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  • Writer's pictureKeven Bartle

The Challenges of our Time: Why School Leadership is Hard

In 'Supervision and the Helping Professions', Peter Hawkins and Aisling McMahon neatly summarise what they call "the challenges of our time".

The helping professions are now in a world where there is more demand, with greater expectations of quality of help and fewer resources at a time when the world is inevitably more volatile, disturbed and interconnected.

Without explicitly using the word, this seems to me like a pretty good definition of the increased complexity of the work done by school leaders. One doesn't have to look too far to find evidence of how these four facets of contemporary challenge manifest themselves in schools. Most recently, the focus for attention within the media and political classes has been around pupil attendance and this provides a good test for the statement above.

The increased demand is manifested in the more than doubling since 2019 of the numbers of pupils who are persistently absent. School leaders cannot - for a whole host of reasons, the most important of which are moral ones - ignore this challenge for students missing at least a half-day of school per week. The greater expectations are represented by the fact that there has been an effective re-writing of the home-school social contract since the pandemic: families increasingly want to know how school will meet the needs of their children so that they attend. Pull factors have seemingly become more important than push factors when it comes to pupil attendance. Schools are working with fewer resources not only in the sense of a real-terms funding squeeze, but also through the dwindling of external sources of support such as social services, local authority attendance officers, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), and even basic access to doctors and dentists. These factors, as well as providing a more volatile, disturbed environment in which to meet the needs and expectations, is also reflective of such a world: quite simply put, some pupils and parents no longer see the importance of daily attendance.

But while pupil attendance may be the flavour of the month for commentators, this is only one of a series of challenges that reflect how demand, expectation, lack of resource and volatility, have changed the fabric of school leadership in recent times. Managing in education has always been a complex business (that is a significant part of the attraction for school staff) but the trade-off between the reward of taking on such a complex role, and the risks to self in doing so, has tipped and now feels distinctly imbalanced.

It is tempting to see how such challenges of our times fall squarely upon those with the most visible pastoral responsibility for children and adults within schools: Headteachers, Designated Safeguarding Leads, SENDCOs, Year Team Leaders, and so on. And indeed it is certainly the case that the lack of wider resourcing for children and young people, and their families, is most likely to manifest itself at a traumatic level for leaders who have taken on those roles in schools.

But, to continue around the specific challenge of attendance in an era where the 'quality of education' is the most privileged aspect of a school's success, the burden falls on leaders and non-leaders across the sector. To give just two examples:

  • Where one in five students are regularly absent, what price the wellbeing of the classroom teacher? Their primary aim is to ensure all students are learning the carefully-sequenced subject matter but each day sees some students returning unaware of what has gone before, whilst a new group are missing for the vital knowledge about to be imparted.

  • How can we provide appropriate support to the attendance officer faced with a lengthy list of first-day absence calls? These often involve very difficult conversations with parents who may be at their wit's end with their children but, at the same time, fed up with the perceived haranguing by the school.

I like to believe, and almost thirty years in schools have yet to deter me from this view, that the vast majority of those who work in education have a natural disposition to meet the combined pastoral-academic needs of children. Sometimes the emphasis on this differs: some think that the best way to pastoral wellbeing is through the academic, and others think that pastoral support is most likely to beget academic success. There is a tension in this balancing act - as can often be witnessed on social media - and this can present as intolerance. But, despite this, almost everyone in schools still believes that their approach represents the best way to a common goal: children who are well-educated and cared for.

It is this insistence that children have their pastoral and academic needs met by school - the moral imperative of our profession - that means that school leaders and staff do not and will not baulk at the challenges of our times. Although the demand and expectations have increased whilst the resources and stability needed to meet them have decreased, school staff will continue to shoulder the burden.

Until they can no longer do so!

And that is perhaps the most important challenge of our time: the retention of staff who, according to the Teacher Wellbeing Index 2023 (and a host of other reports), are more than ever at risk of burnout. Like all of the other challenges schools have to face, this one is complex and subject to the same problems identified by Hawkins and McMahon. But it is the most important challenge because without meeting the needs of staff in order to avoid their burning out, schools are likely to lose those staff who are their most vital resource.

That is why Mind Your Head exists: to provide schools with help to support and sustain staff through reflective supervision. This could be at an individual level for key post-holders, through the provision of peer support within or across teams, or by helping schools offer reflective supervision for all staff, or all who see the value in it.

Of course, schools will have their own offer for their staff, usually in the form of line management and appraisal or through access to counselling services. These are important measures and, when done well, play an important role. But appraisal processes are ultimately driven by organisational needs and counselling is usually responsive, coming after the wellbeing horse has bolted (Boxer from Animal Farm comes to mind with his mantra of "I will work harder" until the knacker's yard cart comes for him). Reflective supervision aims, instead, to help maintain a proactive balance between personal wellbeing and organisational effectiveness: a real-time focus on the risks to burnout that is formative, normative and restorative for those being supported.

To finish on something more positive and avoid this post seeming like a counsel of despair (which it isn't). Recent attendance figures, from the DfE and FFT trackers published at the turn of the year, appear to show that educators, through their superhuman efforts, are beginning to turn a corner in getting more children in to school more often. For the first time since the pandemic, it is just about possible to envisage a return to the levels of pupil attendance that enable schools to work their wider pastoral-academic magic. Although staff wellbeing and retention may seem to be an intractable problem at present, with the same attention, thought and care, we can find a way to meet this challenge of our time.

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