Updated: Aug 27
I am a school improvement consultant who works exclusively with independent schools. Not independent schools like Eton College, but non-association independent schools. These schools tend to be small to medium in size who:
admit pupils by referral from the Local Authority or from other schools for SEND or Alternative Provision;
provide education for pupils in residential care homes and hospitals;
provide education for pupils of a specific religion, from a specific country, or who speak a specific language;
offer a specialist curriculum like the Montessori schools.
In short, the majority of schools I work with provide an education to the most vulnerable, disadvantaged, and troubled students. Most of them admit pupils by referral.
Pupils are referred to these schools at various stages of their journey, usually in the middle of key stages. In other words, pupils rarely get to spend the full seven years of primary or secondary education at these schools. As a result, they’re the ones in the most need of care and support.
For this reason, the schools I work with also tend to have relatively large bodies of support and specialist staff, just enough teaching staff (sometimes not enough) and very small leadership teams. Unless they are part of a group of schools, they rarely have any middle leadership. And the senior leadership is usually composed of a few people: a Headteacher, Deputy and maybe the Proprietor.
Because of this structure, the leaders of non-association independent schools end up spending almost all of their time working in the school and very little time working on the school. Having said this, I don’t imagine that this problem is unique to non-association independent schools.
Working IN School
So, what exactly do school leaders do when they are working in the school?
Headteachers and their deputies, for example, might spend significantly more time than usual on teaching. They do this, not simply because they're passionate about their specialist subject and want to keep their practice fresh, but because there may not be enough qualified teaching staff at the school. And so, they have to do it. Likewise, it might be because there are just enough teachers, if one is absent, they have to cover.
Where the school has no middle leaders, senior leaders may have to take on multiple responsibilities. Under these circumstances, it’s not uncommon for one person to be the designated safeguarding lead, SENCo, and designated teacher for looked after children. Add to this the roles of exams officer, fire marshall, first aider, and single point of contact for radicalisation (SPOC) and you have a plate-spinning, knife-juggling, unicycle-riding, one-man-circus-act.
Ok. Maybe not. But hyperbole aside, I’m sure you get what I mean.
Furthermore, school leaders also tend to spend a great deal of time dealing with unplanned issues that pop-up daily. Issues as diverse as dealing with critical incidents, extreme behaviour issues, un-planned meetings, visitors and parents. I am not saying they shouldn’t do this. I’m just highlighting their plight. If they are the only leaders in the school, a combination of all of these tasks means that they will spend every hour of the school day working in the school.
When Can I Work on the School?
With hours fast running out during the course of a day, school leaders find themselves constantly playing catch-up. There’s hardly any time to monitor the provision, let alone coordinate self-evaluation, lead on improvement planning, ensure that improvement plans are implemented and that their impact is monitored.
Now, let’s throw in a dash of keeping up with new guidance and legislation, and a sprinkle of monitoring how well the school meets the standards. Then a pinch of analysing pupils’ progress, outcomes, and destinations. And finally, a generous helping of identifying trends from data about behaviour and critical incidents. And you have a recipe for a nervous breakdown.
Ok, that’s unfair on the many stalwarts working their socks off for their students, day in, day out. And perhaps it is a tad melodramatic. But it serves a point. School leaders struggle to find time to work on their schools.
When discussing the need to work on the school, I’m reminded of something a great leader in the training sector posted on LinkedIn recently:
“We all need to have the Microscopic and Telescopic view on everything.” ~ Safaraz (Saf) Ali
How perfect an analogy is that?
Unfortunately, most school leaders do not get to spend enough time looking at the school from the telescopic perspective because they are always in the thick of it. Working in the school. In such an environment, it’s not possible to build a system that drives school improvement.
Most senior leaders end up doing this strategic work at home in the evenings, during weekends, and sometimes during holidays.
School leaders should not have to do all their work on the school, at home.
This type of work requires considerable amounts of time, careful thought, and focused strategic planning for it to be successful and meaningful. If they have to do all of it at home then they will have no home life to speak of.
Consider the effect on their mental well-being.
In education, we initially focussed on pupils when discussing mental well-being. Now, the new inspection framework requires leaders to ensure the well-being of their staff. But who takes care of the well-being of school leaders?
Let Me Help You
It’s easy to forget school leaders when we discuss workload and well-being.
In my next blog (Woking On Your School - Part 2), I’ll be offering a range of Actionable Strategies for Working ON Your School. Make sure you check it out.