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  • Writer's pictureKeven Bartle

Containment, Enrichment and Empowerment: What Schools Offer in Times of Uncertainty

Two weeks ago I was alerted by a friend who is a psychotherapist to an article by Jennifer Williams of the Financial Times about "One year in a struggling British state school". She knew my work as a headteacher well from our peer supervision sessions and said that the article had reminded her of the contributions that I had made to the group in our year-long encounters. Despite this, she said how shocked to the core she was by the article, which describes how schools are "battered" and "at the front line of a national crisis". I don't think she realised how typical, rather than unusual, my experiences of headship were last year. Having read the article many times now, I find myself reflecting on how little I had appreciated that my experiences have also been the experiences of others in the role.

The full article is here and I very much urge you to read it. It is lengthy, but that adds to its importance, and bleak at times. But what stands out for me is the ways in which the staff members and headteachers of the school don't allow that bleakness to deter them from their core purpose of utilising whatever resources they have (professional, financial and personal) to make a difference for the children at their school, and for each other.

I won't try to summarise everything about the article here but, in reading it, I identified 25 emerging challenges for schools reported by the journalist. All of them, bar none, resonate to a greater or lesser degree with my experience of headship in recent years.

Hunger, with students waiting until the end of lunch to ask for leftovers. Data access, with students completing homework on public transport to access free wi-fi. Attendance, with some students working to support their families. Housing, with vast increases in the number of students in temporary accommodation. Uniform, with the school spending more than twice its £3.5k hardship fund within the first term of the year. Free School Meals, with many working families in poverty unable to claim help. Budget, with school finances not keeping up with increased demands. Buildings, with faulty heating and leaks from a new-build (although, ironically, the PFI contract means the school gets additional funds for these faults). Inflation, with costs vastly exceeding the budgeted amounts. Budgeting, with no certainty from government about expected income. Cuts, to vital things like trips and textbooks. Catch up funding, with an inability to find tutors leading to clawback of the additional resources. Evictions, with the need to support distressed families. Revision, with the school funding lamps and desks for exam-year students. Safeguarding, with referrals "going through the roof". Persistent absenteeism doubling. Recruitment, which means they "might as well ask for a supermodel" as a qualified Physics teacher. Local headteachers quitting, with less seasoned support for those who remain. SEND costs, with these falling back on the school. Student mental health, with "exponential" growth in crises. Family breakdowns and domestic violence, with some victims entrapped by poverty. Low paid staff, requesting leftover food or getting paid better at ASDA. Unpaid lunch bills of £3k for the year. Increased toxicity, with student behaviour impacted by online presences. "Mission creep", with schools becoming "an emergency service".

Unsurprisingly the article, without being at all mawkish, gives some indication of the impact of these additional burdens (note, no mention of Ofsted, COVID, exam outcomes or other familiar pressure on schools which sit atop these concerns) on school staff and leaders. The headteacher's sense of "responsibility" and his "worrying" about "solving problems originating far beyond the school's grounds" are palpable, even though they are "insoluble puzzles". He has thought himself about quitting, partly because of the "emotional strain" felt by his colleagues who "want to cry sometimes". In a striking section of the article, the journalist says that his "usually composed" demeanour is altered during their discussion and "for a moment, I thought he might cry".

There are two things that strike me most about this article and both are related to the work of with our partners. The first of these is the way on which both the headteacher and other staff members appear to be holding back their tears for the sake of their students and, perhaps, each other. It makes me wonder where these unfulfilled and perfectly valid responses are going. The containers for the anxieties of students and families appear to be routinely barely contained or even uncontained. The second striking aspect of the article is the way in which the students and clients, and the work of the school, remain in the foreground in spite of the emerging and sometime overwhelming challenges. The focus for these adults is not simply about containment but, as always with schools, about the enrichment and empowerment of children and young people and their families.

Which is why, at we prioritise school improvement services alongside reflective supervision provision. Facing the additional burdens for schools reported in this excellent article, school staff and leaders may well have need of additional layers of reflective supervision that is restorative in its functions as well as formative and normative. But it may also be the case that the work of school leaders in wellbeing support for colleagues is strong and that they would prefer a focus on the core purpose of education. For these schools, it is the external scrutiny and validation through reviews, evaluations and school improvement partnership that might help them most.

And, of course, being an organisation that values both reflective supervision and school improvement processes for "supporting and sustaining school leaders", we challenge the false dichotomy, between the professional and the personal. School leadership and teaching is always both at the same time. That is why we take a relational approach to consultation and contracting processes in working with schools, finding out what they want and need. As this article shows, it is school leaders who know their context best, have their students' interests closest to heart, and can best articulate how they might benefit most from what external parties such as have to offer.

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