Pat Barnes, education consultant and former head, urges headteachers to take a fresh look at their work/life balance.

I wonder how you responded when you read this title? Raised eyebrow and half smile? ‘You’ve got to be joking! That’s impossible in our school.’ I know. I have met with each of these, plus far more cynical responses, when I have raised the issue with heads over the past year.

And what do we actually mean by the phrase work/ life balance? TDA defines it as ‘about helping teachers combine work with their personal interests outside work’ and acknowledges that elements of ‘a sense of control, personal fulfilment, career development, work flexibility and physical and emotional wellbeing’ are integral to a successful and balanced professional career.

Why is it necessary to actually define this aspect of our lives? The reason is because everyone involved in the education world realises that workloads for all in school have become excessive and the balance has become unbalanced. More and more home and family time is now given over to addressing school needs, whether writing letters and reports, organising events and staff meetings, or meeting colleagues and governors to plan or simply touch base.

It is crucial that all these necessary activities take place in an uninterrupted environment which is conducive to a productive outcome. It is worth observing that the reverse is seldom true: home and/or family crises rarely impact onto the school day!

Time set aside

In recognition of this, dedicated headship time was introduced ‘in which to lead, not just manage, schools’. In the few schools I know where the head takes their headship time, a purposeful calm pervades and an attitude of ‘We can cope whatever’ permeates and is shared by all stakeholders.

Why might this be? Perhaps because a sound supportive infrastructure has been developed which ensures the availability of an individual or team whenever necessary. Perhaps because the head sustains that crucial strategic overview, ensuring the direction of school progresses according to identified pathways both in the long-term plan, three to five years hence, as well as the more immediate one-year school improvement plan. Or perhaps because the behaviour of all pupils in school is conducive to learning and all staff are crystal clear about their own responsibilities and expectations.

OK. We are agreed, then, that headship time is a good thing. It is specifically designed to be taken ‘during school sessions when the head can focus on strategic leadership matters without being interrupted by routine management issues’. And governors are expected to ensure that heads, especially those in small schools, take this time. How much time? Nothing is specified but it is generally considered to be 10%. So having argued the case for taking this half-day away from school, what might you actually do?

Sorting out priorities

  • Remember that the head’s perceptions are unique. No one else in school has such wide-ranging contacts, vision or viewpoints, even if opinions are informed by others. It may be helpful to focus on any of the following, whichever is considered to be a current priority:
  • School improvement agenda – and overall progress with the Strategic Plan, the SIP and the SEF.
  • Raising standards, especially those which are measurable – analysing data and considering the appropriateness of targets – and are children, individually or in cohorts, on track to achieve them?
  • School building programme – its physical progress and its impact/expected impact on children’s learning.
  • Monitoring and evaluation – is the rolling programme on track? Are changes to curriculum, teaching practice or structures in place as a result of rigorous M/E and leading to greater effectiveness and efficiency?
  • Staff development and CPD – is the staffing structure clear and in place? Are job descriptions agreed? Is CPD informed by the school improvement plan? Are responsibilities clearly understood by all personnel? Is the performance management programme having an overall effect?
  • Behaviour – is everything possible being done to ensure that children come to school thirsty to learn?
  • … and of course issues thrown up by the ECM agenda, parents, governors et al.

Support systems

So which support systems might be deployed effectively so that the head feels confident to leave school?

  • A developing deputy head – given non-contact time to manage school and be responsible for all issues which arise whilst the head is away from the premises.
  • An active change team – aware of possible flash points, systems of support, eg emergency first aid, and a working knowledge of individual responsibilities. Really making sure the staffing structure is effective!
  • A confident leadership team who promote the school vision, have complementary and different skills and can be relied on to support the deputy in the absence of the head. (As an aside it is important to realise that working in teams is becoming increasingly important and is strongly recommended to address any number and variety of school issues.)
  • An interested and informed group of governors – appointed governors perhaps – who regularly monitor the progress of the head and know his or her own individual opus operandi.

So what is holding you back? If so far you do not organise your headship time to support your own work/life balance, get your diary out and see what you can do. It is helpful but not imperative to take a regular slot each week. Arrange to be out of school and to let go – this gives others real developing leadership time of their own.

Look at your own job description and ensure it is realistic, reflecting expectations in both the new National Standards and School Teachers Pay and Conditions – and no more! Ensure tasks are sensibly divided up so that you maintain an informed overview of developments and impact.

Remind governors of their duty of care towards you – it is important that you have this time away from school so that you can reflect and review and keep them fully informed of school developments.

If it is too daunting to introduce headship time in one fell swoop, prepare a mini action plan and detail a slow implementation aiming to have a weekly half-day at home – or wherever – by November.

So don’t be a martyr. The benefits of re-addressing your work/life balance are numerous. You will resume a sense of overall control; you will be personally fulfilled as you observe, contribute to and report on successes and achievements; your confidence will grow as you experience new challenges; and you will appreciate the flexibility afforded by a different way of working. Most importantly, you will enjoy a realistic work/life balance without feeling guilty!