Teachers need school leaders to provide good examples of work-life balance – but all too often heads neglect their own wellbeing, according to new research.
The finding comes from a major comparative study of school leaders in London, New York City and Toronto. The UCL Institute of Education (IoE) research shows that class teachers expect leaders to be understanding about staff members’ lives beyond the school gates and to model a healthy work-life balance.
But in reality, the majority of schools leaders in the study struggled to achieve that balance, in spite of the fact that their example could have a positive influence on their teachers.
Karen Edge from the IoE, who interviewed the participants in the study, fears that poor wellbeing habits among school leaders could be filtering down to teachers and putting future leaders off the profession.
“If you are looking to move up the career ladder and you are seeing headteachers talking about only stress and challenge then it doesn’t make it an attractive choice. If you love your job you need to say it and say it loudly,” she said. “If heads can’t find a way to have a life themselves then no one is going to want to step into that role. It will only become more difficult.”
Family life suffers
Teachers are not the only people who think that headship has become a less attractive career choice. Last week a survey from the Key, an organisation providing leadership support to schools, revealed that 70 per cent of governors thought that the appeal of headship as a career had diminished.
The Key report also found that nearly three-quarters of school leaders felt guilty if they leave work on time. Many also said that their job had had a negative impact on their family life (see figures, above).
The IoE study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and looked at school leaders under the age of 40, uncovered some significant variation between cities. The New York and Toronto principals were, for example, more likely than their British counterparts to cite a long list of early leadership experiences that influenced their career, from soccer team captaincy to high-school cheerleading. But the same picture on work-life balance applied in all three cities, with teachers consistently saying that schools leaders needed to be role models by taking care of themselves.
The study finds that heads leading by personal example are “more influential than simple statements or encouragement”.
However, many school leaders find it hard to set a good example on work-life balance, and the research suggests that this may be because their own heads didn’t serve as good role models when they were in the classroom.
“There is a culture of busyness and self-sacrifice that is associated with running a school,” Dr Edge said.
Ralph Surman, deputy head of Cantrell Primary School in Nottingham, agrees that school leaders “struggle to be good role models” and need to “care for themselves”.
He tries to set an example by leaving early at least once a week and believes that governors should monitor leaders’ wellbeing to encourage good practice. “Work-life balance must be a serious consideration for leadership and, if seen to be important, this would set the standard for others to follow,” he said.
Dr Edge advised heads: “It is important to be very explicit if you do have a life outside of school, as it may make teachers feel that it’s OK for them to look after themselves better.”
Allan Foulds, president of the Association of School and College Leaders, warned that, in practice, the expectation to provide a specific type of example to staff could be “challenging” because it was hard for heads to manage their time with numerous out-of-hours events.
But he added: “It is right for teachers to expect their headteacher not to be paranoid about inspections and accountability, and to have a confidence about what really matters.”
‘You don’t need to be a hero’
Co-headteacher Liz Robinson is clear about her attitude to work-life balance.
It’s all there in her email signature, which states: “I work flexibly to maximise time with my children and sometimes work late in the evening once bedtime is done. I do not expect anyone to read, much less respond, to emails at unsociable hours.”
Ms Robinson works a four-day week at her school, Surrey Square Primary in Southwark, South London, so that she can spend Fridays with her two children.
“There has to be a level of humility to work in that way,” she said. “It’s about how you trust people and delegate in a good way. You move away from the idea of a ‘hero head’.”
But job shares are still rare for school leaders. Ms Robinson believes this is because of a culture of everything going through the head, which some leaders see as a “badge of honour”.
“There can be something addictive about ‘I think they need me to sort something out’, but you should let go of that,” she said.