The pandemic started with an initial wave of support for schools, but ongoing challenges and controversies have created a backlash that has seen abuse towards staff – and particularly leaders – normalised. What I’ve learned from my experience is that you can’t be over-prepared for this. Investing in protecting yourself can only help to prevent costly escalation.
For a start, putting robust policies in place means you can always be sure you are treating every person and situation fairly and with parity, and makes it less likely your judgment will be clouded by the threat of consequences when they arise.
They help our communities to interact with us, too. We have a communication policy that sets out exactly who to get in touch with and how. We’ve also brought in a “disruptive visitors policy”. While I understand why schools still resist signs proclaiming “We will not tolerate abuse of our staff”, the vast majority of parent respondents (289 vs 9) supported the measures we put in place.
Policy also helps ensure your actions are in tune with your moral purpose as a school. In the heat of frantic decision-making that’s easy to forget, but it really matters. As does ensuring the whole community understands your vision and values. And one of those values must be honesty. I remember being told my problem as a leader was that I was “too honest”. I can assure you, there is no such thing.
But there’s a line between professional honesty and “saying it like you see it”. My first mistake was to respond with emotional disbelief. With hindsight, the response should have come from the school, not me, and should have asked for evidence of the accusations. This guidance is now written into our complaints policy to avoid mounting costly and unnecessary defences.
Speaking of defence, one of the best pieces of advice I received was to retain the services of a specialist education law firm. Their support has been invaluable. If you don’t have access to that, then at least sleep on your response. Write the letter you want to send, go to bed, then delete it and start again. And always get HR feedback before you send it.
All of which will help ensure your emotions don’t make matters worse, but can leave you feeling like you’re in a pressure cooker. Members of your team can provide helpful checks and balances on your decision making, but there’s a limit to how much you should confide in them.
When my turmoil felt invisible to everyone around me, writing an impact statement provided huge relief. Then, with the support of governors, I began working with a psychoanalyst. This helped me accept that none of what happened was my fault or within my control. No NPQH or professional mentoring can provide what an impartial, trained counsellor can for your mental health.
And it has affected my practice too. I’ve learned to adopt a ‘coaching’ style in difficult conversations and not to let my body language betray my words, which has made me, if anything, more honest. And it has helped me see that sorry doesn’t need to be the hardest word. I now work on the basis of acknowledging others’ feelings by apologising for everything. Vulnerability and insecurity are often the source of anger, and apologising makes it easier to fight for people rather than against them.
But the sad truth is that some people simply won’t see past their anger. What has protected me most in the face of that has been my diligent record-keeping: every meeting, every decision, every agreement reached and action taken. An accurate record is the best defence there is.
Ultimately, there is no one with the power to make your assailant stop. Your local authority and union can provide valuable HR advice. And once evidence was shared, the DfE, RSC and ESFA all offered words of support. But beyond that you are on your own.
I don’t believe anyone’s skin is thick enough for that, so I advise you now to build your armour.