Julian Grant, Headteacher, Sackville School, argues that any successful community can only thrive with the open hearts and minds of its stakeholders, sharing enthusiastically in its ethos and underlying values
The most vital ingredients of successful learning are the positive engagement of all stakeholders. Even important factors such as creative initiatives, careful and robust monitoring, timely intervention and high quality continuing professional development have little effect if the community does not genuinely buy into what the school stands for. Stakeholders need to feel properly valued for their role in contributing towards the school’s success.
Leadership plays an essential role in this. Whether we like it or not, it is our clarity, our enthusiasm, our demeanour, our body language and our care that dictates everything else. The need for real consistency here is one of the greatest pressures of the role; a ‘bad day’ must be concealed by resolute cheerfulness.
Everyone wants to be valued in the workplace. This isn’t achieved by occasional thanks; its essential to have an embedded culture of all staff really believing that they have a valuable part to play. Teaching staff and their delivery in the classroom day in, day out are of course at the heart of everything. Recognising this above and beyond appraisal, promotion and pay means continually showing appreciation in less formal ways. An open-door approach, replying promptly to emails, serving at breakfast on Inset days and at staff teas and handwriting cards to show interest in both professional and personal achievements – all these help to engender a positive culture.
Being involved in the more routine aspects of a teacher’s day, for example by being on a regular duty slot, not only shows stakeholders you will do all that you ask them to do, but it is also a great chance to catch up with other teachers on duty at the same time and share their experiences of the day.
Support staff play a hugely significant part in a school’s success, whatever their post may be and whatever it might involve. How often do headteachers hold a meeting for all support staff in the school – and make sure that they are all able to attend? I’ve found that such termly meetings have made a great difference to how support staff feel they are perceived. Rather than often believing they are the last to know about decisions and developments, why shouldn’t they be the first? The input given in these meetings, together with those of the support staff focus group, are invaluable.
In most schools, a far greater proportion of support staff than teaching staff live in the local community
And they have a key strength. In most schools, a far greater proportion of support staff than teaching staff live in the local community; this should never be underestimated. The message goes out to the community far more swiftly through support staff than teachers; if they feel valued, comfortable and motivated by their working environment, then the local community is likely to feel the same about the school as a whole.
Straightforward but important gestures such as teaching staff raising a glass to support staff at the end of each term makes quite an impact. Involving support staff in interviews and selection processes is also beneficial. Ensuring that teachers respect the work that they do really matters.
Speak to every staff member
Few would not argue that the presence and visibility of the headteacher and senior staff around a school makes a difference. Planning this with some thought, to ensure that all staff are spoken with personally over a period of time is important. Remembering their children’s names, their family events, asking how they are feeling; this all counts for a lot. If people believe you are interested in them as an individual and that you care, they will give so much more in their roles.
This all sounds fairly obvious but in the fast treadmill of school life it can so easily be overlooked. Furthermore, it is a case of remembering everybody – absolutely everybody. The 6pm chat with a member of the cleaning staff is arguably as important as the morning briefing with the deputy head.
There are opportunities to celebrate the work of staff that are worth seizing. For example, Unison encourages us to celebrate ‘Stars in our schools’ on the last Friday in November and this is aimed specifically at support staff. At Sackville, we give each member of the support staff a thank you card personally signed by the headteacher with a chocolate treat; and a group photo session is held. It is very often at the busy time of mock examinations and much else, but it is prioritised nevertheless and it is appreciated.
The role of parents can never be underestimated, and communication with them via newsletters and the website counts for a lot. The website front page needs updating very regularly, so parents know what is going on and feel a real part of the school. Simplicity with clear links is vital. This has to be led and managed from the SLT, as they will know all that is happening and all that there is to celebrate, and will be in the best position to share news promptly. Publicity managers, while highly skilled, are often not in a position to do this as effectively.
Parents like to see updated photos of school life and want to know the latest thoughts of the head and senior team. The newsletter is therefore also crucial as a vehicle by which the head can share her/his thoughts and vision; and other staff in the school can share progress in areas for which they have responsibility. Of course, no one wants a boring read, so being succinct with a real focus on the students is important. A dull newsletter will not be read, no matter whether senior staff think they are successfully sharing their message.
All of this can be reinforced well by an active parents’ focus group, which can serve as a great think tank for ideas and direction. Classroom workshops for new intake parents, enabling them to directly experience their child’s learning experiences, are invaluable.
Parents’ evenings are also a wonderful time for a headteacher to communicate with large numbers of parents face to face. I have never understood the value or the point of headteachers/senior teams sitting in an office during a parents’ evening, ‘available if needed’. Walking around and taking an interest in the people upon whom the students depend most is a high priority for me. It’s not about walking about with a clipboard taking notes either; it’s about listening on a face-to-face basis. It is also a fine opportunity to catch up with teaching staff individually between appointments; not only can any difficulties be shared but also an interest is taken in their work – and yes, the headteacher should leave last!
Governors: at the heart of what we do
Finally, the governors give their time voluntarily to be critical friends of the school; they bear huge responsibility for its safety and all that is achieved. I find it important to plan carefully how they can best interact with the school community in a meaningful way that does not make unreasonable demands on their time.
Department links work well in this respect, as does having roles at school events, both informal and formal, when they are seen to be at the heart of what we do. Governors in schools will often sit in the front row at events and give much appreciated support; a less formal role of, for example, creating and serving refreshments at a school carol service is less common in the secondary sector but a very good way of parents and staff talking with them and getting to know who they are.
Any successful community can only thrive with the open hearts and minds of its stakeholders sharing enthusiastically in its ethos and underlying values. There lies the greatest challenge of any leader, but if successful, one of the greatest rewards.
Sackville School participates in the SSAT network – find out more about getting involved.