Too many heads couldn't watch BBC2's School because it made them feel sick

I recently wrote an article for the TES to offer my reflections on the recent BBC2 documentary “School” and why I believe the programme demonstrated the need for change in the profession. Below are the reflections that I shared with them…

If you would like to comment or read my original article on the TES website, please click here


The pace and volume of change in educational policy over the past decade has led to increased ambiguity, inconsistency and insecurity. Schools are sailing uncharted waters and many are flailing about at sea. BBC2’s School documentary, which has been on our screens for the past six weeks, demonstrates just how fragile our school system has become as a result of these changes and associated budget cuts.
The education secretary, Damian Hinds, has told us that “there’s more money in education than ever before”. This documentary provided unequivocal proof, if ever any was needed, that his statement is quite simply untrue. Schools are at breaking point. Budgets are tighter than ever before and the casualties are our young people, teachers and School Leaders.

Cutting close to the bone

Heads have told me that they couldn’t watch all of the episodes of School because viewing made them feel physically sick. The day-to-day struggles faced by teachers, support staff and School Leaders mirrored too closely their own.
Mid-series, we met James Pope, the head of Marlwood School – a rural comprehensive in South Gloucestershire. This was his first headship. Marlwood was in special measures and James was tasked with turning the school around. We were shown a picture of what James looked like when he first took on the role. He looked happy, confident, full of hope and promise for this new venture. As the cameras followed him over the following weeks and months, the changes to his physical demeanour revealed the true story of the human cost to schools when policies are driven and shaped by the wider austerity agenda.
It was all too clear to see the impact that the pressures were having on James, as he and his senior team, with an ever-decreasing budget, tried every which way to balance the books, while simultaneously seeking to raise standards and the reputation of the school.
He looked tired and drawn, the tightly clenched jawline a telltale sign of having to manage internal levels of anxiety and stress. At one point, he was walking with a limp. No explanation was given, but it was clear the pressures of his role were taking their toll.
We could see the strain, the disappointment and the hurt when, despite his best efforts to promote the school, applications for Year 7 fell below expectations. And then the seeming futility of it all when OFSTED still rated Marlwood inadequate.

Understanding the support needs of Headteachers

What became increasingly evident to me (and it is something that I have believed for a long while now) is that the system does not have an accurate understanding of the full support needs of heads. We could see the emotional and psychological toll the role was having on James, yet nothing was offered as support for him or any of the other heads who were featured.
They’re still expected to care for the wellbeing and mental health of others, but with no due regard to their own. What is clear is that while expectations of our Headteachers are growing exponentially, the care, support and integrity with which they are treated is sadly lacking.
What our education system needs is a more compassionate approach to support the recruitment and retention of our Headteachers. Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects. Headteachers, it is blatantly obvious from this documentary, need something similar.
In education, it’s as though we’ve become, as some authors have noted, “hooked on the notion that commitment and activity are inseparable”.
A point has to be reached where commitment and activity can be separated. Constant activity simply sends the body into overdrive, and with it a reduction of the mental and emotional faculties that leaders need to be able to deliver effectively on their commitments.

Loss of self-worth

The impact of stress on our School Leaders, when evidenced by a prolonged leave of absence or early exit, can lead to a loss of self-worth, a decreased sense of personal dignity and their school’s promise left unfulfilled. James left early, but he seems to be doing OK now. He has set up his own education consultancy and still wants to make a difference to the lives of young people. It could be argued that, in this respect, he is one of the more fortunate ones. There are many, like James, who gave their all, exited early, but have not forged a new career in education. Instead, they’ve disappeared from the profession, for good.
To this end, priority must be given to integrating more personalised support systems for heads into school-improvement initiatives. It is a false economy to think money is saved by not investing in their needs. Year upon year, the system spends extortionate amounts of money covering Headteacher absences due to ill health or recruiting new heads because others have decided to leave. Money could be saved simply by attending to their basic human needs.
School not only showed us the reality of life in schools today, but also provided incontrovertible evidence that our schools and their leaders very often lack the type of humane support that is needed for them to truly succeed. If we accept that Headteachers set the tone for the culture of their schools, then we have to accept that it is their emotional needs that must be met if they are to fulfil their potential and meet society’s hopes and expectations for our children.

Working as a coach with School Leaders I’ve witnessed first-hand the emotional cost for School Leaders when their emotional needs are not properly met; anxiety, self-doubt, poor decision making and a diminished sense of personal and professional fulfilment.
This can’t continue. Active steps must be taken. Our profession needs to change and show that it knows how to best support our School Leaders. So that they can not only survive, but also thrive in their attempts to deliver the best outcomes for our children.
Our leaders are properly supported; strategically, operationally and emotionally to ensure they can keep going even when the challenges get tough.  Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects.
However, in spite of the fact that the business world has now embraced the benefits of coaching for leadership development, few in our education system have been afforded the opportunity to reap the benefits of this form of support.
That’s why I’m now offering completely free Coaching calls to give leaders a chance to experience first-hand the benefits of coaching and the role it could play in supporting both their well-being and their personal performance.
The calls provide a confidential, safe, non–judgemental space to spend 30 minutes exploring ways to:
– Achieve a greater sense of clarity about your direction as a school leader
– Gain a clearer perspective on any challenges that you may be facing
– Identify positive steps for moving forward

Book Your Call

 If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!



3 Responses

  1. This is an excellent article and accurately summarizes the reaction I had to “School “. I have been a headteacher for 15 years in three different schools – and a class teacher for 15 years before that – and I have really enjoyed my career. However, I‘m now retiring early at Easter. I feel I have been worn down by the relentless pressure to do more and more with less and less. The cutting back of staff hours, with the expectation that results can rise, the unrealistic expectations of parents, especially around SEN provision, have made my role – and that of some of my staff – untenable. I genuinely fear that the state education system will implode, failing a generation of children and young people at a crucial time for our country. I feel like a rat leaving a sinking ship. It’s a horrible way to leave the profession I love.

  2. A superbly written response Viv, but so sad you are having to write it.
    As a former HT, I felt sick watching this and recognising all you have written about.
    So many HTs are leaving, given their all and trying their very best to be the superhumans the system demands.
    I hope you can help some of them at least – or there will be none left at all. 🙁

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