Don't lose sight of the 'I' in headship

5th October 2007 at 01:00
Feel like you spend your whole time 'rushing around putting out fires'? Then it's time to take stock, says Fiona Leney

IT IS IRONIC that, as the issue of teachers' well-being has taken centre stage, those largely left out of the debate are the school leaders.

A survey by the School Teachers' Review Body last month suggested that heads' workloads are falling. Nonetheless, the complexity of what they do grows daily. For while workforce reform and the development of the extended school model means heads can increasingly delegate practical matters to non-teaching staff, they also bring new management challenges.

Add anxiety over inspections, performance and exclusions and it becomes clear that the issue of heads' well-being is a pressing one.

So what can be done to provide necessary support particularly in view of falling recruitment levels?

Talking to heads, professional bodies and trainers, a common theme emerges. Heads are passionate about their work and not afraid of responsibility, but they often feel they are left to shoulder it alone and that they lack support, particularly from local authorities.

The unrelenting pace of their job "rushing around putting out fires", as one head puts it also makes it difficult to take time out for their own professional needs.

"Well-being is central to a head's effectiveness," says Jenny Blount, who runs a programme aimed at school leaders for Worklife Support, an organisation established by the Teacher Support Network to help improve the well-being and effectiveness of all school staff.

"Heads say that this is such a relentless job they rarely have time to reflect. We give them a safe environment to discuss issues and find solutions. Often they have nowhere else they can do this."

Celia Irwin, a primary head from Northamptonshire, agrees that one of the great paradoxes of school leadership is that while you need to reflect constantly on what you, and other heads, are doing, the job does not give you the time to do so.

Since attending Worklife Support's Headspace course, she has begun ring fencing time in her diary for herself and has learnt to help staff solve their own problems, rather than intervening herself.

While heads of failing schools may face the sack, heads of successful ones such as Mrs Irwin's, face a different challenge how to improve on outstanding results.

Chris Abbot is head of South Hunsley Comprehensive in East Riding. The school has the highest number of GCSE A to C passes in the area, and Ms Abbott says she feels the pressure to get even better.

"But where can you go from the top?" she says. "If the results were to go down, I'd take it personally. But cohorts are different. You can't change that. You just have to hang on to the importance of value-added scores."

Both heads also fret about inspections. "If it doesn't go well , you feel you've let your staff down," says Ms Abbott. Again, heads seem compelled to take responsibility for things beyond their control. They are not helped by a perception among inspectors as well as the public that they are accountable for all that happens in a school.

Brian Lightman, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, says this needs changing if pressure on heads is to be eased. "If the school is perceived to be failing, the head loses his or her job. But there are many reasons why a school might be struggling."

Mr Lightman, who leads a 1,500-pupil comprehensive in Penarth in Wales, says the new role of a head is closer to that of a corporate chief executive than a teacher. He thinks it is unreasonable to expect the head either to be on the premises all day or to be responsible for the minutiae of school life.

The National College for School Leadership says that statistics show an improvement in work-life balance but more needs to be done. It has published a report, A Life in the Day of a Headteacher, that identifies factors common to those with a positive sense of well-being, a good work-life balance and coping strategies. Both that and another report, What We Know about School Leadership, advocate effective delegation to the leadership team, enabling the head to focus on transforming teaching and learning.

Extended schooling should ease heads' loads in the long term, as long as they delegate effectively. Where this is not yet happening, heads may struggle.

"One of the greatest frustrations is that the role of head should be about teaching and learning, but day-to-day things such as building programmes and practical matters get in the way," says Ms Blount.

"This is more of a problem for primary school heads than heads of secondaries, who may have business managers and associate staff to share the load. The NCSL promotes the idea of appointing a high-level manager to take on the day-to-day management of premises, although this is dependent on schools being able to afford it."

Mr Lightman says that workforce remodelling should also increase the well being of both teachers and heads by taking non-teaching tasks away from them. But at the moment it is adding to heads' workloads, as they struggle to make reorganisation work. The initiative will bear fruit, he thinks, but he is sceptical about suggestions that heads' workloads have already fallen.

There is a consensus that one of the greatest threats to well-being, whether of heads or teachers, is the unrelenting wave of new initiatives. Many heads are at pains to say they believe in what many of these are trying to achieve there are just too many of them, too close together and with painfully short lead times.

The ASCL believes that a "one in, one out" approach, where for every new initiative adopted an old one is dropped, would ease heads' lives considerably, says Mr Lightman.

About one thing, though, he is clear. "I am talking about these pressures in the context of a fantastic job," he says.


Letters, page 26

Coping strategies

* You can only be an effective leader if your own level of well-being is high. Do not allow your needs to become the last priority in order to sort out other peoples' problems.

* Be disciplined about ring-fencing time for reflection on your role. Try going through your school diary at the start of term and reserving time each week for this. Make sure staff know this is a time when you are absolutely not available.

* Become better at delegating. Use your senior management team, associate staff and anyone else with the appropriate expertise to give you more time to focus on your key role: developing teaching and learning.

* Investigate hiring support staff who can deal effectively with practical issues such as maintenance.

* Find some sort of support group of your peers who can meet regularly but informally, perhaps by talking to other heads in your cluster.

* Better still, make time to attend a course such as Headspace, where you can swap ideas with your peers. The facilitator will keep discussion constructive and suggest strategies for dealing with particular problems.


A work-life balance is vital

Celia Irwin (above) has been a head for six years. Her school, Blisworth Community Primary, in a village near Milton Keynes, is successful and over subscribed.

Despite this, she says, there is never room for complacency and she was finding that her commitment to the job and all its different aspects left her with no time to reflect on her own performance.

Her family life was also suffering as a result of putting her own needs at the bottom of her list of priorities.

Last year, Mrs Irwin was encouraged by governors to sign up for the Headspace programme after a performance management review identified the need to improve her work-life balance.

"I was feeling that there were never enough hours in the day and that I had to intervene in every situation to solve problems for my staff," she says.

"Working through Headspace and talking to other leaders, I've learnt to help staff find their own solutions, and to understand that I can't be the answer to everyone's problems."

Mrs Irwin says that she still constantly feels the need to be at the top of her game "when you've a grieving parent or an upset member of staff coming in to see you, you can't just say 'sorry, I'm feeling rotten myself today'" but has become much more disciplined about setting time aside for herself.

"I know that I'm a much more effective leader when my feeling of well-being is high," she says.

Photograph: Tony Hardacre

5 things

to think

about this week

1. Be prepared for the unexpected

Spare a thought for Sidney Stringer School in Coventry, devastated by fire last week. Then think about your own disaster planning. As well as fire and flood, there are many unexpected events that can turn school life upside down a media storm around a student internet posting is a recent example. Teachernet has a Fire Safety Guide for download from the document bank, and The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has a page on school disaster planning.

* www.rospa.comsafetyeducationatschoolmanagement.htm

2. Get set on the path to leadership

Consider whether any of your colleagues might benefit from the National College for School Leadership's "Leadership Pathways" programme. Relatively new, it's designed to fill in between Leading from the Middle and the National Professional Qualification for Headship. Schools already involved feel it maintains momentum for experienced middle leaders who aren't yet ready, or prepared, for senior leadership. Applications for the fourth cohort are open until October 31.

3. Tap into Ofsted expertise

Damp down Ofsted fever. Postings on The TES online staffroom show that Ofsted neurosis generates a host of questions, misunderstandings and word-of-mouth myths. It would be good leadership practice to spend some time now, rather than when the notification arrives, giving the facts, building confidence and, importantly, knocking down rumours. For this purpose, the inside knowledge of experienced inspector Selwyn Ward is gold dust. He writes in TES Magazine, and frequently posts on the online staffroom. Tap into his expertise on the site by searching "All Forums" under his name.

4. Make sure the plumbing is not giving cause for concern

Take notice of the children's toilets. They're increasingly a cause for concern, and the current issue (27) of the NAHT's Leadership Focus magazine has a long feature on toilets. There's also an e-Petition on the subject on the 10 Downing Street website posted by a student. There are clear links to the National Healthy Schools Programme, the Every Child Matters Agenda, and the Disability Discrimination legislation. One of the leaders in improving things for children is Sandwell authority, which runs a School Toilet award in conjunction with the admirable Bog Standard organisation. Sandwell's downloadable toilet audit document is worthy of a wider audience. Best way in: google Sandwell Healthy Schools and follow the links.


5. Prepare a hot drink for your staff

Just before break, go down to the staffroom and make coffee for the staff. John Pinkney, assistant principal at Bilton School in Rugby, Warwickshire, does it every day. It's a real gesture of appreciation and friendship. "It's a good point of contact," he says. "I get to speak to everyone." It's also, he admits, a useful stress reliever. "It's a task that I know I can complete successfully within the available time, achieving immediate satisfaction." Are there other august and senior figures who perform simple acts of service? I think we should know.

Send your contributions or suggestions for this column to Gerald Haigh at

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