Did leadership used to be easier?

Did leadership used to be easier?

I consider myself to be extremely lucky to have experienced leadership in education in such a wide range of settings, each bringing their own challenges and learning. I credit my ability to do the job of Headteacher in 4 different schools to the teams I have been lucky enough to work with. I have met colleagues who have become lifelong friends, well I hope lifelong friends, if they will put up with me for all of that! There have been so many times in my leadership experience where I wanted to give up, where I felt helpless and didn’t know the answers. My personality is one of an oversharer, particularly with those I am close to, and so I have always been relatively open and vulnerable about challenges, willing to share what I don’t know and ask for collective thinking. I have always believed leadership is about listening to and raising up a team. I am, of course, completely biased but, I believe I have worked with some of the most incredible teachers, educators and leaders out there.

When I meet these friends socially we invariably get talking about ‘the good old days’ which weren’t actually that long ago. We recount a time where, at one school, we had lunch as a team almost every day, made strategic plans over pork baps bought from the local farm shop and in general seemed to laugh a lot during our time working together. We remember that it was hard, and stressful and we felt huge pressure to do better for ourselves and the children in our care. But, somehow it seemed easier back then. I’m sure in part there are rose tinted glasses at work here, but seeing the media storms about the death of Ruth Perry and the OFSTED reaction, strikes on pay, continuation of official documents being released just before school holidays, and the insanity of the new childcare proposals, I’m not sure it’s just that!

How did things get to the point that ‘89% of school leaders feel stressed (95% for Headteachers)’ and ‘84% of senior leaders experienced mental health symptoms due to their work?’ Currently ‘73% of staff consider school inspections negatively impact their mental health and wellbeing’. This data from the Education Support Teacher Wellbeing Index 2023 is stark, and what’s to blame? This question comes up regularly in the aforementioned ‘meet ups’ and we find ourselves digging for the answers, because it’s not clear cut, it’s always been a tough job. Even with the pork baps and laughter filled meetings, we were working our socks off back then! We created new curriculums, overhauled behaviour and engagement in learning, developed parental engagement and in two schools went through OFSTED inspections with improved judgement outcomes. Don’t get me wrong, we were nervous but what we were trying to work towards seemed achievable back then. And I think that’s part of the problem, that currently the bar seems out of reach. Another idea that comes up time and again in our review of what’s changed, and it’s popped up regularly in supervision with school leaders, is that we seem to have lost the fun and the joy, the reflection of the positives and all of the great things that we have done. We seem to be constantly behind, chasing actions that we should have completed weeks ago, or chasing children (which is a whole different blog!) and we haven’t the time to focus and reflect upon priorities and positives. Action plans, audits and new ideas to implement are everywhere. We are expected to be teachers, social workers, parent support advisors, tutors and health advisors. Juggling it all comes at a cost.

From a National level, I’m sure that the accountability framework linked to the current curriculum have a huge amount to answer for. Plus the effects of Covid including the trauma and loss, academically, emotionally and socially for our children but also staff, which seem to have been totally forgotten about apart from expecting everyone to just catch up! I’m pulling together some more specific work on the challenges coming up in 2024 and mapping out some key research about drivers for success with school improvement. I will be sharing these alongside an exploration of how reflective supervision can be a vehicle to ride the waves of this turbulent time, both for leaders but also implemented for whole staff teams. It’s live on Tuesday 16th of January at 4pm and a recording is available for anyone who can’t make the time. You can sign up to join here: Join the Free Training.

I am also privileged to have been invited to share my views as part of the FED National Education Leadership Council. My first meeting next week is all about rethinking accountability. I can’t wait to be at the table with some of the biggest names in education, sharing my experience and reflections on how we can move forward. How we can bring back the joy, the fun, the laughter and the fulfilment for our children, our staff and most importantly, to be the best leaders we can, ourselves.

I’m not sure that Leadership used to be easier, but we had more support and more autonomy previously which eased the pressure and made space to be healthy, happy leaders. I so want to see a shift in the wellbeing data and the retention of wonderful leaders out there. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on leadership now and in times gone by. What does it feel like for you? What’s been the biggest change? Reach out and reply.