Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Looking for Equilibrium

A new ASCL book looks at work-life balance in various aspects of a school or college. This edited extract deals with the elusive work-life balance of senior leaders.

The enormous privilege of being a school or college leader all too often results in whole lives being take over by the job. The toll exerted on families, partners and the individual is tremendous and many buckle under the constant feeling that because they carry the responsibility they must always be 'on duty'.

Over recent years particularly, many have left the profession suffering from stress or simply burn out. We need to embrace our accountability in a more realistic way, bearing in mind we are mortal and need rest and relaxation as much as fulfilling work.

By changing our own attitudes to our jobs we will be able to influence our colleagues and ensure that schools and colleges are positive environments in which to work.

We need to realise that our institutions will gain from our improvement in work-life balance. As school and college leaders, we need to be ready at all times to deal with the unexpected in a calm and rational manner- this becomes difficult when tired or suffering from work overload.

All leaders could share examples of how not to do it. Here are just a few:

  • The curriculum deputy who took a large computer home every night, requiring the use of a trolley to transport it along the corridor and out to his car.

  • The head who not only attended every single school performance but made a speech at the end of each one. She obviously thought this showed appreciation but everyone else wanted to go home.

  • The deputy who wrote a paper with extensive calculations which was of no use to anyone at all. It must have taken him hours.

  • The deputy who spent the summer overseeing building work. She looked permanently exhausted for the whole of the next term.

  • The deputy who had only one copy of the timetable - on a pegboard. The cleaner knocked the pegs out accidentally but told him not to worry; she had put them back in.

We all can fall into this trap and need time to think "is this activity fit for purpose?" and "how do I do this efficiently and effectively?"

One of the ways to do this is to be in control of your workload, rather than allowing it to control you. If home life permits, arriving at work early can help make a good start to the day.

Many problems can be worked through more calmly at this time of the day, before they become unmanageable, and staff can discuss issues with you before they start teaching or other duties.

It can also encourage others to do the same. If the car park is full well before the students arrive, it is often a good sign that the staff are in control of their jobs.

Staying late, on the other hand, can be detrimental, even when there is work to be done. The discipline of calculating 1,265 hours made many school staff aware of the time they spent in school but passed school leaders themselves by. It may be that you decide to stay later on one or two evenings a week but try to avoid letting it become the norm.

Minimising disruptions

One reason work piles up at the end of the day is frequent disruptions during the working day. Make sure that teaching staff know what leadership team members do and don't do, so they are not presented with problems that can and should be solved by others.

There are still some schools in which teachers send for the deputy head for incidents in class or send pupils who are late to lessons to the head. Interruptions to deal with this sort of thing hinder sensible time management for school leaders.

A consistent behaviour policy can do wonders for reducing interruptions and stress for senior staff. If this is established and communicated, with simple procedures and set tariffs for offences, everyone should know exactly what to do in most situations.

If the procedures are devised using a cross-curricular staff team to ensure maximum staff engagement, it is more likely that the appropriate sanctions will be applied consistently.

Workforce remodelling has eased behaviour management significantly in that non-teaching staff now play a major role.

Senior staff are not the only ones who can be 'on-call'. There is no reason why others cannot volunteer for a slot on the rota - it increases their credibility and empowers staff. If volunteer staff are prepared to be by their phones for a designated period each week, the leadership team is more freely available for back up.

Clear lines of responsibility can be established for parental contact and it is perfectly reasonable to insist on an appointment system - solicitors and doctors do. Parents should not expect the head or senior leaders, or other staff for that matter, to drop everything on their whim. All staff have a job to do.

In an emergency someone will have to be available but the process can still be managed by non-teaching staff.

This does not mean the leadership team should be office-bound, far from it. By preventing issues from unnecessarily coming to senior staff, they can more easily identify the times and places within the school where their presence will help to prevent incidents and establish the sort of environment which is pleasant to work in.

The element of surprise when a senior leader turns up just when needed is invaluable in making for a calm workplace.

Duty to protect

It is worth remembering that governing bodies have a duty to protect the head's work-life balance, and heads have a duty to protect that of their team.

One consequence of this being statutory is that there is no longer a need to have more governors meetings than is absolutely necessary and the times can be made more convenient. Equally, the head does not need to attend every sub-committee meeting.

Many schools have now chosen to have only three full governing body meetings each year, with extraordinary sessions for particular needs, such as ratification of a new structure of TLR payments.

Student events are another matter and how these are dealt with will naturally depend on the size and nature of the establishment. Where there are frequent events it seems sensible to share attendance between leadership team members.

Drawing up a flexible rota at the start of the academic year ensures no one person ends up at the school every evening in a heavy week and allows the freedom to go out elsewhere without guilt.

In some cases there will be a small senior team so this becomes even more important, as staff and students who are taking part can feel disappointed if no senior leaders are present.

Weekly chores

Keeping some 'sacrosanct' times and activities is just as much a right for leaders as for teaching staff but the open-ended nature of our jobs means it is essential to designate these times.

Most of us would not dream of asking anyone else to give up this time but expect it of ourselves, quite unreasonably.

Laundry, dry cleaning, gardening, and simple DIY can easily take up most of a precious weekend and it is worth working out which 'chores' you find rather relaxing, as they give a sense of normality to a life full of school, and those which you loathe.

Some dry cleaners will collect and return to schools and colleges - a bonus for all the staff - and internet shopping these days is very convenient. It is worth thinking about all the regular chores to see if there are any others which could be done by somebody else.

Just as everyone has a different idea of what constitutes an acceptable work-life balance, there is no one, easy ten-step guide to achieving it. But for the long-term health and sustainability of the profession, school leaders have a duty to look after themselves as much as they do the staff.

Work-life Balance: Myth or Reality? was compiled by Deborah Duncan, head of Horbury School in Wakefield. Much of the information in this edited chapter was contributed by Pauline Thomas, head of Abertillery Comprehensive School in Gwent.

Further information

ASCL's book Work-life Balance: Myth or Reality? shares strategies that members have used in their own lives to juggle career and personal life. The book addresses work-life balance for the whole staff, for students and for school leaders. All members will receive a copy in the March mailing. Additional copies are available for £15 by contacting ASCL at bookorders@ascl.org.uk or 0116 299 1122.

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