It’s half term and I’m off on my hols again, desperate to grab some sunshine and wind down for a week so that I can approach November feeling fully refreshed and with the gusto I expect from myself. I don’t find this difficult, I love my job and feel as though I’m working for a purpose under a headteacher I admire and respect. I am also very fortunate to shoehorn a break away at every opportunity, I’m truly blessed.
Our holidays are generally done on a bit of a shoestring budget so we fly with budget airlines. In the UK our cheap and cheerful companies offer low-cost flights, often coupled with below par service with the attitude it’s cheap so what do you expect? Yesterday as we queued for a flight that had been delayed by two hours there was the usual frenzy of passengers trying to stuff their handbags into their hand luggage to follow the strict one piece of hand luggage per customer rule. There was no compromise on this restriction on the airline’s behalf despite the delay. No admission of their failings along the way and no understanding of individual circumstances of their customers, just adherence to policy. Watching the chaos created by a lack of consideration and a willing acceptance from its customers, I began to think about some schools and the teachers within them.
“That’s just the way it is. You triple mark because that’s the school policy.” A friend of mine conceded. “The children from around this area have it difficult so they are going to behave badly, the headteacher has told us that we can’t expect anything else.” Was the acceptance from a colleague in a school in one of the most deprived areas of the North West. She’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever watched and sadly is considering leaving the profession because she is so exhausted with the workload and the demands of continual challenging behaviour from her students. What is clear is that staff don’t question the headteacher or the SLT, similarly they don’t debate the purpose or benefit to what they do, they just accept it. A large number of teachers do not know any different than what they are told and although the direction of travel feels wrong, they are too afraid to question it much like the customers on the budget airline.
This is why it is so important to cultivate headteachers with integrity and ones who are brave enough to question what they read and what they are told. It’s refreshing to see that more figureheads like Jill Berry, Mary Myatt and John Tomsett are prominent in delivering this message to school leaders. They encourage us to be stoic and nurture brave senior leadership teams by reminding them that they are not alone. John, in the way he leads his school, Mary and Jill in their writing from experience, all send a powerful message that it is ok to question oneself as well as others. Mary, through her brilliant book High Challenge, Low Threat (a must read available here) delivers a mantra of actively seeking advice and being receptive to feedback whilst encouraging a culture of evidence based practice rather than a data driven environment. Jill in her many brilliant blogs and forthcoming book Making the Leap acknowledges the importance of listening to middle leaders and of senior leadership teams who create a culture of champions and challengers. Unfortunately, some SLTs have not heard or listened to the messages that these great leaders convey. This is when a culture of ignorance and fear prevail.
Going back to economy airlines. We flew with a Scandinavian budget company a few years ago. The flight was cheaper than its UK equivalent yet the service was so much better. No frantic squeezing of handbags into holdalls, free food and beverages and a focus on what the airline could do to make their customers happier. They still operated on the “budget” model but a positive experience and customer satisfaction outweighed the desire to create more profit. If I had never experienced this company I’d probably never question the service that we accept from our budget UK equivalent. Pretty much like if I had never experienced the spectrum of schools out there I wouldn’t question triple marking or perhaps I’d accept poor behaviour.
Less than a mile from the school where triple marking is king and where poor behaviour is the norm, is a school in a much more deprived area of the same borough. This school has a greater number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds so you’d expect behaviour and conditions to be far worse. Surprisingly they’re not. They’re actually a world away from those accepted by their neighbouring school. The difference? The headteacher. She refuses to accept that poor behaviour is ok as she wants the best for her students and staff, she knows that the only way to do this is by changing a culture, by exposing them to the opportunity of what could be. This headteacher is not afraid to make difficult decisions, to challenge or raise the bar but everything is done at the right time, with the right people for the right reasons. Actively, she encourages feedback from staff and students, she welcomes personal challenge and debate and she always puts her community first. Every decision is driven by the community which the school serves and her staff play a huge part in influencing this. The result, sustainable improvement, happy students and staff and a school with an identity which they are proud of. Headteachers have a choice where to put their energies, whether that be into squeezing every ounce of energy out of staff through ridiculous policies and systems or by putting them at the heart of the school and recognising their expertise. Even in similar contexts with very similar settings, the outcomes can be completely different as a result of the way in which the school is led. I count my blessings every day to work in a school which is led well where staff and students are happy and as a result of which they work hard and generally do well. Equally, it is important that teachers in schools which make unreasonable demands question the procedures and ethos within or at least try another environment before they accept this as the norm or become disillusioned with the profession. For those headteachers reading this, we’re all working on a very tight budget in the state sector so it’s for you to decide whether to implement systems which create compliance but don’t actually achieve anything or whether you want to develop a staff body who are empowered and wake up wanting to hop on board.