The importance of wellbeing and school reviews of workload

27 Feb 2020 | by Lesley Burton

Apologies before I even begin as this is not my usual happy, light-hearted blog. Despite my glass always being half full and made of crystal, I am genuinely worried about the profession and some of my lovely colleagues. One sturdy business leader has been off long term due to work related stress, another sits crying a lot of the time in despair and one has turned her back on the profession after a number of successful years choosing her own health over the role.

I am not going to be popular with this opinion and know I will cause controversy, but I genuinely think the concept of Executive or Cluster SBLs is putting far too much strain on people, where looking after high numbers of schools is not doing us any favours at all. It’s not that we can’t do the job! Hell no, we are professional multi taskers, being pulled like a rag doll is practically in our job descriptions but we literally cannot be in numerous places at the same time.

Up until 3 months ago I looked after 2 schools until a financial decision was made at trust level as the smaller school could not afford to subsidise my salary. I was gutted and felt I’d failed but understood the business rationale. I was reassured I had done the job really well and know I was continually spinning plates, but it wasn’t until the arrangement changed that I realised how much of a strain mentally I had been under. My substantive Head had told me a couple of months previously he was worried about my wellbeing as he knew I worked long hours at night at home and at weekends ensuring my ducks were in a row but I didn’t want to let anyone down so I kept going. He told me it wasn’t the same when I wasn’t at school; it was like the heartbeat was missing. I knew I didn’t have my finger on the pulse and things were slipping under my radar and my spider senses were diminishing. Time was wasted travelling to and from schools when I could have been far more proactive at my desk.

It is only with reflection now I can see how much strain I was actually under and how many i’s were without their dots and the poor old t’s had very few crosses on them. I became disengaged from ‘school life’ and the staff and because of this was far less effective. Although I have a magical Business Support Officer who bent over backwards to do anything she could to help, my role was not backfilled as such and I ended up doing two jobs but there are still only a possible and reasonable number of hours in a day. Schools and trusts need to consider their approaches to this shared working practice strategically and understand the impact it has on both the schools and the SBL. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the model does not work; I have seen colleagues manage it well, but one brush does not sweep all and schools must account for their individual differences within a strategic review of the people needed to cover roles. A generic model is not suitable and the whole concept has to be considered very carefully taking all angles into account.

When I first learned of the changes with the other school I immediately panicked as the new arrangement was detrimental to my substantive school’s budget by a whopping £11k. In these times none of us can afford to lose that amount so I went into meltdown and spoke to my Head about how I could raise this amount. He told me, with his usual calm and collected demeanour, that he didn’t want me to – he felt that my presence full time in school was worth far more than this and ‘getting the heartbeat back was priceless’. I was confused but trusted his wisdom. A couple of months later I now reflect on the new contracts I have negotiated giving us substantial cost savings together with helping a member of staff maintain their attendance by being able to spend time coaching them and see he was right. The cost savings delivered by a School Business Leader day to day are not always visible or shown on spreadsheets but can far outweigh the income generated by sharing the position across schools for a diluted service.

Putting all of this aside though, the cost on our own wellbeing and mental health is far more important and we cannot afford to be pulled in two trying to save money. We are far too precious not only to the budgets and the schools or to the profession but to our families and the children in our care – they deserve better!