How we’re promoting psychological safety in our schools

The high-accountability nature of our sector makes normalising vulnerability in leadership imperative

The high-accountability nature of our sector makes normalising vulnerability in leadership imperative

8 Dec 2023, 10:15

Yesterday’s conclusion of the inquest into Ruth Perry’s death was sobering for everyone in the sector. We know our accountability regime is high-stakes, but this has been a salutary reminder of the pressures that our leaders are facing day in, day out. And it’s only increasing.

Post-pandemic recovery, record absence rates, the cost-of-living crisis, national strikes, the looming shadow of Ofsted and performance league tables all contribute to making the job ofleading in education an almightily stressful and emotionally exhausting job.  

The impact on mental health can be seen across our workforce, but it is the headteacher who carries the collective burden of all our worries.  

Because of this, we feel it’s our moral duty to support our leaders and equip them with the toolkit necessary to not just survive but thrive in what can be an incredibly stressful role.

This year, working with our executive coaching partner, Astrid Korin, we launched a new initiative as part of our trust-wide work on culture. All of our headteachers participate in group coaching sessions with Astrid – in some cases, alongside their line managers.

Coaching in the education sector is nothing new. But what we provide is a little different – a carefully constructed combination of group coaching, supervision, counselling and mentoring. This is not dissimilar to the support professionals in other fields might get. Doctors, social workers and the police all benefit from supervision and therapeutic reflection as part of their development and support for dealing with intense workloads.

The sessions are entirely confidential; participants must seek permission from the group if they wish to raise any of the content with non-members or with members outside of the coaching space. Traditional group and team coaching techniques are used, including action learning sets. 

Many of the challenges that come up are relational

Each group creates their own ‘contract’; they craft their purpose and develop language, behaviours and rules which help them establish psychological safety, foster respect and facilitate open debate and challenge.

Through these groups, we are encouraging our leaders to be vulnerable with their peers (and in some cases, their line managers) in ways they have never done before. It can be very uncomfortable – growth always is – and that’s exactly why it’s so important. We need to find ways to push past the discomfort of being vulnerable, of having ‘difficult’ conversations, of opening up about our challenges and our mistakes and receiving feedback and support from others. 

What we can share, without breaking confidentiality, is that many of the challenges that come up when people feel safe to talk are relational. What headteachers tend to find most stressful and hard to navigate boils down to the relationships they have with their staff, parents and community members, and colleagues across the trust. Having a safe place to explore these issues without judgment or fear of retribution is a key contributor to their wellbeing at work. 

This kind of cultural shift takes time and we are at the beginning of our journey. 

Yet, the impact in E-ACT has already been profound. Headteachers have found community, sanctuary and a safe place to be vulnerable from where they can grow and build their resilience. Relationships with line managers have improved, trust is strengthening and people across the organisation are showing more willingness and capacity to be open and reflective, to receive feedback and support and to learn and grow together. 

In this high-stakes, high-accountability world of education, these are some of the practical, tangible things we are doing to create the culture that will get the best out of our people and protect and sustain their wellbeing. 

Psychological safety is essential in any organisation; feeling able to speak openly and honestly about situations, and for this to be accepted, are imperative to building strong relationships and a culture of trust to drive the improvements in our schools.

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  1. I know this is a school publication. However, we have to remember that Ofsted does not just inspect schools. They inspect Early Years settings and Children’s social care settings as well. The problems faced by Head Teachers is not just a problem for them it’s a shared problem across the entire field of services Ofsted visit..

    As always it feels like the systemic failure here is to only look at one area rather than the wider picture.

    It’s really only possible to have change with everyone advocates in the same direction.

  2. Charlotte Denbigh

    Absolute rubbish! Another MAT CEO gaslighting and getting the wrong end of the stick to suit THEIR needs and wants. Get to the root of the problem and question why education is so high stakes rather than accept the brutal accountability pressures on the staff that are actually teaching and running schools.