Redundancies, like deaths, are so hard to handle

16th July 2010 at 01:00

Twelve years ago a construction accident caused our school to be hit by a massive explosion, which left a vast crater in the playground. We coped.

Since then we have coped with the death of a number of our young people and the suicide of a much-loved member of staff. We managed to see off the British National Party, and dealt assertively with gang warfare and race riots in the streets. We got through a parent protest march against us, and more recently we survived, even thrived, after Ofsted gave us a notice to improve.

There have been many other calamities, some that I cannot now immediately recall, although at the time I wondered how we would ever get through them. Yet none of these problems has left me making decisions as tough as the ones I face now carrying out a staff restructuring.

A death is, obviously, worse than a redundancy. But the decisions school leaders are forced to make over restructuring are some of the most painful they must make in their careers.

This is particularly true for those, like me, who have been in post for many years and have appointed the majority of the staff themselves. Having spent years forming solid relationships with my staff it is very difficult to separate the person from the job and to take the action needed to bring about the efficiencies that must be made if we are to survive the next three years.

Like most schools, we have been scrutinising our budget and have been planning for survival in the years ahead. It is clear that if we don't make major changes now we will be in severe financial difficulty.

We have devoted a lot of time to planning the best way forward. One difficulty I have is that this is a lonely exercise that has to be done in isolation. Only the headteacher and a small group of governors are able to have these discussions and I have been unable to share my thoughts or frustrations with anybody else. This is not a normal mode of operation for me as I have never been one to keep secrets - I like transparency in everything I do and like to be able to mull things over with my colleagues. This has not been possible because of the regulations and secrecy that surrounds this procedure.

However, I have been lucky to be supported by an expert consultant who has had to take the brunt of my anger and frustration as we worked through our initial proposals. Many other heads going through the same process may not be so fortunate. The process is fairly brutal and certainly takes its toll on individual headteachers as well as those on the receiving end.

Our proposals involve losing a number of my senior leadership team and this is particularly difficult and upsetting. These are people I have helped nurture and seen develop into skilled professionals who add so much value to our school and our pupils. Having to make them redundant - and pitching them against each other in competition before decisions are made - is a horrific prospect.

To make matters worse, when blood has been drawn and the team is reduced in size, what happens to those of us who are left behind? We still have the same work to do but with less people. This means we will all have twice as much work to do. This is not a great prospect when we have such a busy school to keep afloat and which we must try to improve.

On a personal level, the whole process is emotionally draining. I understand the anxiety and anger people are feeling and I am powerless to make them feel fine - especially as they see me as the enemy, the one responsible for their woes.

Things are going to get worse before they get better and most heads are going to have to go through the same experience. Nothing prepares you for it and you just have to get on with it. I know that I must hold my nerve and carry on because if we don't face up to the challenge now we will not survive the recession.

My job is to make sure our school is sustainable and can continue to grow and develop in difficult times. However, I do worry about colleagues who are new to the job or who have been promoted very quickly through the ranks and are having to manage similar situations. The level of resilience needed is immense and is something that builds with time and experience.

I am certainly not looking forward to the spending review in October. Even though we are told that school budgets will be protected, I do not believe that we will come away unscathed. Keeping staff morale high when there is a danger that many might lose their jobs, when there is a two-year pay freeze, less support from the local authority and an extreme shortage of learning resources, may be beyond my normally positive approach.

As an eternal optimist I am trying to believe that we will get through these difficult times and will find solutions.

Kenny Frederick, Headteacher, George Green's School, Tower Hamlets, east London.

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