I used to help run a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award programme, and one of my greatest joys was taking the urban youth out into the big soggy green thing we call the country. I used to describe it as like “a big park” so they wouldn’t freak out.
I was struck by how disconnected many of the kids were from nature, and even from their own biology. Raised in a culture where genuine want was rare, they had to be trained to understand the relationship between sensible eating and the energy they would need to hike and camp. I asked them to pack light food for two days; they turned up with two-litre bottles of pop. I directed them to bring breathable fabrics and a change of clothes for emergencies; they rocked up with a single pair of skinny jeans. I suggested walking shoes; they brought Peppa Pig wellies.
A weekend of watching sodden, shivering kids with blistered feet, tripping and crashing every two hours when the Skittles rush kicked in and wore off, was enough to convince me that you ignore the basics of body management at your peril.
The same thing applies to the school body. It feeds, excretes and breathes a little. It needs maintenance and direction. We talk a lot about classrooms and we talk a lot about leadership; I wonder if we don’t talk enough about our support teams.
We should talk. They’re the parasympathetic nerves of the school. They are the circulatory, lymphatic and respiratory systems. Knock out any one of them and you can forget attending that violin recital. In fact, often the only time we notice how important people are is when things go wrong – when an invisible lynchpin calls in sick, or one too many people leave the catering team. The 1978-79 Winter of Discontent, for example, was a powerful way to remind people how much they enjoyed not having to wade through bags of rubbish to reach the kerb.
So too in a school. No matter how good your teachers are, if the school structures aren’t clean and sharp enough, you’ll just get battlefield classes. When I worked as a bartender, you were supported by a barback, who made sure you had ice and liquor and clean glassware under your hand every time you reached out. The job was impossible without them. The bartender got the glory and the bucks, and the barback got the lumps. But he was as vital as oxygen.
Schools are like society: we overvalue the most visible and undervalue the invisible. But every administrator, bursar, janitor, librarian, mentor, truancy officer, steward, clerk, filer and so on is a Jenga brick no less important than the ones you can see. We often talk about brilliant schools as being the product of brilliant leadership (partly true) or brilliant teachers (also true). But pause a second and raise a glass to the silent army of men and women who also serve the school. You’d miss them if they were gone. And when they’re great, they allow you to be great, too.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert