Many years ago I was asked by the teachers’ union NASUWT to conduct a national study on teacher stress, given the high numbers leaving from burnout. At that time, like now, schools were political footballs, where successive governments would introduce major disruptive change, sometimes just for the sake of it.
Today we still have governments imposing their political philosophy on education and tinkering with the structure and curriculum of schools. In a parliamentary democracy, where education is primarily state funded, that is unlikely ever to end – even with the ideal academy-type structure. So how can schools perform effectively under huge pressure from central and local government, parents and the community? How do we create high-performing workplaces?
School leaders are part of the solution to helping schools face the challenges of fewer resources (both financially and in terms of staff) and more students than ever before, along with increasing expectations from parents. We need passionate and highly motivated headteachers, who manage staff by praise and reward and who have the social and interpersonal skills to recognise when staff are not coping or need support.
Those heads who manage by “command and control” or bullying damage teachers’ health, morale and – most importantly in this context – performance. In a major national study I carried out with a colleague from Manchester University on bullying at work, we found that healthcare workers and teachers were among the professions where a bullying management style was most prevalent. This led to increased sickness absence, poorer mental health, and poorer performance among the bullied – and even among professionals who weren’t being bullied but who worked in an intimidating culture (a form of secondary bullying).
On a school level, this means leaders being positive about the challenges they face, rather than blaming the government or any other obstacles in their way. There are, of course, various ways in which school leaders and unions can influence political decisions, and they will and should continue to do this to help create the right environment in which to educate our children. Nevertheless, immediate problems in schools require immediate positive solutions.
We need leaders who can create a “can do” culture and engage teachers, students and parents alike in the challenges that confront schools. Leadership in challenging situations is about getting all the stakeholders to work together in difficult times and engaging them to find solutions to problems, whether human, financial or educational. As Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu once wrote: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, people will say ‘we did it ourselves’.”
This approach will also help school leaders manage change and get teachers, parents and even pupils engaged in the process. This is fundamental to transform cultures or cope with changes imposed by government.
Creating a high-performing school without staff being overstretched is a balancing act. The way forward is for headteachers to involve staff, from initial discussions of options for change through to decision making. If teachers are not involved in decisions, they will not fully implement the changes, disengage or find another job where their opinions and input are valued.
Although heads and other senior staff get some management training, they seldom receive comprehensive development programme incorporating different approaches to managing change.
To create high-performing schools with an effective wellbeing culture requires school leaders to be socially and interpersonally skilled, to engage their staff, pupils and parents, to manage change effectively and to be passionate, proactive and positive.
Quick tips for headteachers and senior leaders
- Engage and listen to all your staff on important school matters.
- Manage people by praise and reward and not fault-finding.
- Create a can-do (rather than a “can’t or too-hard-to-do”) culture.
- Spread responsibility and delegate to all.
- Celebrate success and support people during difficult times.
- Create fun when you can.
Professor Sir Cary Cooper is a professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, and president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel (CIPD).