Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

20th December 2013 at 00:00
School leaders' workloads can swallow up their lives, even on Christmas Day. So is it time for your phone to have an 'accident'?

As a headteacher married to another, it doesn't surprise me that the results of a survey out this week (see news.tesconnect.com) show that more than half of school leaders have done school-related work on Christmas Day. It is shocking, but definitely not surprising.

I can't imagine that many school leaders get through any day without one issue or another straying into their minds, preoccupying them as they scan from best-case to worst-case scenario, plotting and fretting in equal measure. The BlackBerry doesn't seem to know what day it is, and winks away throughout weekends and holidays, just as it does during the school week.

So what is on school leaders' minds? Well, these are just some of the issues that torment me when I'm away from school.

- What are we going to do with the final-year cohort? Their mock exam results were so disappointing, but the interventions are all a bit late in the day.

- The mediocre teaching in X department just isn't improving and we're running out of strategies. Capability proceedings? Oh God. Yes, I think it's time.

- With two staff on maternity leave and another three with recurring health issues, we're going to be relying heavily on temporary cover. Some parents are so unforgiving about supply teachers, probably with good reason.

- When am I going to find time to tackle the 76 unanswered emails and the 47 flagged for further action? They include messages from parents, staff, the Department for Education and the funding agency, not to mention the endless mailshots and all the cc emails from people trying to involve me in their petty disputes.

- I must prepare that school governors' report on the new curriculum, new performance measures, changes to exams and changes to vocational subjects.

- We need to start the new term with a big, positive message during the continuing professional development day on our core values: something about teaching and learning, something aspirational, even inspirational. But it won't happen by itself. I need some time to get my thoughts together.

- Those books need marking. I need to walk the talk. I shouldn't have set so much work before the holidays, but it's got to be looked at. When? I've already done too much marking in class. Now it's going to eat into my own time.

- We need to think bigger about the future direction of the school. Or should we stay as we are? Are we taking on too much? Stagnating? Obsessed with the inspectors? Where will we be in three years' time?

- A teenage student is at the end of the road. The paperwork for permanent exclusion is a nightmare - it would be easier just to keep him. Except it wouldn't work. We've been through all that and this is our only option. But it's heartbreaking all the same.

With issues such as these to wrestle with, it's obviously very hard for school leaders to relax. You can turn the BlackBerry off, throw the iPad under the sofa and unplug the computer, but the problems don't evaporate. For a lot of people, it's better just to keep plugging away, letting the flow of information continue to flood over you as you slowly try to tackle one matter after another.

Of course, the holiday work is just a continuation or an overspill from the routine workload during term time. This talk of work-life balance is all very well, but there isn't much of a distinction in practice: school life is all-consuming and ever-present. I find that within a few minutes of arriving home I'm thinking about how soon I can get to the computer, when really I should be engaging with my family, eating and perhaps watching a bit of television, just to change gear and try to have a life. But the to-do list is always nagging away at the back of my mind.

Strategies for staying sane

So how can school leaders keep their heads above water? My way of reducing the workload to something manageable is deciding what I'm not going to do. Corners simply have to be cut. I don't go to all the meetings I'm supposed to: they're never-ending. And with 900 student reports to read and comment on each year, isn't it reasonable that they are not quite as personal as the parents might have liked? Other things just fall by the wayside. The email follow-up rule is a way of life for me: if people are really bothered, they will chase it up; if not, time will pass and the issue will fix itself. The trick is to be relaxed about this, to accept it.

My other strategy is to block out time for key tasks. Very occasionally, I create a "leave early" event in Outlook and do what my diary tells me.

Last summer, I dropped my BlackBerry in a river. My wife was delighted and we had a much better holiday than we otherwise would have done. I can see a similar "accident" happening this Christmas - perhaps that's the only way to switch off.

Tom Sherrington is headteacher of King Edward VI Grammar School in Chelmsford, England.

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