Back in the 1990s, when I first assumed formal leadership responsibility in a school and started to correspond regularly with parents, I noticed a problem. Our school letterheaded paper on which all letters would be sent (and, pre-email, there were many) had an area in which to type that was just about half of the size of the A4 sheet itself. Underneath the obligatory school crest, address, phone and fax numbers, headteacher name and qualifications was the “window” within which the contents needed to be inserted.
Beneath that modest white space of parchment, there was a plethora of assorted logos and icons. The school proudly reported its “Arts Mark”, “Sports Mark”, and “Language Specialist School” statuses. An Assistant Head counterpart at the school once wagged that if we collect enough subject-specific accolades, perhaps we could be described as “comprehensive” again! We were a “Fair Trade” school. We were even insistent on declaring to the world that we’d been successful in a “Big Lottery Fund” application. In amongst the logos sat – no larger or smaller than the others – the school’s “Investor in People” status.
Some years later when I took up the headship at John Taylor, we explored the “Investor in People” process and accreditation. As is the case with many of the ‘kite marks’ above – and numerous others – it is the audit, evaluation, action planning and implementation that is valuable as opposed to the letterhead logo. However, we were minded not to pursue this approach at that time for two reasons. First, there were cost implications. By this stage, school funding was becoming much less generous than it had been in the late 1990s and the cost/benefit of even a relatively-modest amount of money needed to be considered before being spent. Second, it was pointed out to me that studies had shown that there was no direct correlation between holding the IiP accolade and demonstrating the attributes that define a “good employer”: recruitment and retention rates, employee satisfaction surveys, numbers of grievances, training and development budgets, attendance levels and absenteeism etc. In short, organisations which profess to “invest in people” didn’t seem to ‘walk the talk’ any more than any others. Despite the obvious counter: “What would these organisations be like without this status?” we chose to move on to other priorities.
I remain open-minded on the value of ‘formal’ designations, audits and awards for such areas of our work. Certainly, to provide evidence of a basic standard of provision, and to assure others (for example, governors) that schools take issues seriously such accreditations can prove beneficial. They also can empower a lead colleague to drive forward change and improvement by giving an external impetus to what would otherwise have been just another school priority. When areas such as wellbeing are, correctly, described as “everyone’s responsibility”, without structure they can easily slide into becoming no one’s. Accreditation, and then subsequent reassessment, reduces this risk. Recently we have witnessed a resurgence in quality marks, including those associated with wellbeing.
However, in themselves such designations are insufficient to ensure that an organisation’s culture is one in which wellbeing is considered as a priority and all stakeholders work positively and harmoniously. As Peter Drucker famously wrote “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and the highlighted cases we regularly read of organisations – including schools and MATs – with “toxic” cultures show that a kite mark can’t protect you.
So, from where does a culture conducive to wellbeing emanate? In my opinion, the answer is leadership. Given that cultures are by definition enduring and resilient, the maintenance and development of cultures is not the sole responsibility of a school’s most senior leaders, and nor does our responsibility end when our tenure in a school does. Drucker’s distinction between leadership and management stems from the difference between structure (the domain of management) and culture (the realm of leadership). Structures can be changed pragmatically, rapidly, and with limited turbulence. Culture far less so. This is why so much attention is paid to the legacy of leaders – their presence endures, for good or ill, long after their departure from the role and the organisation.
When we recruit new colleagues, we always advise them of their own empowerment in the “inter-view” process. They have to consider whether their way of working, and their philosophical outlook, chimes with ours. If there is a ‘cultural dissonance’, neither they nor we will be truly satisfied in the relationship, despite any superficial KPIs that may point to effective performance.
I have written previously about the generosity, energy and talent of the colleagues I work alongside. We see those attributes in abundance when it comes to the wellbeing of children, families, and their colleagues. Supporting individuals through personal and professional challenges, organising staff social gatherings such as Christmas parties and sporting events like participation in the Derby 10k recently, and raising awareness and funds for charities and causes that personally affect our communities are all to be cherished. A kite mark cannot guarantee to deliver any of these things, only great people can.
Thanks for reading.