Wellbeing: mixed messages or no messages at all?

As we know, the turn-over of teachers and support staff in schools and colleges has continued to increase, as has people leaving the profession often before their careers have really begun. There is also the problem of school leaders jumping ship and fewer people wishing to step into their challenging shoes. This means that the buzz phrase ‘succession planning’ is a pipe dream for many schools, as jobs at all levels are filled by agency staff paid at a premium rate (and compounding the problem of ever-tighter school budgets).

If we do an audit trail to see where these difficulties have arisen, one can see that from the 1988 Great Education Reform Bill (Gerbil) onwards, there has been a trend to out-source finance and general accountability to schools. Although some of this has been a ‘Good Thing’ in terms of allowing school leaders more freedom from the constraints of local authorities, it has come at a price. Much of the freedom is constrained and moderated by the national accountability frameworks of Ofsted and national testing. This has meant that for many schools, the room for manoeuvre has lessened over time. Easily measurable outcomes have dominated i.e. quantitative data has been paramount, thus making a truism of the saying ‘knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing’. The curriculum is a case in point. Although the current National Curriculum has been slimmed down when compared to previous manifestations, elements in English and Maths have been more proscribed which has increased the tendency for schools to ‘teach to the test’. This goes against the government message, previously mentioned, that schools have more freedom to run as their leaders see fit. In tandem with this, performance related pay has been strongly linked to test results, which has reinforced the perceived need for leaders and teachers to value quantitative measures.

Notice that the last sentence says ‘perceived need’. In my view, the best schools have a more nuanced approach to national accountability. They are able to achieve success as easily measured and provide a broad and balanced curriculum and a happy working environment for staff. They realise that silver bullets for school improvement are at best transitory and at worst body blows to staff morale and wellbeing. Unfortunately, some school leaders make their reputations on trouble-shooting and ratcheting up attainment through the use of blunt instruments. This invariably means using performance reviews to either eject staff whose faces do not fit, or introducing a one size fits all to teaching, learning and the curriculum. Their maxims are ‘no pain, no gain’ and ‘if you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen’. These new brooms also sometimes ensure that ‘difficult’ pupils are transferred and that any dissent is seen as anarchic, rather than perhaps genuine professional dialogue.

So instead of school leaders and staff kow-towing to ‘the system’, they should look to how the system can work for them. It’s been said that the teaching profession as whole has been suffering from a collective Stockhausen Syndrome, whereby they are captives who end up joining the captors, rather than being fully fledged independent thinking professionals.

One way out of the various vicious circles described above is through looking at the working environment of the school. Is it one which encourages innovation, enthusiasm and happiness, or does it brow beat people into anxiety and torpor? As we know, fearful people’s brains do not allow them to have high level thinking or the ability to learn effectively and are also more prone to mental and physical illness. Does the school look at other types of data such as qualitative surveys of pupil’s attitude to learning or staff welfare surveys? Is there a culture where everyone feels valued, rather than over-worked and over-supervised? A related point to this is to what extent is bullying masked by the phrase ‘having high expectations’?

Some years ago a nationally known entrepreneur was asked what he felt about customer care. He said that he didn’t really think about this as he was more concerned that his staff were happy in their work and therefore the rest took care of itself.

So, let’s encourage school leaders to stop adding to life being Nasty, Brutish and Short and show how schools can be some of the best places in which to work and pursue a worthwhile career for the benefit of the next generation. Not all this can be measured, but I know that by walking around certain schools one can sense positivity and witness kindness and professional dedication not predicated on performance targets. In the same way GDP is used to measure a nation’s success whilst ignoring quality of life issues, we need to show that truly Outstanding schools are greater than the sum of their test results. The drip-fed message from school leadership must be that staff and pupil welfare matters. It isn’t just for an INSET day, it needs to be embedded in school life like a name in a stick of rock. Only then will people in schools cease to be victims of the system and instead blossom as educators and learners.

Dr David Dixon was a headteacher for over 20 years. He is now an educational leadership consultant.