Good relationships with unions are important to school leaders; these work best if roles and communication are clear and issues are dealt with regularly in a spirit of openness and honesty

Schools are large and complex organisations and this is reflected in the way they are managed, however it is possible that we can forget that we are dealing with people such as staff, students and parents. Relationships are crucially important to ensure the smooth running of schools and can also be a key factor in whether or not proposed changes actually take root and develop. One type of relationship that I have found to be particularly important has been with unions and this is something that has to be nurtured in a different way from other relationships.

It is my view that unions are essential in schools. They are there to support, advise and protect the interests of staff, however there are times when conflict arises (between the school leadership and unions) which can be destabilising and problematic. In an ideal world these instances would be rare – the question is how we ensure they are exactly that.

When I took up post I followed a headteacher who had used a leadership style that had alienated the staff and strengthened the resolve of the unions within the school. It appeared that in my first two terms that every decision was challenged or opposed by a staff who were united in their mistrust of school leaders. The skills and knowledge required to deal with this kind of extreme situation, I have found, are very different from those required in maintaining cordial relationships over a period of time. It is also an area that is given minimal air time during headship preparation courses such as National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH).

My experience has identified a number of key factors that are worth reflecting on. These include:

  • know your facts
  • agree common ground
  • establish clear protocols, procedures and expectations
  • establish clear communication approaches
  • adopt a spirit of openness and honesty.

Know your facts
The School Teachers Pay and Conditions Document (STPCD) is essential reading for any headteacher. It sets out clearly what can be reasonably expected from your staff and is information that needs to be well understood, especially when challenged by staff or union reps.

Agree common ground
During my early days of headship it felt that the unions and I were striving for different things, and following discussions it became clear that we were! The union approach had become overly protective of the staff and viewed any change as unnecessary and unwanted. Significant time was required to reach some common aims by returning to core principles and values. It was only after these were articulated and agreed that the school was in a position to move forward.

Establish clear protocols, procedures and expectations
How do the unions operate in your school? Do you have an agreed way of doing things that is understood by all? In my school this was not in place and it caused a great deal of concern. I found myself dealing with issues from how the unions surveyed staff to how they convened and ran their meetings. On more than one occasion the approach used by union reps contravened what I felt was reasonable and appropriate in a school setting and inflamed a situation. Each matter was resolved through the involvement of full-time union reps, however, it would have been much better had I anticipated these issues and agreed clear protocols with the staff concerned. In addition, I wish I had made my expectations clearer to union reps from the outset in terms of how they approached their role.

Establish clear communication approaches
It is advisable to meet frequently with union reps to ensure a regular and ongoing dialogue. I find it useful to have a working lunch each month and this has helped to move the relationship from one of confrontation to collegiality. The agenda is a joint effort, with everybody afforded the opportunity of raising issues for discussion. Key points arising from the meetings are shared with the wider staff via email and briefings.

Adopt a spirit of openness and honesty
It is essential that these meetings are entered into in a spirit of openness and honesty and that union reps’ views on key issues are sought. This group can then take a view on the need for, and extent of, consultation with the wider staff. I have found that staff may not always agree with the final decision, but it is definitely more palatable if they feel they have had a genuine input into the decision-making process. At the same time it is important that senior leaders are clear about what issues are not up for debate and are non-negotiable. Union reps appreciate this frankness, especially when it is accompanied by a thoughtful rationale.

It is clear to me that relationships are at the heart of schooling and the link between senior leaders and staff is crucial to the ongoing success of the organisation. Creating time, space and thought to the way senior leaders work in partnership with unions is vital and ignored at your peril.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2010

About the author: Kieran McGrane and the leadership team at Federation of West Sleekburn Middle School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland