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Without question, two of the biggest issues facing education at the moment are pupil attendance and staff recruitment/retention.

And I’d like to suggest that the two are very much linked.

When it comes to raising attendance (something both Conservatives and Labour are making a priority), schools are no longer finding just illness and term-time holidays are the main reasons for non-attendance. There’s also been a huge rise in families and young people opting out of school for various reasons.

Add to that the record number of staff leaving the profession and the low number of trainees coming on board and we have a serious problem.

If I’m honest though, I’m not sure that the answer is to impose further penalties on parents or increase training bonuses.

I feel we should be seriously asking ourselves the question:

Why is it that a large number of teachers and pupils don’t want to be in school?

 

I know there are those who will say that school isn’t optional, that young people should just be made to attend. But I don’t think the world is like that any more.

Whether we like it or not, the pandemic has changed how we view our working lives. A rise in the percentage of adults working from home, the number of young people attending online schools and families choosing to home educate show a trend of people moving further away from the traditional school to work journey.

So, if you want good teachers in your school and you want your school roll filled, you now need to make sure that your school is a place people actually want to be.

A few years ago, a friend of mine recommended the book The E Myth Enterprise: How to Turn a Great Idea into a Thriving Business by Michael E. Gerber.

It’s a quick and easy book to read and I would highly recommend it to anyone who works in a leadership role.

It completely changed the way we thought about our business; the way we welcomed new customers; how we supported our staff; how we spoke about our business to others. As a result, our business thrived.

This week, browsing our bookshelves, I rediscovered this book and found myself considering how these same principles could be used to help schools thrive.

In the book, Michael Gerber encourages owners to view their business from the perspective of their customers through four different lenses.

Viewing your school from the perspective of your staff and pupils through these lenses would be a useful exercise for any senior leadership team.

Michael Gerber’s four lenses are:

  1. Visual
  2. Emotional
  3. Functional
  4. Financial

 

Visual

First, consider whether your school looks like the sort of place people want to be.

If you had to sit and write an important report, where in the school would you choose to do your work?

If the classrooms come near the bottom of the list, consider what message it sends that you expect your pupils to use spaces you wouldn’t necessarily consider appropriate for your own work.

 

Ask yourself

Does the building look cared for?
Look for graffiti, litter, peeling paint, ripped displays, cold toilets that nobody wants to use…

Does the building function properly?
Look for poor layouts, overcrowded areas, inconvenient one-way systems…

What does your school building tell your staff and pupils about the school’s priorities?
If your office and meeting rooms are better cared for than your classrooms, what message does that send? If there are areas of the school you would avoid on a new parent tour, but you expect pupils to use, what message does that send?

 

Emotional

Second, consider whether your school feels like the sort of place people want to be.

The book shares 7 elements developed by teacher Mary Brown that promote an emotionally healthy work environment:

  1. People need order.
  2. People need to feel heard.
  3. People need to feel connected to something bigger than themselves.
  4. People need to have a purpose.
  5. People need to feel that what they are doing has moral weight.
  6. People need to feel that what they personally do is important.
  7. People need to feel that the people they associate with love them.

Are you meeting these needs for your staff? Are you meeting them for your pupils?

 

Ask yourself

How do staff talk to pupils and to each other?
Do they speak to others the way you would want them to?

What levels of stress are your staff and pupils under?
When stress increases, patience, calmness and kindness decrease.

How many hours beyond the school day are your staff working? Is work evenly distributed? Is time taken up on tasks that don’t support the school’s vision?

If there’s an increase in rudeness or frustrated outbursts among pupils, what’s causing this? How could it be addressed?

 

Functional

Next, consider whether your school functions like the sort of place people want to be.

Do you worry about your “good” teachers leaving and how that might impact the school?

Does your induction consist of little more than showing new staff where to find the kettle and letting them get on with their teaching?

If something goes wrong, do you tend to blame the person who made the mistake or do you unpick where the system has broken down?

Consider whether you have a ‘people-oriented’ school: a school that relies on “good people” to do good work.

Successful businesses – and schools – tend towards the ‘process-oriented’.

That’s not to say that schools should dictate every element of a teacher’s work!

But staff need to be clear about the vision and values of the school, so that they can make decisions that support the school.

In all the daily stress of running a school, it’s all too easy to forget that setting and communicating a clear vision is one of the first and most important jobs a Head should tackle.

There are some school leaders who have famously set clear, strong visions for their school.

Whether you agree with their educational philosophies or not, there’s no denying that Katharine Birbalsingh has made very specific choices about how Michaela Community School operates, Gwyn ap Harri and Andrew Sprakes have created a distinct set of values and priorities at XP School and Hayley Peacock is making waves in the private sector with her unique approach to school at Atelier 21.

These are just some examples of school leaders who have a specific vision of what their version of a “good” school looks like. They’ve created processes and systems that bring their vision to life and built a team of people around them who completely support this vision.

You don’t have to completely recreate the school experience, but by defining and communicating your vision and priorities clearly and building staff teams who all ‘sing from the same song sheet’, your school will attract pupils, families and staff who support your specific style of education.

Are you a school that prioritises:

  • pupil mental health?
  • staff CPD opportunities?
  • learning outside the classroom?
  • reading and phonics?
  • the highest possible academic outcomes?
  • teamwork and resilience?

One quick note: you can’t prioritise all of these things!

Ultimately, you’ll need to make choices about one or two key areas you want your staff to focus on, especially if your school doesn’t really have a clear vision yet. Letting staff know what those areas are will support them in prioritising their workload, help them feel like they’re doing a good job, build their confidence and start to set the character of your school.

 

Ask yourself

What’s your vision for your school? What makes your school special?
Take a walk around your school. Do you see your vision coming to life?

If not, it might be time to consider whether you really do have a clear vision or how well you communicate it.

 

Financial

Finally, consider whether your school is financed like the sort of place people want to be.

School funding is an ongoing issue: there’s never enough money to do the job you want to do.

Therefore, prioritising where you spend your money is vital. Are you spending your money in pursuit of your vision?

If your vision is for academic outcomes to be as high as possible, but your staff don’t have the resources they need to support that vision, there’s a disconnect that needs to be fixed.

If your vision is for the outside space to be used as an equal learning space to your classrooms, but there hasn’t been significant investment in outdoor resourcing, there’s a disconnect that needs to be fixed.

If your vision is to build grit, resilience and teamworking skills, but not all pupils can afford your annual PGL visit, there’s a disconnect that needs to be fixed.

 

Next steps

In short, it’s time to consider whether you’ve made conscious decisions about how you do things in your school or whether you do them because that’s “just the way things are done”.

Birth rates continue to fall, attendance continues to decline and teachers continue to leave the profession.

Setting, communicating and living out a clear vision could be the thing that saves your school.

Sally Michaels

Head of Blue Squid Learning

Sally brings a wide range of experience to Blue Squid from her time as a teacher, SENCO and school leader.

She is passionate about finding a way to make education meaningful for all young people.

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