Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Part of the plan

Panic button

By definition, emergencies cannot be planned for, but making sure there is always time set aside in the diary to deal with them is crucial. When things go wrong, it's often because there wasn't time available to investigate thoroughly.

Chaucer's tale describes his barrister as: 'A Sergeant of the Lawe; war and wys.' Leaders of educational institutions also need to be 'aware and wise', but they no longer have one luxury afforded to Chaucer's barrister:

No-where so bisy a man as he ther nas
And yet he semed bisier than he was.

'Seeming busier than you are' is no longer an option. The days when a distinguished public school head could make a point of only ever being found in his study occupied in the study of the Times crossword are long gone - however much we might on some days wish them back.

Those new to a post, in particular, may be inclined to try to show other staff that, like Beethoven, they can play every instrument in the orchestra and compose and conduct as well. But the best advice a new leader can be given is: "Give yourself space, you'll need it."

The Grubb Institute used to say that the head of a school is the person with whom every person in a school believes themselves to have a personal relationship. The implications of this are an almost unlimited demand on one person's time; particularly when a great cloud of witnesses from outside the school think the same thing.

Delegation shifts some of the burden to others on the leadership team but, the more that is done by the team, the more demands are made on everyone's time.

Cutting corners

In many cases where ASCL members find themselves at the receiving end of grievance, the underlying reason is inability to give the matter enough time, because the time budget is fully committed to the day-to-day.

Consider, for instance, this scenario. A school leader receives a phone call from a parent with a complaint. Pressed for time, and with other staff deep in their own work, she decides to bypass the school complaints procedure. With only the parent's complaint to go on, she goes to see the member of staff on her own.

Without all the facts and parties at hand, the meeting turns into accusations and both parties bring up past complaints; as can happen. By the end of the meeting the member of staff considers he has a grievance and, as the leader in question is the head, she has ruled herself out of a fair disciplinary process. The complaint is no nearer to being sorted out but the union representative and legal department are in business.

Of course there is an alternative. Following the same parental complaint, the leader first refers to the school's complaints procedure and decides there are grounds to engage it.

A measured investigation is carried out; as the investigation progresses and facts are gathered, both senior leader and the member of staff are given the protection of a formal process.

This may take more time and resources, it might not prevent bad feeling and it might not satisfy the complaining parent who wants an immediate answer, but the matter will be much less likely to end up in employment tribunal.

For the record

So many situations require certain knowledge of the legal parameters within which schools and colleges must work. They require quiet, calm deliberation. They also require time to make adequate notes or to pen memos or letters for the record.

In a recent GTC case, ASCL put forward 400 pages of evidence for preliminary consideration which were central to the members' case. This was possible because people had taken the time, and had the time, to make scrupulous notes and write out concerns in full. Without that evidence...

What this all means is that leaders in educational institutions must budget time, which will not always be committed, for emergencies. To 'fill the unforgiving minute' with 60 seconds of everyday work is to flirt with danger.

This is much easier said than done, granted, but emergencies are part of the normal workload.

You may not be able to schedule them but they are still predictable. Over-busy people who try to cut corners keep lawyers in work every bit as much as the honestly ignorant.

© 2017 Association of School and College Leaders