‘Too often, hierarchical power is used in schools to belittle colleagues to a point where they have no choice but to leave’

We need to create schools where teamwork is key, where staff are nurtured, where teachers and pupils feel part of one common endeavour. It doesn’t happen often enough, writes one celebrated head

Colin Harris

News article image

As teachers and educationists, it can sometimes feel like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders. Too often, it can also feel like the schools sector has been forced into a defensive position, attacked by Ofsted and the media almost as entertainment.

Even worse is when one element of the overall school unit that comes under fire, be it a an individual teacher, a subject area, a senior management team or the headteacher.

I believe that this is flawed. To be regarded as successful, using whatever measure you choose, you must always start by looking at this team in its totality. Is the team a cohesive one, working as a unit? Does it show mutual respect, because undoubtedly this is what makes a successful school?

And yet we spend so little time in making this team work.

For every one of my 25 years as a head, my focal point for the year has always been our teambuilding day. This is not because all teachers need a good 'jolly', although this is a good enough reason – no, it's because it is a vital underrated idea that is too often lost in our pressure cooker schools.

Establishing and maintaining a team is often ignored and there is little appreciation on how to mould one, how it nurture it and how ultimately it improves results. On these teambuilding days, we have built rafts, climbed ropes, chased each other through darkened tunnels, daubed a medieval house with cow dung and even had our own version of Strictly Come Dancing. There's always good food and plenty of laughter. Through a positive approach, staff forge the relationships that enable them to be part of the school team and, consequently, they do more for it.

The day is seen as important, if not more important, as any other training day. But below the surface, if you go searching for it, you’ll find an even more significant reason for making sure it happens every year.

The approach can create an ethos, and this should permeate every single part of the school. Staff members should see themselves as vital members of the team, and never feel insignificant, or that their efforts are anything less than essential.  

And this is key. By involving all staff, there must be some attempt to eradicate something that I see in way too many schools: the need to enforce hierarchy. All too often, this 'power' is used to belittle colleagues to a point where they offer nothing to the school, and so often leave it.

We must also see that children are central in this approach. They must feel that their role in the school is important and that they are not some kind of cannon fodder. Therefore, they need to be talked to, they need to be listened to and they need to realise that the whole school practices what it preaches.

I would go further and argue that this philosophy even applies to the school's parents: they too must feel valued.

What we are trying to create is a framework for the organisation to function as a team, one that staff, children, parents and governors sign up to.

As an establishment, this is what we aspire to. That this ethos should permeate every part and every individual in the building. We want a school not based on hierarchy, but on mutual respect.

This didn’t happen overnight, but over the years all members have recognised that corporate strength is greater than working as individuals. And so our school ethos was built.

Visitors now remark the interpersonal relationships, on the quality of behaviour, on the positive attitude of the learners and the on sheer happiness of the establishment. The question always asked is this: “Can it be replicated?”

While the personalities cannot, so much else can. All staff, children, parents and governors need to feel valued and feel that they have a part to play in the development of the school. Mutual respect must be the core of the establishment, and everyone must ensure they talk to each other.

Sir Michael Wilshaw once famously said: “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’, you will know you are doing something right.” I’m not sure I know where to start when trying to describe how wrong he was.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Colin Harris

Colin Harris

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsted reports were “outstanding” across all categories.

Latest stories