, we're doing our damnedest to not let children down, despite the worrying state of our funding situation, but that's about all we're managing to do. If you're expecting strategy, if you're expecting us to develop and build schools ready for the next generation of students, and not just the next inspection, you're expecting too much. In order to grow, to develop, to lead and to flourish, schools and school leaders, need the time and the opportunity to be able to stop and think, to plan their strategic development in the mid to long-term futures. And to do that, we need to be funded at a rate which allows us to build real strategy time into our days, our terms, our governance and our lives.
Hilary Goldsmith is director of finance and operations at Varndean School. She tweets at @sbl365