Amid daily guidelines and Daily Mail headlines, we can’t lose sight of what it takes to run happy and successful schools, writes James Kibble

While we pride ourselves on taking a sensible approach to change and regulation in education, the current pandemic has inevitably led to some additional pressures for staff that we haven’t been able to wholly protect them from. Implementing additional systems for infection control and making provision for online learning are just two examples of changes that have had a significant impact.

In an effort to compensate for this, when planning for a trust-wide Inset day last week, we asked headteachers to think about how they might take a flexible approach in order to maximise staff well-being.

Some heads decided to continue with traditional face-to-face training because this is what the majority of their staff wanted to do; others chose to provide online training opportunities that staff could complete in their own time at home; and some put on additional twilight sessions across the term to give them extra flexibility in how to use the day. This is not unusual.

This last approach went down really well with leaders and staff, including one teacher who was given the day to herself as she had completed her training modules in advance. She was so appreciative that she took to Twitter to extol the virtues of working with a headteacher who took staff well-being so seriously, writing: “Today was supposed to be an Inset day for all staff but given the current circumstances, our head has given everyone the day off… This is what great well-being looks like.”

‘Sadly, the “lazy teachers” narrative always plays well’

The tweet received more than 5,000 likes. It was a story that was shared in the genuine spirit of wanting to highlight good practice.

Unfortunately, some in the national press took a different view. The headline in an article published this week read “School head gives staff day off FOUR WEEKS into new term” – the capital letters are theirs. The article went on to deride the school for what someone from the Campaign for Real Education called a “terrible decision”, citing that unfortunately all-too-familiar charge that this was in spite of the fact that teachers had been off for six months during the past academic year.

Certain elements of the mainstream media, in particular their online publications, will always be on the lookout for controversy in order to generate hits. We need to be realistic about the fact that schools are often easy targets for this. Sadly, the “lazy teachers” narrative always plays well. However, we in education, and particularly those in positions of leadership, should not be deterred from prioritising staff wellbeing.

There are distinct differences between schools that take staff wellbeing seriously and those that would rightly be deemed “cosy”. The cosy school is frightened to challenge staff to work hard for the good of the children. It looks for ways to keep staff happy at all costs. Needless to say, this leads to nothing but disaster. On the contrary, there is nothing soft about promoting staff wellbeing. In fact, it makes sense even when viewed cynically as a purely utilitarian strategy, aimed at getting the best out of staff for no other reason than to do the best by the children – though one would hope it came from a more genuine place than that!

Either way, decent schools know that if they are to offer their children the very best in terms of education, they need to look after their workforce. Heads who go out of their way to make this happen, and particularly those who are willing to take a risk and do things differently, should be applauded, not lambasted. The same is true for those staff who share these good news stories.

Every one of us working in education has a responsibility to promote the profession and to combat misinformation and disingenuity where we find it. We will always have our detractors, but we know that the job we do plays a vital part in the long-term happiness, success and prosperity of the next generation, so let’s not put up with anyone telling us that we’re not working hard enough!