Isn’t it time to prioritise whole school wellbeing for staff and students alongside attainment?

Mark Solomons, CEO of School Wellbeing Accelerator, shares his views on the importance of staff wellbeing for schools of the future

The key priority for the leadership of any independent school is student attainment – ensuring students achieve the best they can, develop to their fullest potential and flourish. A school’s success is measured by the success of its students – and this is reliant on the expertise and dedication of the staff.

Staff wellbeing is therefore vital to an efficient and effective school. A workforce that feels valued works better. Happy and contented people give far more than those who are tired or feel undervalued, so wellbeing directly impacts any organisation.

The idea of staff wellbeing can often take the form of one-off staff initiatives – a wellbeing day or activity, such as yoga, showing appreciation by providing occasional cakes at meetings or recognising individuals for participation in a particular project or task by email or through a shout out. It is understandable as these are often easy to organise. The challenge is that if a staff member is unhappy or does not feel valued, once the activity has been undertaken or the cake eaten, nothing has changed.

Schools may also have an umbrella ‘wellbeing scheme’ such as an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) – providing such things as confidential counselling and referral services for more serious situations. These are valuable, though provide mainly a reactive solution after damage has been done, rather than a proactive approach to address ongoing sources of stress.

Recently stress levels in schools have been rising rapidly with the continuing uncertainty that has accompanied the pandemic and the unforeseen changes to a previously guaranteed calendar of milestones in every student’s academic career. Now more than ever we need to provide supportive environments in which our staff and students can thrive.

I believe that a paradigm shift needs to take place with staff wellbeing moved to the top of the agenda and built into the culture of every school – its shared beliefs, attitudes and values. School development plans should reflect this goal and actively involve all stakeholders in the process. Everyone needs to think carefully about how they communicate and how they support each other.

I believe that a paradigm shift needs to take place with staff wellbeing moved to the top of the agenda and built into the culture of every school

We need to make provision for increased capacity to ensure that middle and senior leaders have more time to lead and to plan for their own and team development. The expectation that leaders can be efficient and effective when often continuing to juggle significant teaching duties while trying to lead is absurd and would not be expected in equivalent positions in business. With little to no time to plan, school leadership often remains reactive rather than proactive.

If we can turn this around there is the opportunity to move forward. Leaders afforded the time to develop their own skills and knowledge are better equipped to lead others. Time is needed to carefully consider the needs of staff, how best to support them, to check in regularly and to coach, alongside providing meaningful CPD, reducing stress and improving wellbeing and performance.

Staff wellbeing is used by many businesses as an indicator of performance. Rather than increase levels of stress with the ‘threat’ of inspections, could the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) better encourage staff, rather than just student wellbeing in schools, by including it as a key priority in their criteria for success?

When talking to heads and their deputies about wellbeing, they will nearly always start with that of their students. Student attainment and wellbeing are the highest priority, along with parents; staff wellbeing comes in when leaders find the time to think about them or as a reaction to an event.

Yet as we continue to battle with Covid, with decisions being made on pensions and pay, and given the significant evidence-proven benefits of improving staff wellbeing, there has never been a better time to elevate the wellbeing of staff to that of students and even further to put staff first.

Leaders can make a start with a focus directly on leadership and building the right culture. Effectively measuring the current position, using a recognised and effective tool and tracking progress is also important. If leaders don’t know where the school currently is and do not systematically and rigorously measure the impact of action taken, improvements are unlikely to follow.

After all, senior leaders do not leave student attainment to chance and wait to see what future outcomes are achieved. They track previous and current performance and take appropriate action. Why should staff wellbeing be any different?

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