Dealing with the bully at the top

5th November 2004 at 00:00
Pat Denison answers your leadership questions

In September I was appointed as deputy at a junior school which narrowly missed being put into special measures in its last Ofsted inspection. The head took up her post last January and prides herself on her ability to "run a tight ship". In the short time that I've been at the school, I have become increasingly aware of her bullying tactics: staff are undermined, given unreasonable deadlines and criticised. Absence rates are high and morale low. Colleagues are now using me as a listening ear, and I am losing sleep, worrying about the best way to handle this. Do I tell the head that the staff think she is a bully?

Bullying is becoming a burning issue in all employment contexts and is a potential time bomb in schools. Schools have historically been perceived as hotbeds of bullying - many people had their first taste of it in a school setting, leaving them scarred for life. Earlier this year Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, launched a pound;1.8 million project to tackle bullying in the workforce. It is being taken very seriously, not least because, according to the Manchester university report Workplace Bullying in Britain, 18 million working days are lost each year because of it.

The link between bullying and schools is borne out at every level - being told what to do and responding compliantly has been the lot of schools since the advent of the national curriculum with its tick-box bureaucracy.

Former chief inspector Chris Woodhead piled on the undermining cliches as Ofsted celebrated failure in its naming-and-shaming fest. Sadly, it is not uncommon to find school leaders who cite the tyranny of Ofsted to promote identical tactics in their own institutions. Fear of failure may often be the bully's driver.

We need to be acutely sensitive to indicators of bullying. First of all, we have a moral imperative to tackle it wherever it makes itself apparent. We also need to bear in mind the growing number of claims facilitated by an army of anti-bullying trusts and organisations.

There is a fine line between bullying and strong management. However, if you replace the word "management" with the word "leadership" the line becomes much clearer. Leadership guru Peter Drucker famously said:

"Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things."

He also said: "So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work."

You will have been in your school long enough to have considered the climate. How are relationships conducted? How are decisions taken? Is there a culture of compliance or negotiation? To what extent is there consultation rather than telling? Check out the vocabulary used when managing performance. You will doubtless have arrived at conclusions, but these need to be backed by evidence. It could be that only one or two individuals perceive that they are being bullied, yet perceptions need to be checked - they are people's reality.

It is difficult to confront bullying behaviour - but confront it you must.

Let your head know your concerns. Be specific, but make sure that she understands that these are perceptions and that you are proposing that the senior leadership team check them out.

When members of staff confide in you, be prepared to coach them. They need to find the courage to express their worries and to articulate them clearly to the head. Do not act as their mouthpiece, but let them know that you take their concerns seriously. People who feel bullied feel powerless and distressed - they need help to confront the problem. Give them the opportunity to rehearse the discussion - engaging them in role-play can tear down barriers of fear and apprehension. Be prepared to support the head through this process. She will find it difficult to accept what she is hearing, and her first reaction may be one of denial. The job of taking a school out of failure and leading it towards success can seem huge, but quick-fix solutions which result in feelings of inadequacy and loss of self-esteem can never be right.

Persuade her to get back to basics - invite her, with the leadership team, to reflect on values such as personal dignity, self-worth and emotional well-being, and use them to create a climate of nurture which should pervade the school.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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