Wellbeing

Solutions: How can schools balance wellbeing and accountability?

Ross McGill sets out the key factors for creating a resilient culture of wellbeing that can withstand the pressures of external accountability

Ross McGill sets out the key factors for creating a resilient culture of wellbeing that can withstand the pressures of external accountability

23 May 2023, 5:00

It’s a truism to say that Ofsted inspections cause stress. There’s the inspection itself, of course, but there is also the constant background pressure to be ‘Ofsted-ready’, the adrenaline crash when inspectors leave and the impact of the official outcome, good or bad.

Leaders will also have to manage staff feelings around their personal performance during the inspection – the teacher who feels they’ve let the side down, the one who’s walking on air, and those caught between commiserating with one and congratulating the other.

Leaders have to manage their own feelings too, all while trying to strike a balance between meeting inspectors’ expectations head-on and being mindful of their staff. How does anyone manage all that?

Ofsted’s workload and wellbeing commitments from May 2021 say inspectors should take staff wellbeing into account when determining judgments. They also remind schools that they should not create documentation solely for inspection purposes.

All of which is easy for the inspectorate to say, and much harder for its inspectors to deliver. Indeed, Ofsted has so far shirked a proper review of its framework’s impact on wellbeing, instead expecting school leaders to “hold themselves accountable” for it!

But we know accountability drives workload, and workload is a significant factor affecting teacher wellbeing. Indeed, it is the primary reason for leaving the profession. A solution is required, and waiting and hoping for accountability reform is unlikely to deliver what’s needed.

In my work in schools across the country, I come across broadly two types of approach to wellbeing: those that embed wellbeing into their culture and long-term strategy, and those that treat wellbeing as a bolt-on initiative.

Neither is wrong in itself. It’s really a question of context. In a school where results are good, parental support is high, staffing is consistent and external pressure is low, the bolt-on approach is likely to be sufficient. Elsewhere, it isn’t. Pizzas for staff staying late to prepare for next day’s Ofsted visit are great in both contexts, as is a treat in everyone’s staffroom pigeonhole once the inspection is over. But this isn’t leadership for wellbeing. It’s leadership that assumes wellbeing.

Have a clear goal in mind, developed collectively

For those who can’t afford that assumption, the key is to develop and sustain a culture of wellbeing. As I mentioned in my previous article, implementation science tells us it can take anywhere from two to four years to see the results of change. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and trying to rush the process could have the opposite effect to what you’re trying to achieve.

The first step, then, is to be honest about the state of your staff’s wellbeing. Research by Donohoo and colleagues suggests five factors are key to happier school environments: teacher influence, feedback, cohesion, consensus, and responsiveness. These are a safe bet to form the basis of a wellbeing audit which can feed directly into concrete plans for action.

My experience is that consensus and cohesion are particularly important. Wellbeing is a very broad concept with any number of possible interventions, from meditation sessions to paid term-time leave. Schools should have a clear goal in mind, developed collectively. What will wellbeing look like when we have it? How will it manifest? How will we get there?

Of course, there will be obstacles and you will need to adapt your strategy as you go. These obstacles will be easier to manage if you display leadership behaviours that are consistent with your goals, including prioritising your own wellbeing and modelling that.

Your HR systems and other policies should also support your goal by ensuring your processes are clear and leadership decisions are evaluated in terms of their workload implications. You’ll know great systems and procedures are in place when your focus shifts from mitigating the negatives to genuinely adding value to the lives of your staff.

Ofsted may or may not notice the effort, but they are bound to value the efficacy your wellbeing strategy results in and its positive effects on staff and students. What they certainly won’t notice is the increased nonchalance before, during and after your next inspection. But everyone else will.

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