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School leadership - why it pays to share the load

February 6, 2023, 11:21 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • A staffing hierarchy, set by up Emily Proffitt to get her through a new headship at the start of the pandemic, continues to reap benefits to this day
School leadership - why it pays to share the load

In my seven years as a headteacher I have seen many staff come and go. They move on for their own reasons and career changes, but also to pursue growth and success within education. I have always enjoyed creating a culture that nurtures staff, encourages development and inevitably sees colleagues fly the nest to pastures new, sharing their educational excellence with even more pupils. During these times, I feel an immense sense of pride for the individual, like a parent watching their child take their first steps.

Growing new talent

The development and movement of staff also encourages growth and new talents amongst everyone in school, building further passion and excellence, and providing space for the less experienced to begin their own career journeys. At times the cycle of progression and succession creates challenges and new priorities, but it also builds strength through the excitement of new opportunities, allowing us all to thrive and take stock of our goals.

The past two years have been interesting for all of us. I started my role here - my second headship - in January 2020, not long before the pandemic began. I am not going to sugar coat it - it has been tough and the pressure has nearly broken me on many occasions. In fact, I probably would have broken had it not been for the tremendous support of my deputy (who was quite glad she was no longer acting headteacher), my governors and my team.

The hardest bit for me, apart from the unknown of the pandemic, was that I hadn’t yet built my team. In fact, I barely even knew who my team were. To me, as a leader, relationships are vital for making anything work. Having no time to build these and understand the uniqueness of everyone proved challenging.

Blind faith

During the crisis, the staff in my school had to put their trust and faith in a leader they knew very little about. This is where the importance of ‘team’ comes in. Well and truly out of my comfort zone, and imposter syndrome at its strongest ever, I had no choice but to quickly build relationships through a clearly defined structure and expectations.

My deputy and I had to come up with a plan to reorganise the school and develop a hierarchy of staff. This started with the leadership team, which consisted of me, four senior leaders and my office manager. Each senior leader also led a team of staff which consisted of teachers and TAs, who had a variety of essential responsibilities. Shared leadership, with clear objectives, risk assessments and expectations, was needed for us all to survive.

Divisions of labour

The school was divided into four teams, each with an SLT leader, (some of you will know these as bubbles) who were trained and developed to tackle all eventualities including planning, safeguarding, staff development, risk management, and first aid – the list could be endless! Some of this training was achieved in-house, and some virtually.

Aside from the SLT leader, each team had a class teacher and two or three teaching assistants. The roles for individuals were divided up so that there was one person who would support the emotional wellbeing of pupils, one who would manage first aid, another who was a trained safeguarding lead and one who would deal with educational tasks. Being in teams also supported remote learning when children were at home, as it meant that no one person was trying to juggle teaching a class and managing remote teaching at the same time.

A culture of collegiality

The SLT team would meet regularly to discuss next steps, concerns, hiccups and government updates as we moved from one stage to another through the pandemic. These individuals and my deputy probably saved me. When I was finding leadership particularly tough, they were a trusted sounding board; they simply got it, and put in a huge amount of effort to make it work for their teams, for the pupils and for our community. As a leadership team we have grown together, laughed together and even cried together. Headship is certainly not about doing it alone. It is about empowering others to share responsibility, understand their value and to dream big!

Ongoing challenges

The last few years have posed challenges for all schools for many different reasons. The pandemic has made recruitment virtually impossible. The growth we’d all love to see in our staff has been stifled by new priorities and a lack of opportunity outside of school. Many saw staff leave due to the pressures of the role, sickness and burnout. Budgets have become harder and harder to maintain and staff in many schools have not been replaced. Furthermore, there are many occasions where staff are put off the lead roles due to the immense pressure on leaders they witnessed during two years of the unknown. In our school, however, it feels like staff have risen to these challenges and, on the whole, are happier, thanks in part to our leadership structure and the wider opportunities for growth and self-fulfillment that his provides.

However, we did see people leave, retire early and move on. The pressures of life made many reflect on their own priorities. But despite this, we have seen huge growth in our team. My deputy (who said she was never going to be a head) has just taken on her first headship. One of my senior team leaders has been appointed as my new deputy, another senior team leader is taking on NPQEYL and yet another teacher has stepped into a team leader role and is beginning NPQML.

The COVID structure that we created will endure. The shared leadership and expectations allow all to grow; we are clear that no idea is a daft idea at our school.

How to build a great team

  • Have a clear, shared vision that everyone can buy into. Staff who strive for the same vision will work better together.
  • Get to know your team’s skills and flaws. Putting people with different personalities together will inevitably end with some struggling to get on. Knowing who clicks and who doesn’t will help things run smoothly.
  • You need time – to reflect, to think and for your staff to develop their roles and lead alongside you. Overworked staff will never thank you for additional responsibilities.
  • Share expertise amongst the team. When you have a golden nugget on your staff, recognise this potential within your school. Celebrating skills and sharing expertise can also save you a lot of CPD money.
  • Listen to your staff. If they have an idea, allow them to explore it and investigate the potential that it has. You might transform the experiences for the children in your school in ways you had never imagined.
  • Embrace ideas and passion. A passionate individual will always go that extra mile because they enjoy what they are doing.
  • Lead together! Have a clearly defined structure providing roles of accountability and responsibility at different levels.
  • Celebrate even the smallest wins.  An email, feedback from parents, attendance at sporting and music events. Every moment counts!

Emily Proffitt is headteacher of Cooper Perry Primary School, Stafford