Worklife Support

Creating an effective and engaged workforce in schools and charities

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Leadership crisis in our schools.

Travelling to a Headspace session I was struck by the difference in the experience of travelling first class rather than standard.

First class I hear you say? Who can afford to travel first class? Well, not I.  It has more to do with the lunacies of our rail system where it is actually cheaper to travel first class on 2 single tickets than to buy a Standard return. I am not complaining…I like first class. I like free wifi, I like the free breakfast, the comfy seats, the haven of peace and quiet and the cheery staff who call you Madam and give you free tea and snacks from the trolley.

I suppose the thing I like best though is finding that elusive sense of well-being that comes from being treated well.

Worklife Support specialises in well-being. It is what we do. Today I am heading to a ‌Headspace session where we will talk about the  day to day experiences and challenges  our Headteachers are experiencing. I am not sure that the well-being word will be uppermost in their minds. Or at least not their own well-being. They may be concerned by the well-being of their pupils, their staff, their own families but not themselves. 

The Headteachers I meet through the Headspace programme are truly an extraordinary group of people. Incredibly dedicated, hard-working, committed and driven by an innate moral purpose which is focused on providing the best possible education for their pupils. This comes at a cost though. Primary heads are exhausted, over stretched and over whelmed by demands being made on them. Too many of them are battling with a tussle between their core values and immense pressure to be compliant. They are being squeezed between Ofsted and a data driven Standards agenda and a staff body who are demoralised, angry and equally over stretched.

There is an almost palpable sense of fear out there. It seems that  you are only as good as your last set of data. The football manager analogy doesn’t quote ring true either. Football managers whose teams lose a few matches and who are then unceremoniously sacked leave with generous pay-offs and then tend to bounce from club to club to club.  For Heads one strike and you are out.

A leaked report from Kent CC states that if a school is put in a category the Headteacher will be put on “gardening leave”  if they have been in post for 2 years or more.  I suspect that such an approach is not unique to Kent.  Headteachers are dedicated people but not superhuman.  The stakes involved in taking on a primary Headship in particular are becoming dangerously high and  the odds simply not good enough to risk it. Is there any wonder that there is a shortage of Headteachers?  How many schools are there which do not have substantive heads in post?  How many schools where no suitable candidates can be found to be short listed? How many Deputy Heads who look at their Heads and think, no thanks?

Without dedicated, confident and motivated leaders in place our schools cannot thrive. And if our schools don’t thrive the consequences will be felt by all of us.



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If you don’t feed the teachers they will eat the children.

This splendidly titled book is currently out of print so I have no idea what is actually in it but it is such a great title that it has inspired a few thoughts. 

Are the teachers likely to be eying up the children as a tasty snack?  I don’t think they are hungry perforce but perhaps feeling wild enough to turn to cannibalism. And what is driving them wild? Perhaps it is the latest workload survey informing us that teachers are suffering from what might be described politely as “work overload” with primary school teachers working 10 additional hours a week than they were in 2010 (up to 60 hours a week) and their secondary colleagues faring little better at 56 hours per week.  I thought it might be interesting to speculate on what might stop the teachers eating not only the children but the parents, the Governors, the headteacher, Mr Gove, Ofsted and probably their own families and friends.

If they had less work to do might they feel less savage? Possibly but reducing workload is not within most schools’ gift. After all the children still need teaching, the books need marking, the lessons need planning, the parents need to know what is occurring, clubs need to be run…and then there is that elusive stuff that always needs to be completed.

Perhaps more pay might be the answer but that too is not easily within the schools’ control. Budgets are tight, the pay structure quite rigid.

So what might prevent teachers from whetting their knives and licking their lips?

Perhaps we could try treating them with dignity and respect? Try attending to their wellbeing and engaging them effectively in decision making and planning? By acknowledging achievements and recognising effort? By supporting staff through difficult times rather than punishing them? By regarding every member of staff as part of a valued team? By bringing in high class CPD that might give everyone a chance to consider different ways of working by managing energy levels not only by managing time? By actively engaging everyone in a conversation about what they are doing; why they are doing it and could they be doing it differently?

A good starting point might be to actually ask staff what might make them feel more engaged (and less hungry). Using a comprehensive and inclusive survey tool such as the Staff Engagement survey from Worklife Support offers a chance for everyone to have that conversation.

Evidence from the Worklife Support Staff engagement survey indicates that where staff feel engaged in the process of change, where communication is robust and relationships good the perception of manageability of workload is enhanced. While workload is always going to be an issue for teachers it is clear that when they feel in control and engaged in the work they are doing the hours spent on that work will be more effective and more meaningful.

And that should keep the wolves from the door!

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Without a boundary it is easy to be oppressed by guilt, for enough is never enough.

Without a boundary it is easy to be oppressed by guilt, for enough is never enough…

This line taken from Charles Handy’s  classic book The Empty Raincoat seems to encapsulate one of the key issues of the unsustainable working hours that so many teachers and Headteachers are struggling with.

I  like the Inverted doughnut (or donut) principle that Handy identifies. It seems to chime with a lot of what I have heard recently about the excessively long working hours that many of  the Headteachers we work with put in.  Worklife Support has evidence from its extensive database collated from thousands of  surveys completed by thousands of school staff over the last 10 years which indicates that teachers feel  chronically over worked. The latest Working hours survey only serves to confirm what we already knew.

The Inverted Doughnut principle takes a classic American donut (sic) with a hole where in the UK we would have jam. The hole is replaced by dough and the outer ring is replaced by space BUT with a boundary round it. 

However I think the rubber ring metaphor works just as well, if not better. The space in the middle is the core of what we do. The inflated ring is the Potential zone and the beautiful blue water represents the rest of our lives which is not Work.


Worklife Support

The  Core is  the day to day essentials of the job: the teaching, the planning, the assessments, the behaviour management, the talking to parents etc etc; the bits which if not done will cause you grief.

The inflated ring around the core  is the Potential. The Potential is the rest of the job which is not prescribed but which might be described as the bit which stops you drowning. Creativity, reflection, the time for crafting and communicating the vision, networking, researching, reading, exploring and experimenting. The joy and the meaning of it all.

If the lifesaving ring is ignored, the job and the worker will flounder, treading water desperately struggling to keep afloat until the lifeboat of the holidays comes along.

The risks inherent in working in education are that more and more is crammed into the core. A recent blog by executiveht @leadinglearner writes compellingly of what is happening to the core of the English curriculum : “ We cram everything we can into the curriculum and end up with something a mile wide and inch deep.”

When the work at the core of the rubber ring appears to be infinite, then the sense that  “nothing is ever enough” is created. The only way to manage this is to impose  boundaries.  But the actual delineation of the boundary  can only be imposed  by the individual.  Know what is “essential” and recognise the boundary. There will be times when that is enough. Step away from the boundary. Leave it behind. Just tread water. 

But there will be times when you have the resilience and the capacity  to explore the Potential zone. The life-saving Potential zone.

And this is where  the passion and the curiosity lurk. The dreaming, the envisioning, the reflecting . On the good days aim to  spend time in the Potential zone – you will emerge energised with the passion for the job reaffirmed.

And the water in which you float? That is  the rest of your life. Stretches out all around as far as the eye can see.

And how would that look if the boundaries were in place?


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What makes great school leadership?

Some interesting thoughts here – something to discuss with Headteachers on our Headspace programmes

Pragmatic Education

Great leadership improves the ethos, culture and systems of the school


Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.

William Ernest Henley, Invictus, 1875


1995 Rugby World Cup, South Africa 

‘We weren’t the most talented, but we had the most grit, determination, team spirit, fitness, and support.’ Francois Pienaar, South African captain.


MANDELA: Tell me, Francois, what is your philosophy on leadership? How do you inspire your team to do their best?

PIENAAR: By example. I’ve always thought to lead by example, sir.

MANDELA: That is right. That is exactly right. But how to get them to be better than they think they can be? Inspiration perhaps. How do we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing less will do? How do we inspire everyone around…

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Staff matters …supporting our future

Why School Support Staff matter!

“Thanks to the work of dedicated teachers and outstanding headteachers up and down the country, England’s school system is making some genuine and radical advances. It means that thousands more children are getting at least a good standard of education. I am delighted to be able to come here and deliver the good news.’”

Michael Wilshaw’s comments made on 9th September 2013 recognise the immense dedication and hard work put in by thousands of education professionals across the country. However while he singles out teachers and Heads for praise he doesn’t mention the thousands of equally dedicated support staff members, both in and out of the classroom who play an equally relevant part in the lives of pupils in our schools.

Through data gathered from 3000+  schools by Worklife Support for the Staff Engagement survey  it is apparent that this, at times unsung, group of staff are every bit as dedicated to the schools they work in as are the teachers and the Senior leadership.

Support staff report that they universally agree or strongly agree with the statement “I enjoy my job immensely” (4.15 on the  5 point Likert scale : Strongly disagree (1) to Strongly agree (5).) They agree with equal unanimity with the statement: “I feel that I am doing a good job (4.3) and also have a strong sense that they are well trained and have an appropriate level of skill to do their jobs well (4.0) .

So is everything in the garden of Support staff coming up roses? Well, while they are very positive about many aspects of their work there is one area where Support staff feel less engaged. And this is around the issue of communication and involvement with the process of change. Those working in a support role in the classroom are least likely to feel consulted over decisions that will affect them (3.0)

So does this matter? Support staff love their jobs, they feel proud of what they are achieving so why should we be  concerned about their levels of engagement over change?

Perhaps because of  stories like this  from a Learning Support Assistant in London: “I have worked in my school for nearly 5 years and they are brilliant at keeping everyone informed about what is going on. For example the Head told us at the end of one  summer term that she wanted to re-organise the way the teachers planned Y6 classes. She knew that the LSA’s who worked in KS2 had done work on planning as part of a recent training module. In fact our ideas were more up to date than the class teachers. So during INSET at the beginning of term we were invited to lead a planning session not just for our school but for the cluster. This year we were invited back to take part in a second session and to see how the ideas we had discussed the previous year had developed. We know at our school that all staff are equally valued and we all get involved in discussions at every level.”

No surprises then  that this is a school which  records  high levels of staff engagement in the annual Worklife Support  Staff Engagement survey.  And surely it makes sense that an engaged staff are more likely to be an effective staff? And that means all staff!