‘The tyranny of stuff’

Written by: HTU | Published:

If your workload is becoming unmanageable it may be time to turn your back on some of the demands on your time – and give your team more responsibility. Nick Bannister on achieving work/life balance

Work/life balance is not an issue that gets a high media profile nowadays. It may be something to do with the gargantuan shifts that are now happening in the education system which mean that such issues get overshadowed by fundamental questions such as whether to convert your primary school to academy status.

“A few years ago there was an awful lot of talk about work/life balance,” explained Brenda Bigland, an education consultant who spent 18 years as head of Lent Rise Combined School near Slough before retiring in 2011.

“I heard of one head who had negotiated with the governing body to take the afternoon off to play golf. But rather than it being a question of getting time off, as it seemed to be back then, I think there is now a more realistic approach. It is about what heads actually do to manage their working week,” she said.

“When a head is starting in a new school they probably don’t have a manageable week. They have to make a difference. A key move must be to make sure that the culture you have created is one where you do not have to do everything yourself. If that’s happening then you’ll die on the job.”

Mark Saxby, headteacher at the 420-pupil St Luke’s Church of England primary in Bournemouth, agrees. Empowering others to take the lead on areas of leadership is a key part of his approach to headship. It means that he doesn’t wander around the school with, in his words, “a finger in every pie”. “The bigger picture is to trust staff in the rest of the school,” he said. “It’s not about off-loading responsibilities, but I trust them to carry out things and I’ll support them to do that.”

A key to balance is to focus on what matters most to your school, believes Mr Saxby. “I’ve always felt that I have been good at ignoring stuff that doesn’t resonate with our school. If it does then I will run with it. If it doesn’t I’ll ignore it and move on,” he said.

The Department for Education’s school leadership development agency, the National College for School Leadership, used the National New Heads Conference in November to restate its view that core priorities are key for heads, especially for those in the first stages of the job.

Interim chief executive Maggie Farrar told delegates that the best leaders stayed focused on their core purpose of teaching and learning, staff development, meeting parents and thinking and reflecting, asking themselves what are the one or two things that are essential to success and which only they could do. They avoided being bogged down in “the tyranny of stuff”, such as emails and bureaucratic meetings.

She said: “They work hard to set sufficient time aside for the things that make the most difference to those they serve, focusing on teaching and learning, staff development, the important strategic conversations with their business manager or deputy, meeting with parents at the gates, and importantly finding time for thinking and reflection.”

Ms Bigland says that heads cannot focus on teaching and learning if they are expected to be available throughout the school day. “When I was a head I appointed a front of house manager. She knew the school community really well and they knew her. She was available throughout the school day and parents popped in to see her. This approach took huge pressure off my shoulders. It gave parents a comfort zone, someone at the school who they knew they could get hold of. They knew that they would get a response to their questions within 24 hours. This meant that I could keep my eyes on matters like the curriculum, learning and behaviour.

“Technology also worked for me. If parents needed to get in touch with me they could by email. If they could wait for a few days to get a response directly from me then that was always an option.”

It is important that heads do not lose that personal contact with parents, Ms Bigland added. “Parents do want to see your face so you do gate duty and chat at the end of the day, but we also had parent representatives who were there to be a friend to the parents. They could explain things that would be happening. It was an infrastructure where parents could support each other.”

Small measures that seem obvious at first can make a big difference to the manageability of the role, says Mr Saxby. “In any school there are peaks in demand of a head’s time. After you have a few years of experience you get to know what those peaks are. I’m not naturally an organised person. I’m more of an intuitive, reactive person. I moved to an electronic diary so that my admin staff and my deputy can see my diary.

“I manage things by blocking off time to do things that I know I have to do at a certain time, such as performance management.

“But you must remember not to create a full diary which doesn’t give you space for the reactive stuff. If I am away from school all day I need to make sure that the next day isn’t packed with activities so that I have time to sort emails and phone calls.”Lists also help. “It’s writing down your to-do list and being realistic about what on that list you are going to achieve. When things get overwhelming I make a list,” he added.

Although managing workload is mainly about what a head does during the working day, what he or she does ‘after hours’ is just as important, says Mr Saxby.

“It’s important that I do have time when I am not thinking about school,” he added. “Going for a run didn’t help towards work/life balance because it was an opportunity for me to think about school issues. But when I started to play tennis there was a level of interactivity and engagement in competing against people that helped me switch off and think about something totally different. That made a real difference.”

• Nick Bannister is an education writer and communications consultant.

MANAGING WORKLOAD: Former headteacher Trevor Bailey offers some practical advice for headteachers on managing workload

"Look at how you use your time. This is best done over a week or so. Where did you waste time or spend time on unimportant or less important tasks or activities?

Work out which tasks and activities are absolutely essential for you to carry out, which can be delegated and which can be dropped. Create a prioritised list that you can use as a yardstick when planning and scheduling your days, weeks and terms.Put email in its place. Electronic communications are demanding and it is tempting to respond whenever the email alert sounds.

Have your PA filter your email, if appropriate, and only access your email a limited number of times throughout the day. Make sure your PA and other office staff filter telephone calls and only pass through to you those that require your attention as headteacher. Other calls should be directed to the appropriate members of staff.

Structure internal meetings carefully. Make sure there is an agenda. It’s a good idea to plan the time to be spent on each item. Meetings should have a time limit. Prioritise which meetings you will attend and those that can be covered by a representative. Be prepared to ask those wanting you to leave school for meetings what value there will be for the children in your school. If you see no benefit, do not go!

Delegate where you can. This will lighten your workload and you will give senior colleagues valuable professional development. Don’t spend time on tasks that your admin team should be doing for you. If possible, make sure your staff direct parents and others asking to meet with you towards the appropriate staff member.

Make time for talk. Time spent talking informally with staff and students is not time wasted – but make sure it is structured into your schedule and avoid time wasting conversations.

Learn how to say no. You may be asked to become involved in a range of worthwhile activities outside of the school. You can’t do everything so be selective and prioritise your school.

If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed with your work, health or relationships suffering, do seek help. You have options with this:

• Contact your professional association.

• Contact the Teacher Support Network which operates a confidential support service including coaching and counselling: www.teachersupport.info

• Talk with a trusted colleague in another school or network.

• Contact your local headteacher support advisor if your local authority provides such a confidential service.

• Visit your GP.

• As featured in The Key, a question answering service for school leaders. Visit www.usethekey.co.uk

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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