Creating time to get a life

17th March 2006 at 00:00
A new head doesn't want her staff working themselves into the ground.

So she's written a book to help. Jill Parkin reports

Imagine a circus high-wire act, where the tightrope-walker keeps her balance not with a pole, but with a baby in one hand and an in-tray in the other. One slip and all three are in trouble, not to mention the hundreds of young upturned faces below.

Schools and circuses? The analogy is not a bad one, and many a school leader is walking the tightrope of running a school and a family. The tricky bit is making sure that success in one world doesn't cost you all fulfilment in the other.

The stress statistics among heads and deputies are at an all-time high, and in many schools, reforms that have improved the lot of classroom teachers have increased the load on leaders. No wonder heads are hard to find.

Help is at hand, from tightrope-walker Deborah Duncan, head of Horbury school, Wakefield, who has written a book, Work-life balance: myth or possibility?, which is being launched at the conference of the Association of School and College Leaders this week.

So how does this head spend her weekends? "Baking and painting and reading with my three-year-old daughter, going out as a family with her and my husband, visiting National Trust places in the summer - all the things that are nothing to do with running a school," she says.

Not bad for any head, but particularly good for one who's just two-and-a-half terms into her first headship of an 1,100-pupil 11-16 state comprehensive. It wasn't always like this, she admits.

"Before I had Eleanor, when I was a classroom teacher, my work was my life.

It took over my evenings and my weekends. Having a child does focus your mind. I do work most evenings after she has gone to bed, but I do nothing during the day at weekends so that I can dedicate my free time to her," she says. "It has not been easy, but making a few changes at a time has made a significant improvement in my work-life balance."

Everyone knows about the problems caused by absenteeism, but Mrs Duncan highlights another plague - "presenteeism". Too much of one can eventually lead to the other and then on to loss of teachers.

"We are all familiar with the problems of absenteeism but what about being there when you shouldn't? Carrying on when you are ill? Holidays? Weekends? Working at home? Arriving early in the morning? Staying late at night? Being present but being ineffective? Being 'busy'?" she asks, arguing that it needs a change of culture so that working your proper hours and leaving yourself some free time is seen as the healthy and responsible way to run your career.

The culture should also recognise that staff need to feel wanted. We all function better with a bit of praise and nurturing. One or two of the male teachers at Mrs Duncan's school raised their eyebrows at her introduction of Indian head massage and aromatherapy treatments for staff, but most feel it's a sign of the value she places on them.

The feelgood factor is important, but all the massage in the world won't work if mundane tasks and bureaucracy weigh school leaders down. One of the schools featured in Work-life balance has become as paper-free as possible.

Email has replaced paper memos; agendas and minutes for meetings are only available electronically and are reduced to action points; policies are bought in and amended rather than written from scratch.

"Many staff, including support staff, are daily drowning in a sea of paper.

If we eliminate it internally, there is still a constant stream from external agencies. Leaders are able to creatively use their budgets so they can employ staff whose daily task is to sort the in-trays of others into manageable formats and be trained to know when something should be filed in the round filing tray known as the bin.

"The worst offenders are the local authorities, who send out so many questionnaires and other returns. If you are not careful, you spend all your time as a head bidding for money and writing plans, not looking after children."

There is a circle at work in much of Mrs Duncan's advice. Less presenteeism will lead to less absenteeism; less absence to less supply cover; and less cover to some free budget that can then be spent on helping improve work-life balance.

"In terms of striking a balance, this does not mean freeing up evenings and weekends so staff can spend time doing household or administrative tasks at home," says Mrs Duncan. "Colleagues need to relax when they are not working. They should have time to have hobbies, do sport, see friends and enjoy time with their children and families.

"Why not have a dry-cleaning service in school, someone who can go and pay staff car tax, an arrangement with a garage so that staff cars can be picked up from school, serviced and returned? They're all little things, but they mean more free time and less stress."

Other changes can be made at the consumer end of education to relieve some of the strain on school leaders. An important part is what Mrs Duncan calls "a rigorous disciplinary system".

"A consistent behaviour policy, with simple procedures and set tariffs for offences, helps reduce stress as everyone knows what to do in a given situation. If the procedures are devised using a cross-curricular staff team to ensure maximum teacher engagement, it is more likely that sanctions will be applied consistently. Colleagues need to feel supported but also empowered.

"Whatever system is adopted, it should be fair and consistently applied.

Only if this is the case will stress related to indiscipline begin to subside.

"Clear lines of responsibility can be established also for parental contact and it is perfectly reasonable to insist on an appointment system. Parents should not expect senior leaders, or other staff for that matter, to drop everything on their whim."

So, Deborah Duncan has her work-life balance sorted out? "Well, there are those who would say there's an element of 'do as I say not as I do', but bit by bit I'm getting there. I still haven't made time to go back to the gym. Yes, it's true I wrote the book in my own time."

Work-life balance: myth or possibility? by Deborah Duncan is available from the ASCL at pound;12

The mean meeting

* Are we stuck in a meetings rut? We hold them just because we always have?

* Does a meeting need to be held at all?

* What is the actual purpose of the meeting and the desired outcome?

* Who actually needs to be present, rather than being kept informed?

* Is the agenda produced well in advance? If papers are needed, is there time to prepare them? How short can the meeting be while remaining effective?

* What sort of minutes are needed, if any?

* Are action points clear? Timescales?

* Have we ever tried holding a paperless meeting? Do all those attending need to stay throughout?

Keeping it simple

* Every colleague has a target related to improving an aspect of their home life;

* A paperless system wherever possible with communication by email. All data collection is carried out via portable computer memory stick and reports designed so a set can be completed in a lesson.

* Teachers required only to spend time on teaching and learning and preparation and assessment. This enables rigorous performance targets

* Released from paperwork, senior leaders drop in on lessons to support colleagues and monitor teaching and learning.

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