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Work-life balance: how we achieve it

woman-balancing-scales-824richard-northover-finalRichard Northover, Deputy Head, Holland Park School, shows “enjoyment and easefulness” help create an outstanding school…

“There is no such thing as work-life balance. Everything worth fighting for unbalances your life.”
Alain de Botton

Holland Park School from something of a nadir in 2000 has risen to be in the first league: twice Ofsted outstanding and in The Good Schools Guide. You might be right to think that, at least for some, work-life balance was not at the fore: but work-life balance is the contemporary mantra to which we must respond.

As one of the school’s deputy heads and a young father of twin girls aged three, I have worked through my issues of work-life balance at first hand.

At this school we take our responsibility to this issue seriously; we believe that colleagues should create their own balance. We have breakfast available for £1, and free refreshments served throughout the day: for us, it contributes towards creating a civilised ease for colleagues. These refreshments do not necessarily remove workload, but they are an expression of our recognition of a need to care – which, for us, is at the heart of the matter.

Everyone has to find their own work-life balance

Work-life balance has at its core enjoyment and easefulness; these help people to meet the inescapable challenges of working in a school. Why do we think that each colleague has to find their own balance? Such balance varies as one progresses through one’s career, and may change over the course of a working year as well as a working life. Across the span of a year there are likely be moments when one is able to offer more, and others when we must stop and take stock. In a long career there will be time for ambition but there will also be time for consolidation to solidify practice and enjoy being at the apogee of one’s performance.

Work-life balance is not simply reflected by the number of hours worked versus ‘down time’: some rest arises from fulfilment. Those who are most effective in finding balance establish personal patterns to their commitment and build in some elasticity. They also manage their own commitment vigilantly, endeavouring to give their wider lives due attention – over a period of years, not just weeks or days.

In a recent staff development forum, two colleagues described very different approaches to managing their balance, and were grateful to the school for allowing them to secure such individualism. One colleague preferred to arrive in school exceptionally early (c.05.30) but to leave close to the end of the school day having accomplished all that was required to make his students successful. The other colleague preferred to arrive at 07.45 and leave close to the end of the day, but with a set of books in her bag to take home for marking. Both colleagues secure exceptional results for students despite, or because of, their different patterns of work.

A multi-purpose staff planner

Doubtless every school has its own version of a staff planner: our document has impressed Ofsted, Investors in People and The Good Schools Guide with its helpful detail. It has been much admired and widely purloined. What makes it so different? Like most ‘planners’, it contains details of all the school’s calendared events, deadlines, meetings and activities. But it is also, most importantly, a comprehensive guide to being a member of staff at Holland Park School. Want to know where to be and what to do or how to do it here? It’s likely to be in the staff planner. It provides colleagues with a detailed point of reference for everything that they need to do about how to be and what to do in our school.

All papers which one might need to print during the course of a year are contained within it. No sudden initiatives. It is all encompassing. This publication is much more than simply a calendar for the year, it empowers colleagues to plan their working world by placing them in control so that they are not stressed by the unexpected. The staff planner is steeped in the school’s ethos, so there is little or no need to guess what leaders are looking for in colleagues.

All papers which one might need to print during the course of a year are contained within [the staff planner]. No sudden initiatives. It is all encompassing. This publication is much more than simply a calendar for the year, it empowers colleagues to plan their working world by placing them in control so that they are not stressed by the unexpected

While the staff planner is a cornerstone and the backdrop of our contribution to work-life balance, the organisation of staff development time is also crucial: the only scheduled meeting time is for two hours a week. This leaves colleagues able to plan the rest of the week after 2.50pm entirely around their needs. The regularity of the time also supports colleagues in establishing a pattern to their week, which helps them to achieve balance.

The school operates an exceptionally tidy environment, as we believe tidy and ordered spaces confer solidity, security and a sense of control. This sense of being in control is much promoted throughout the institution: establish a schedule, institute a pattern and commit to its successful function.

Guarding people’s time

How else do we seek to guard people’s time? Teachers are not required to be in school on consecutive balmy June evenings or cold February nights undertaking parent evenings. These are carefully scheduled to take place during working hours throughout the year – and yes, there are more refreshments.

There are no specially scheduled performance management observations during the year. We undertake this as a matter of our day-to-day work, so colleagues do not feel pressured at specific points. And the head and leaders are observed too, sharing their practice more than anyone else.

There are no specially scheduled performance management observations during the year. We undertake this as a matter of our day-to-day work, so colleagues do not feel pressured at specific points

We operate a restricted email policy which means that colleagues do not face emails making requests of them. Our contribution to work-life balance here is: go and speak to people. Be human, be kind. Do not pressure them by email.

Some final examples: an open-door policy for classrooms during lessons; PSHCE planning and resourcing written by one colleague for all teachers to deliver; personal planning and marking schedules; opportunities to observe other teachers. These all ensure that our colleagues can focus on the centrality of their work: plan; teach; mark and be successful.


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One thought on “Work-life balance: how we achieve it

  1. MisterB on said:

    I can’t help but read this as a form of ‘abdication’ rather than leadership. Of course the number of hours a teacher needs to work impacts upon work-life balance, and of course the actions of a headteacher affect this more than any other person. It’s simply avoiding responsibility to say ‘it’s up to the staff to sort that out’ but hey, we provide you with free tea & coffee, so we really care…honestly – I wonder how many of this headteachers staff actually believe what he says, and how many are simply frightened to speak out!

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