Happy Schools = Successful Students

Henry Stewart's picture

(This was first published in Education Forward: Moving schools into the future, a call for a new approach to education)

Is it time for a focus on happy schools?

Imagine a school where staff are energised and motivated by being in control of the work they do. Imagine they feel valued, in the school and beyond, for their professional expertise. Imagine they are trusted and given freedom, within clear guidelines, to decide how to achieve results.

Imagine even that they are not snowed under by workload but have a decent work-life balance. Wouldn't you want to work there? Wouldn’t the development and performance of the students be better?

This has not been the direction schools have been going in. Perhaps it is time to shift to a culture of trust in schools, and a focus on creating an environment where staff feel good about themselves.

In 2015, in a survey of 5,000 teachers the Guardian Teacher Network found that 98% agreed with the statement “if staff are happy, students learn better”. However, just 37% said they were happy at work.

Also 97% agreed that their teaching is better when they feel trusted. But less than one in three felt trusted at work. Even among headteachers only 39% felt trusted to do the job as they would want to.

"Why is everybody so happy here?"

“I remember a visitor to Morpeth School coming to me and asking ‘why is everybody so happy here’”, commented Sir Alasdair Macdonald, who was headteacher there for many years. “I hadn’t really thought about it but I was shocked to realise this was unusual.

“I think there is a tendency to think that ‘Happy Schools’ is somehow a soft option. That somehow it’s going back to the 80s where we put our arms round children and didn’t have high expectations. I don’t think it is that at all. We had outstanding Ofsteds, we had very good exam performance, we had very little gaps in terms of pupils. So it is about still having incredibly high expectations.”

This is in stark contrast to the statement of Michael Wilshaw, early in his time as Chief Inspector of Ofsted, that “If morale in the staffroom is at an all time low you must be doing something right”.

"I know of no schools where the majority of staff can’t be trusted”, continues Sir Alasdair “and yet we base our model on the minority, and often it’s a tiny minority, who can’t.”

This situation is not unique to schools. Gallup has famously found that only one in eight employees, worldwide, feel actively engaged at work. Indeed, in the US, Gallup found that one in six employees are so actively disengaged that “they are miserable in the workplace and destroy what the most engaged employees build.”

Default to Yes

It doesn’t have to be this way. Alisdair describes one key approach: "I think my default position is yes. I think when people come to you with ideas the default position should be yes, lets think how we do that. I think that immediately creates an environment where people feel supported and encouraged. The default position is often about the negative. 

I’ve asked thousands of people, in education and beyond, when they have worked at their best. It rarely has anything to do with pay or benefits, or even the level of communication. But it is almost always about being challenged and about being trusted, and given the freedom to decide your own solution.

People work best when they feel trusted and are given freedom. Interestingly most people don’t want complete freedom. They like to have clear guidelines to work within, but to be free within those to find their way to do the job.

Pre-approval: Approve the idea in advance

Here’s a simple tip on how to achieve that, which I call “pre-approval”. We are all familiar with the idea of being asked to solve a problem or come up with a new approach, and then bring it back for approval. In this approach, you miss out the last step. When given the task, the individual is pre-approved to implement the idea.

One example of how I’ve used this was on our web site. Now I’d always been very involved in the web site, as its crucial to the success of my organisation, Happy (which is a training business). I’d “helpfully” get involved, suggesting they get rid of this, add that, and introduce various new features. The result? The person in charge of the web site never felt completely in charge of the web site, and did not feel trusted or valued.

So with a new site to be created, we decided to pre-approve it. Now let’s be clear, that did not mean saying “create whatever you like”. Its about freedom within guidelines. We carried out a branding exercise, so the look and feel was clear. We agreed the metrics it would be judged on, which were the number of visitors and how much money it generated. And we made sure Jonny, who was in charge, went on the best search engine optimisation training, to ensure he had the skills to do the job.

I did not see the proposed site until the evening before it was due to launch. And it was not what I expected. It certainly wasn’t what I would have produced. But that is the point. If you truly delegate, you do not get what you would produce. You get what they produce.

But it was completely within the guidelines and so up it went. A couple of months later we got the data on how it was doing. Visitors had trebled and income had doubled - even without the benefit of my expertise. That is so often the case. If you give somebody real ownership, in something they have the skills for, they can often create a far better solution that you could.

How one Head reduced her stress and empowered her people

One Hillingdon Primary Head tells me that this approach has changed her life, reduced her stress and given her more time to think strategically. One example she gives is teacher assessment, which she used to be entirely responsible for.

After hearing about pre-approval, she delegated the task of teacher assessment, not to the next level down but to the one below. They agreed deadlines and the teachers were pre-approved to find their own solution and implement it – without checking back for approval.

She was a little nervous at first, not knowing what was being discussed and planned. But now they have a new model for assessment, completely owned by those involved and no need for her involvement. She has more time to focus on the bigger picture.

I want people at Happy to say “I love going to work. I get to do stuff I’m good at. I am trusted. I know the guidelines but, within them, I am free to work out what to do. I feel valued”

How can i help people feel valued

Is that true of your people, and your support staff? Do your leadership team and your heads of department see their role not to be the experts, but to help their staff find their own solutions. Do they think each day, how can I help my people feel valued?

It is many years since the Department of Education had a policy of “Excellence and Enjoyment”. I think it was while David Miliband was Education Minister. But, even within the current climate, there are many schools that do focus on creating great school cultures. There are many schools that believe for students to feel happy and achieve well, the teachers need to be happy and feel valued.

One example is Northwold School in Hackney. When Alison Kriel became headteacher it was underperforming and had teacher attendance below 70%. As part of the turnaround she persuaded governors to approve a staff wellbeing spend, of up to 2% of the school budget.

What the budget is spent on ranges from meditation training and massages to staff meals and outings. It may seem hard to find that kind of money with the cutbacks now taking place but, with staff attendance now at 98%, it can be argued to have more than paid for itself.

Of course that budget is only part of the turnaround that has made Northwold one of the best performing primaries in the country. It has all been based on creating a climate of trust. Those managing staff have been trained as coaches, to ensure they are supporting staff to find their own solutions. Being in charge of the school is a role that is rotated, to spread responsibility, with Alison only taking that role one day in six. Staff are given real ownership and feel valued.

Creating a happy school is not about avoiding performance issues. Teachers are generally happier in a school where there is an expectation of professional development and high performance.

Valuing teachers is crucial

Alan Wood led the Learning Trust, which ran education in Hackney as it moved from one of the poorest performing boroughs in 2002 to one of the best performing by the time her retired in 2015.

“Valuing teachers was crucial”, he comments. “One of the first things we did was send 20 people a year on an MA teaching course. And we worked hard to ensure teachers learnt from other teachers. In Hackney schools now there is a rich debate about the quality of teaching and the expectation teachers have of each other is much higher.

Is it time for change? Is it time to move away from a focus on school structure and prescription and towards creating great school cultures, to enable the best possible learning?

Perhaps these are the sort of questions we should now be asking:

Can we create a democratic school culture, based on learning and reflection rather than an autocratic one, based on teaching and direction?

How can we encourage creativity and innovation, and step away from a top-down approach?

How can we create the schools we believe in rather than those we believe Ofsted want to see?

How can we build an educational culture based on collaboration, trust and support? 

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