Too many heads couldn't watch BBC2's School because it made them feel sick

Documentary series about running a school reveals fundamental truth of the education system, writes this former headteacher

BBC2 programme School

The pace and volume of change in educational policy over the past decade has led to increased ambiguity, inconsistency and insecurity. Schools are sailing uncharted waters and many are flailing about at sea. BBC2’s School documentary, which has been on our screens for the past six weeks, demonstrates just how fragile our school system has become as a result of these changes and associated budget cuts.

The education secretary, Damian Hinds, has told us that “there’s more money in education than ever before”. This documentary provided unequivocal proof, if ever any was needed, that his statement is quite simply untrue. Schools are at breaking point. Budgets are tighter than ever before and the casualties are our young people, teachers and school leaders.

Cutting close to the bone

Heads have told me that they couldn’t watch all of the episodes of School because viewing made them feel physically sick. The day-to-day struggles faced by teachers, support staff and school leaders mirrored too closely their own.

Mid-series, we met James Pope, the head of Marlwood School – a rural comprehensive in South Gloucestershire. This was his first headship. Marlwood was in special measures and James was tasked with turning the school around. We were shown a picture of what James looked like when he first took on the role. He looked happy, confident, full of hope and promise for this new venture. As the cameras followed him over the following weeks and months, the changes to his physical demeanour revealed the true story of the human cost to schools when policies are driven and shaped by the wider austerity agenda.

It was all too clear to see the impact that the pressures were having on James, as he and his senior team, with an ever-decreasing budget, tried every which way to balance the books, while simultaneously seeking to raise standards and the reputation of the school.

He looked tired and drawn, the tightly clenched jawline a telltale sign of having to manage internal levels of anxiety and stress. At one point, he was walking with a limp. No explanation was given, but it was clear the pressures of his role were taking their toll.

We could see the strain, the disappointment and the hurt when, despite his best efforts to promote the school, applications for Year 7 fell below expectations. And then the seeming futility of it all when Ofsted still rated Marlwood inadequate.

Understanding the support needs of headteachers

What became increasingly evident to me (and it is something that I have believed for a long while now) is that the system does not have an accurate understanding of the full support needs of heads. We could see the emotional and psychological toll the role was having on James, yet nothing was offered as support for him or any of the other heads who were featured.

They're still expected to care for the wellbeing and mental health of others, but with no due regard to their own. What is clear is that while expectations of our headteachers are growing exponentially, the care, support and integrity with which they are treated is sadly lacking.

What our education system needs is a more compassionate approach to support the recruitment and retention of our headteachers. Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects. Headteachers, it is blatantly obvious from this documentary, need something similar.

In education, it's as though we've become, as some authors have noted, “hooked on the notion that commitment and activity are inseparable”.

A point has to be reached where commitment and activity can be separated. Constant activity simply sends the body into overdrive, and with it a reduction of the mental and emotional faculties that leaders need to be able to deliver effectively on their commitments.

Loss of self-worth

The impact of stress on our school leaders, when evidenced by a prolonged leave of absence or early exit, can lead to a loss of self-worth, a decreased sense of personal dignity and their school’s promise left unfulfilled. James left early, but he seems to be doing OK now. He has set up his own education consultancy and still wants to make a difference to the lives of young people. It could be argued that, in this respect, he is one of the more fortunate ones. There are many, like James, who gave their all, exited early, but have not forged a new career in education. Instead, they've disappeared from the profession, for good. 

To this end, priority must be given to integrating more personalised support systems for heads into school-improvement initiatives. It is a false economy to think money is saved by not investing in their needs. Year upon year, the system spends extortionate amounts of money covering headteacher absences due to ill health or recruiting new heads because others have decided to leave. Money could be saved simply by attending to their basic human needs. 

School not only showed us the reality of life in schools today, but also provided incontrovertible evidence that our schools and their leaders very often lack the type of humane support that is needed for them to truly succeed. If we accept that headteachers set the tone for the culture of their schools, then we have to accept that it is their emotional needs that must be met if they are to fulfil their potential and meet society’s hopes and expectations for our children. 

Viv Grant is a former headteacher and is currently director of Integrity Coaching

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