Okay, okay. It’s been a while since my last advisory post on what my experiences as an Assistant Head and Deputy Head have taught me that might (or might not) be of use to anyone else looking to climb the greasy pole of school leadership.
This post is about the most important part of the job bar none: people. The only problem I have is that in an organisation there is no default term for people that I like to use. Personnel is awful. Staff is odd and has issues of equality which I shall talk about later. Human resources is ugly as a concept but I have used it in the title of this because otherwise the post would be called “Doing People as a Member of SLT” and that has creepy connotations in at least two ways I can think of.
Human resources is therefore an imperfect choice, but it does at least have one advantage above all of the others in that it uses the word human in it, and that is something all school leaders need to remember first and foremost. It is also a universally-accepted concept in managing people across both the public and private sectors which gives it a professional resonance and links it to a body of thinking about how to treat people right.
I have always been, ahead of everything, a manager of people just as I have always been, ahead of everything (and in spite of the ridicule the phrase is subject to), a teacher of children. My commitment to looking after, caring for, supporting and challenging people has always been what drove me into leadership positions and it is the part of the job I worry about the most when it goes wrong and love the most when it goes right. But the real turning point for me in terms of leadership of people was when I was temporarily promoted to Deputy Head for four terms at my previous school and was put in charge of staff welfare and development. The following maxims and accompanying explanations are the outcome of my instincts about leading people added to my education in the nitty gritty of human resource legislation and multiplied by my almost eight years experience of leading people as a member of SLT.
I want to begin with three guiding principles for me. They need not be the same for everyone who does the job of leading whole-school Human Resource policy, but if you are that person you sure as hell better have some guiding principles of your own.
You will only ever achieve anything through other people
This is so important to me as a starting point. One of the perils of being on an SLT is that you no longer have that daily influence over people that you do as a Head of Department or Head of Year. And yet the very public success or failure of what you set out to do is in the hands of others, a handful of whom you will line manage, a fair number you will have influence over through line management but the majority who will only know you through your public persona on SLT. You, and all your colleagues on the leadership team must always put people first. If not you will soon find that they can very easily put you last. Simply put, the leadership team of a school can not be effective (and you can define that however you want) without putting people first.
The vast majority of people in schools are there for the right reasons
Schools are incredibly morality-rich places to work, brimming with optimism (even where that optimism has been thwarted) and determination to improve the lives of individuals and the make-up of society. Drop into an assembly any day, or pop into a form room or listen as a teacher tells a student off and there is almost always (even within the liberal use of criticism) a sense of vision and a willingness to set people on the right path. And the main reason for this? Because people almost always tend to go into the world of education for altruistic reasons, or develop these reasons after entering the profession. Many of us have tales of teachers who inspired us and are looking to ‘pay it on’ to others. School leaders must hang onto this, because there probably isn’t another professional attitude like it. If we can’t build on this then we don’t deserve the title leaders at all.
Almost everyone has the capacity to achieve amazing things if given the right support
I can’t go on about this enough. I’ve blogged about it elsewhere so I won’t say too much here, but in essence I believe that we spend way too much time looking for weaknesses, or deficits, in people. Instead I am convinced that we need to look to the strengths, the surplus of excellence that is contained within every person. Once we have identified that we need to nurture it, disseminate it, let others learn from it and use the confidence this brings to help us help people focus on what they can do to become even better. Instead of foregrounding people’s failings (and we all have them) we need to foreground their brilliance.
With these three fundamental principles in mind, the following suggestions are more specific examples of how members of SLT with overall responsibility for people, staff, human resources or personnel should act.
Equality and fairness is the most essential foundation on which to build your HR policies
Whether it be your absence policy or your recruitment processes or your disciplinary procedures or your job descriptions there has to be a commitment to equality and fairness that is publicly stated and comprehensively implemented. There is nothing more iniquitous in schools than different groups of people being treated differently whether that be because of rank, reputation or popularity. If you are going to be responsible for HR issues you need to stake your reputation on the issue of fairness, not least of all because if you don’t do so then at some point you will pay the price for it. This means clarity of policies, procedures and practices. It means being scrupulously fair and holding senior and middle leaders to account when they fail to follow these policies, procedures and practices.
Treat every individual case on its own merits
I’m risking being seen to contradict myself here, and so I’m bringing the possible contradiction to your attention openly. Being scrupulously egalitarian and fair does not mean that you don’t keep an open mind to the particular merits and demerits of every HR issue you come across. No two pregnancies are the same. No two illnesses are the same. No two redundancies are the same. In each of these cases there needs to be the right combination of policy, procedure and practice in place but there will be policy blindspots, procedural grey areas and practically untested waters. The job of an SLT member in charge of people is to make the right decisions in the particular circumstances and then (and this is the important bit) to log any unique decisions made so that the next time they occur you have a playbook to follow that feeds into the fairness agenda. In this way you become firm but not inflexible and that’s not a bad basis for any work with people.
A two-tier workforce is a blight on too many schools and must be addressed by good HR
Whether called Support Staff, Essential Services Staff or Non-Teaching Staff (and I hope the latter is not true in any school, but I fear otherwise) there is a major problem in the way in which the people in schools in these positions, whether classroom-based, administrative or site-oriented are treated in comparison to their teaching peers. Some of the issues are unfortunately inevitable and are linked to the different pay and conditions of each group and the post-graduate nature of teaching. There are however, too many faultlines within schools between teachers and support staff (a troublesome term but the one I am most used to using) that need not be there. An example is career progression. Every teacher in a school, from an NQT upwards, can see very clearly a number of different routes through to senior leadership and Headship. The same is not true for the vast majority of support staff, even though the majority of SLTs now include a School Business Manager who is not a teacher. Surely that can’t be right, and yet still too many SLT members in charge of human resources have failed to address this and haven’t even realised that it is an issue at all. The Workforce Reform Act of 2003 was seen as being about freeing teachers to teach, but in reality it has led to the creation of a paraprofessional workforce whose needs have not been properly met, and it is about time they were. To do this the member of SLT responsible for people needs to ensure all systems within schools work for teachers and support staff equally well: from school improvement planning, to performance management, to promotion and to leave of absence. If not some of the most valuable people in our schools will never be able to shine as brilliantly as others.
Sickness absence is the most important indicator of staff well-being and must be a priority
I loved the whole Wellbeing thing that popped up a few years back and hated it in almost equal measure. I loved it because the wellbeing of people in schools is the most important thing for an SLT member in charge of HR to pay heed to. But I hated it because it became yet another New Labour tickbox for unthinking senior leaders and Headteachers to utilise to publicly display how much they were doing to help their staff without doing very much at all, or doing completely the wrong things. All of a sudden we had Reiki and Massages and Tai-Chi and Wellbeing Focus Groups and Painting and Staff Night Outs and Basket-Weaving (okay so maybe not the last kind). And then we got? Well what? Did anybody measure real improvements? Or did we just measure our self-satisfaction at having ‘done Wellbeing’ and tick our box? In reality there is only one serious measure of staff wellbeing, their levels of sickness absence and the reasons they give for it when their colleagues talk with them about it upon their return. The single-most important job of the SLT member in charge of HR in ascertaining staff wellbeing issues and responding to them is to set up an effective programme for monitoring levels of sickness absence and a humane and helpful return to work meeting system that allows people to tell it like it is, and to ensure that this in turn feeds into SLT discussions and actions with regard to staff wellbeing. Everything else is fluff, however well appreciated it is on staff INSET feedback forms.
There will always be horrible challenges to deal with when managing people
People die. People get divorced messily. People lose their parents to cancer, heart attacks, awful accidents. People get depressed. People develop virtually untreatable conditions that impair their work. People struggle with new responsibilities. People have teenage children that stay out late and worry them. People come to hate their work. People have to have their siblings sectioned. People do all kinds of things and have all kinds of things that happen to them that are beyond their control and your control. Keeping that in mind is the first step to retaining your sanity as the member of SLT with responsibility or HR issues. There is only one rule of thumb when these curveballs are thrown at your carefully crafted policies, procedures and practices, and that is to roll with the punches and consider how you would want to be treated in the same situation. You need to ensure that the relevant line manager has the skills to handle the situation they have had thrust upon them. If they do then keep giving them the support they need, and if they do not then shift things around so that the member of staff involved had the support that they need wherever you have to get it from (see next point). Beyond that your job is to make sure that other members of SLT (whose focus on student achievement, departmental line management or school improvement may cause them to have a temporary sympathy bypass) are reminded that we are all never more than a heartbeat away from being in a similar position.
You are never alone as an individual or an institution
Having worked with a trained and highly-skilled HR person when I was in charge of staff issues I can’t say often enough or loudly enough that I think every school should have one and it would be my first support staff appointment as a Headteacher. Unfortunately most schools do not have a trained specialist and do not provide their SLT member in charge of HR with any specific training on handling challenging staffing issues. If this is the case at your school then this section is the most important to you. You are not alone!! The key rule here is ‘when in doubt, speak out’. Your local authority will have a HR specialist who you can and should and must use liberally. If you are at an academy then you will either have your own HR firm or will be buying back services from the LA (if not, panic and get it sorted). Your union can be a great source of support if you feel an issue is in danger of putting your neck on the block and there are many personnel websites, most notably the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) from which you can seek support and advice. And remember that I you have nobody else to turn to you have a colleague like you in every school in the country who may well have faced the same issue and who will have sage advice about what to do and who to turn to. Use them, and be available for them to use you.
There is no substitute for knowing the law and abiding by it
This point follows on from the last because one of the most important things you can do to support you when unexpected things happen is to turn to the law. As the member of SLT with responsibility for HR matters you are second only to the Head in being accountable for what you say or do in response to a specific personnel issue, and so you must abide by the law or face the prospect of grievance procedures and possible constructive or unfair dismissal allegations (to name but three perils). If that sounds scary, it should!!!! There are three possible ways in which you can respond to such fear. Firstly you could ignore the fear and stumble around blindly: Not recommended. Secondly you could absorb the fear and do nothing that might make you vulnerable: Not recommended as doing nothing is as much a choice and so puts you at risk. Thirdly you could deal with the fear by making yourself competent and confident in the basics of employment law: Highly recommended particularly as so much of it is commonsensical and surprisingly simple. Knowledge is, in this instance, both power and security.
Capability proceedings must always be developmental and used optimistically
This is my biggest bugbear when it come to SLTs and human resource issues. Too often senior leaders use fighting talk when it comes to capability proceedings. Fortunately in most cases it is all bluff and bluster and never amounts to actually taking people through capability (even when it is perhaps the right thing to do). But even worse than this is when some SLT members talk about capability proceedings as if they are the waiting room for a dismissal process; a final piece of the jigsaw to be slotted into place before the member of staff is got rid of. I’m thankful that I haven’t been part of any SLT like this but I have heard at close hand how bad it can get. My belief is that capability processes are a necessary and potentially revelatory part of a support structure to help people tackle an aspect of their performance at work that is clearly wrong. But they should only ever be used if everything else supportive has been tried, has failed and that the hope and the expectation of everyone involved is that the process is going to work and lead to the colleague rediscovering their mojo. Sadly, I rather think that the approach by central government and Ofsted is much more machismo-oriented than that and will only lead to more posturing by gung-ho school leaders. I implore members of SLT with responsibility for HR to step away from this mentality and instead see capability proceedings as they should be seen; as opportunities to pull colleagues back from the brink of cataclysmic career failure, not as opportunities to push them over that cliff-face.
Occasionally people will fail in spite of your support
This is the bit I hate. For all that I have written earlier in this piece, there are times that you can’t provide enough support for a colleague because they just aren’t right for the job or the workplace. For some it is to do with an inability to match the context they are working in regardless of all their best efforts and for others it is because they cannot muster the efforts needed to achieve success in their context regardless of their ability. In my time as the member of SLT with responsibility for HR issues I came across two NQTs, one with all the effort but clearly in the wrong school, and the other with all the talent but none of the effort. Both failed that year and an amazing amount of work was done with them at all points and then with their unions when all had been done that could be done. Both ended up being successful teachers elsewhere because of their experiences with the school I was at and partly because of the support we provided right until the very end. I still have a real sense of sadness that we never made it work for them there, but temper that by thinking how many NQTs are discarded each year without the levels of support we provided, many of whom would have left teaching thinking that failure at one school means they are failed teachers for all schools. If you are a member of SLT with responsibility for HR issues please remember that even when you have to take the hardest decisions of all that you do so with a view to the future of the person as well as of your school.
How you treat people at their lowest ebb is the truest sign of your integrity as a leader
I think I have made this point pretty clear throughout this post, but let me précis it here. If you are the SLT member in charge of HR issues you are going to face all sorts of pressures on pretty much a daily basis. You are going to have to listen equally sensitively to the distraught and disingenuous. You are going to have to speak equally kindly to the fearful and the flippant. You are going to have to be equally supportive of the upset and the upstart. You are going to have to be equally challenging of the gallant and the galling. But far more importantly you are going to have to think equally optimistically of people whether they be distraught or disingenuous, fearful or flippant, upset or upstart, gallant or galling. We are in the business of optimism and high expectations, so if we can’t hold that sense of purpose and moral rightheadedness with regard to our colleagues then we are hypocrites of the highest order. The fact is that when people get ill or turned down for promotion or downtrodden in their roles or unhappy in their marriages they can react in a range of ways, many of which can make them seem like lost causes. An SLT member in charge of HR issues needs to be able to see beyond the bluff and bluster of even the most obtuse and bear-headed of colleagues and identify the core issue behind these behaviours in order to try and find a solution to them. After all, integrity is not a bolt-on feature of leadership but is instead at the core of what we should be doing and the face that stares back at you from the mirror when you are the member of SLT dealing with HT issues can be an unforgiving one if it knows you haven’t acted with that core integrity.
Following a twitter conversation I’ve realised a bit about where my philosophy comes from and I think it’s right to share. In 1997 my first marriage of eleven months broke up because, quite simply, my wife no longer wanted to be with me. I went on a downward spiral that rapidly became a nosedive of spectacular proportions and which had bad consequences for the department I was a part of and the students I taught. A new Headteacher to the school came into the situation at its peak and called me into his office for what I believed was going to be a suspension or a disciplinary procedure. Instead he turned to me and said “Remember, Keven, that we work so we can live. We don’t live so that we can work”. In one sentence and in one act of kindness he stopped the nosedive and lifted me upwards. Within weeks I was sufficiently stable to have secured a new job in another part of the country and a new beginning. I never thanked him for his kindness. I guess that I am now.