Undergirding and ESP

Posted on January 30, 2016


About three years ago, in the middle of an SLT meeting, I used the word ‘undergird’ to describe how we needed to support staff. As is their wont, a couple of my colleagues reached for their smartphone to google (other search engines can be used) to check whether or not I had coined yet another neologism, as is my wont. I’m fairly convinced that I have a 66% or better success rate when they do this, although I suspect that they are equally convinced that it is 33% or worse. In this instance they were utterly certain that this was yet another example of Bartle baloney, and I can’t say I blamed them: it felt too ugly a word to be utilised in such a beautiful context. 

To everyone’s surprise Brian announced (with more than a touch of chagrin) that it was indeed a real word. What’s more, I’d used it in pretty much the correct context, although there is more than a hint of the metaphorical about it, as is also my wont. 

To reassure you of this, here is the definition: 


Here are the synonyms and antonyms:  

And here is the etymology:  

Since that moment, I’ve utilised the word endlessly. It’s Norse/Germanic/Saxon ugliness has grown on me (perhaps a reminder of my northern roots) and it is now my preferred term to describe the support we provide for others. What I like most about it is that it isn’t ‘overgird’. It challenges us as members of the school leadership team not to see ourselves as heroic, charitable (and therefore patronising) providers of support, but instead to think hard about how we configure the things that underpin staff happiness or, when these things aren’t right, that undermine it. In short, it challenges us to get the foundations of staff happiness right, not tinker with the peripheral elements: to deal with underlying causes and not merely the symptoms. 

But, with all that said, symptoms are important too and an important part of the job of school leadership is to help alleviate the symptoms of problems, the ones out of our control as well as the hopefully few ones within our control (where the undergirding has not been as well done as it ought to have been). 

I knew this as a Deputy Head, but since becoming a Headteacher I have had it personally rammed home by my own symptoms arising from the unique pressures of this job. Although our school is, by and large, a happy place to work and be Headteacher of, in the year and a half I have been in this post I have faced a series of unique pressures. 

Money makes the world go round 

As an academy Head one of my key roles is Accounting Officer for the school trust. That essentially means that if it all goes belly-up so do I, and the threats are constant, complex and continually changing. Setting a balanced budget is a legal requirement in spite of decreasing income (at least -1.5% each year) and increasing costs (at least +4% this year) without harming the staff of the school. Ensuring that the monthly income and expenditure stays on track to ensure that balanced budget is stuck to, or risk not being able to pay wages at the end of the month. Scanning the hostile horizon to discover whether the four horsemen of the apocalypse (fair funding formula and its impact on London schools riding at the front) are heading your way and, if so, how much damage they will cause. No job in teaching prepares you for this and the fear factor that comes with it only really hits once you’ve sat in the big chair. 

People aren’t perfect…

As well as a duty of care for finances, a Head of an academy takes on the duty of care for every student and every colleague – legally and morally, for one ensures the letter of the law and the other ensures the spirit of it (and I know which of these is the most important). But humankind is prone to making mistakes, some of which impact upon others. To err is human, so the saying goes, and yet we exist in an education system that seems to have forgotten the second half of that phrase, or rather a system that seems happy to outsource forgiveness to the divine. Managing conflict between people – students and students, students and adults, adults and adults – is part of the daily grind of Headship, and too often it leaves a feeling of failure when resolution  is hard or impossible to come by. And that’s without factoring in my own failures, which are massively magnified by the title I hold: unintended offence caused by my own unthinkingness can fester and rightly breed resentment. 

…And people’s lives aren’t perfect either

Calamity stalks happiness. Since taking over as Head I’ve had countless conversations with staff and students who have lost loved ones, separated from once-loved ones, found themselves on the wrong side of austerity, been hit hard by health problems of their own or of their families, and so on and so on. I don’t need to invite these (almost invariably people want the Head to know of anything that might impact on their work) but I do through an always open door and our monthly staff forum. It’s important to show empathy, but fundamentally it’s a key element of the role to actually offer something beyond warm words: these only go so far. But whilst the ‘what to say’ is easy, the ‘what to do’ isn’t always apparent or perfectly achievable, and it’s hard not to feel that it isn’t enough and is never enough. 

Relentless unpredictability 

Everything mentioned above is a part of the daily life of a Headteacher. Even the tragic and shocking occurrences within the lives of the individuals we care for are tragically predictable when there are 1250 of those individuals within the institution.  I haven’t even mentioned the pressure from parents, the demands from the DfE, the risks from the RSC, the obstacles from Ofsted, but they are always there and, as such, relatively routine however threatening they may be. But what has proven to be the most difficult part of the job (and the part that most haunts me in the night) is the relentlessly unpredictable. In the seventeen months of Headship I have had there have been a full handful of ‘once in a career’ (as a fellow Head once called one of them) events that have shaken the school to the core. 

Most recently amongst these, in October last year, we learned that a student who had left us for college the summer before had been stabbed to death. His siblings are still part of our school community, as are many of his friends and a number of his extended family (in the broadest, non-genetic sense of that word). Added to that, as a student who benefitted from a complex system of undergirding to deal with many issues impacting on his life, there were many staff who were hollowed out by his untimely death, including (although certainly not predominantly) me. His former Heads of Year, his former tutor, members of our behaviour support team, the English teacher who made him tea most mornings and so on. All of which made finding the right words and right actions, at briefing, in assemblies, for our newsletter, with his parents and grandmother, the greatest point of stress of my career as a Headteacher thus far. It would have been too easy to get it wrong and has been too difficult to know if I have got it right. 

A couple of weeks after this young man’s death I went to see the school counsellor, ostensibly to see how she was coping with the weight of the responsibility she held, but also to talk through my own feelings about our/my sense of loss. To say I got more than I bargained for (very much in the positive sense of that phrase) is an understatement as we ended up talking about everything in this post and so very much more, right back to my own childhood. It was liberating, cathartic and extraordinarily helpful and I visited her again a couple of weeks later. But it was not unproblematic. As an employee of the school and, perhaps more importantly, as a colleague, it placed both of us in an unusual position. As someone whose time must mainly be for students, it also threatened to add to her workload in an unsustainable way. 

At which point serendipity struck. Flicking through a copy of Schools Week in December I noticed an advert for positions on the advisory forum of the Educational Support Partnership. I can’t fully remember what the advert said, but something about it struck a chord, even though I have been looking to limit my own out-of-school commitments in a year when I have taken on the chairing of our local secondary Heads’ group. So much so did it interest me that I looked it up online and found this: 


If you like what you see as much as I did you then you should take a closer look at their website

Within hours I had written my ‘election manifesto’ and submitted it online. If undergirding is what I want my Headship to be about, then I could think of no better way than contributing to an organisation like this to (a) help it and (b) increase the capacity for undergirding for our school. It was therefore with delight that I received an email last week saying that I had been duly elected to the advisory forum. This week I attended my first meeting and am even more confirmed in my belief that this is an organisation which I am happy to support and keen to be involved with for the foreseeable future. I’m absolutely sure that I’ll be blogging in more detail about it in the future. 

You see, although this post outlines the unique pressures of being a Headteacher, I am absolutely certain that I am not uniquely pressured in our school. The only difference between me and other members of staff is that it is my responsibility (again, legal and moral) to ensure that the undergirding takes place.  Although at times it feels like I need the gift of extra-sensory perception to do this, it is perhaps something more like the ESP of the Educational Support Partnership that ensures such undergirding is sustainable, both for me and the staff of Canons.