Julie Palmer, Chair of Governors, Howden Junior School, East Yorkshire

Howden Junior School has around 215 pupils and is a two-form entry maintained school in East Yorkshire. Our mission statement is ‘championing excellence – nurturing aspirations’ and our four key values – chosen through collaboration with our school community – are courage, curiosity, community and care.

The value of coaching for Headteachers

Coaching has proved an invaluable resource for helping Headteacher Lee Hill handle turbulent times. Having joined in September 2019, this post was Lee’s first school headship and he took over a somewhat troubled school. During his November/December appraisal – when we were looking at forward-facing objectives – it seemed like the perfect time to ask an important question: “What more can we do to support you further?” I would encourage all governors to ask this question to understand how they can help the Headteacher move forward in their leadership journey. When Lee was appointed, the local authority provided a mentor. However, he wasn’t able to choose his mentor – a factor which can significantly influence the success of a coaching programme. I think the quality of mentorship often relies on whether the personalities of the coach and mentee gel. Perhaps Lee was also concerned about whether the local authority mentor would report back on his performance.

We discussed this mentor relationship during the appraisal, and Lee noted that it was sometimes a little uncomfortable. To my mind, the Headteacher is a school’s most valuable asset, so we wanted to provide whatever support he needs. Lee suggested speaking with someone he could relate to more easily and mentioned he would like someone who was independent of the local authority. We realised the local authority mentor relationship wasn’t quite working and, while they did offer to set him up with someone new, the board supported the Headteacher’s decision to work with someone independent.

The board proposed that the Headteacher explore his options and provide some suggestions with costings. Although we were in a negative budget, I knew this could help Lee find someone that matched his requirements and made a real difference. When he came back to the board and shared some options, I couldn’t believe how little they cost – it was practically a no-brainer! The person we agreed on did four sessions for less than £150. We did it and it has been absolutely invaluable.

Ultimately, the coach ended up helping both me and Lee. Having access to an independent sounding board and point of support with no concern about possible hidden agendas made all the difference.

I would urge all boards to explore independent coaching options, as there are plenty of cost-effective options available. Hiring an independent coach of Lee’s choosing was a fantastic way to support his wellbeing and help him adjust to the new role. This coach was significantly more effective than the local authority mentor, who was understandably focused on the school improvement aspect of the role.

Governors have to remember that Headteachers are people too. They have their own worries and anxieties that can impact their families. As such, we have to do what we can to support them when they have a lot on their shoulders.

Wellbeing as an ongoing focus

I insist that wellbeing is a standing agenda item and, after Lee has given an update on pupils and staff, I always make a point of checking in with him and asking about his own wellbeing.

The board actively look for opportunities to speak to staff about their wellbeing during visits. During lockdown, governors were able to attend outside forest school sessions – a great way to speak to the pupils and the staff about their wellbeing and how they were coping. I feel very strongly that these check-ins aren’t simply ‘helping out’, but a vital part of the board’s responsibility to monitor wellbeing and the effectiveness of support and provision for everyone in the school.

Wellbeing represents an ongoing priority and isn’t just a COVID 19-related issue (although COVID-19 hasn’t gone away). I will ensure wellbeing remains a standing agenda item as it’s so important. Lee isn’t always keen to talk about himself and his own wellbeing, so ring-fencing time to talk about these issues ensures he isn’t overlooked.

Although we’ve made significant progress in our wellbeing resources, our job isn’t done. Having completed the NGA wellbeing audit, we’re currently working on a wellbeing charter.

Committing to professional development

The board have used our apprenticeship levy to support Lee in doing a master’s degree. We’d never previously used this resource, but I would really urge schools to look into it, since they’re almost certainly paying into it. By using these funds, we’re showing Lee how much we value him and what he means to the school.

While Lee sometimes has to have days out doing assignments or projects, we are fully supportive of a flexible working approach. Ultimately, we know the school, as well as Lee, will benefit from this.

We have several members of staff on upper pay scales and they do so much for the school. It’s so important to recognise this, because it’s often overlooked. When the board and Headteacher were considering how we could support staff wellbeing, he proposed introducing phase leaders for both lower and upper KS2. We agreed and approved this measure because we believed it would boost staff morale and support our strategic plans for school improvement. Although we had to make adjustments to Teaching and Learning Responsibility (TLR) provisions, the cost really was reasonable. Now, staff know we value their work and feel they have more input into what’s happening at the school.

Flexible working for staff

The board has introduced various initiatives to support staff wellbeing, as well as that of the Headteacher. For example, all staff are entitled to a wellbeing day. Throughout the year, staff can book a day out for any reason they deem appropriate and beneficial to their wellbeing. This scheme is manageable as it is organised in advance, meaning the school can arrange cover and ensure there aren’t lots of people out on the same day.

Wellbeing days have proved to be a hit with staff. We have a lot of staff who are parents, some of whom have been able to attend their child’s sports day or performances thanks to the scheme. It’s such a great way to show staff we value them and develop goodwill. We offer wellbeing days for all staff, not just teaching staff. After all, teaching assistants are such a valuable and underrated part of the school community.

During the period of remote learning, we worked with Lee to ascertain what facilities and equipment staff might require to do their jobs from home. Following lockdown, we considered how this could continue for planning, preparation, and assessment (PPA) time. We’ve found it sometimes works better and is more productive for people to do these tasks at home. Similarly, staff are given dedicated report writing time which they can also do from home. As long as homeworking is well-coordinated, we find it works quite effectively. We are fortunate to have some capacity for cover between the higher level teaching assistants (HLTAs) and our part-time senior leadership team. As such, it hasn’t presented any difficulty in budgetary terms.

Finding the right fit to lead wellbeing from the top

COVID-19 hasn’t been the only impetus for focusing on wellbeing. Following difficult times at the school, we recognised the need to demonstrate our appreciation for staff members and the value they bring to the school.

When Lee joined the school, it was labelled as ‘Requires Improvement’ by Ofsted and had had a couple of Headteachers within a short space of time. The first thing Lee did was assess and realign the school’s culture and values. This action had a huge knock-on effect and we’re now deemed a ‘Good’ school. The difference in the atmosphere is amazing. Everyone has bought into the culture and values we promote.

Getting a measure of staff wellbeing

The board spends time talking to staff to understand their experiences and thoughts about changes taking place in school.

The board also drew up our own staff wellbeing survey. I personally sent the survey to every member of staff (not just teachers), along with a covering letter to explain our aims. I explained that the senior leadership team was not directly involved and we as governors wanted to understand more about how everyone was feeling. We made it as accessible as possible, so people could email the results if they wished, or complete them anonymously and leave them in a safe location in school. Most staff were happy to email me their results. I think it helped that we’d explained the logic behind our actions and how we would use the results.

We collated the responses and I wrote to the staff with a breakdown of the results, which were very encouraging. We told staff that we were open to any suggestions about changes they’d like to see, as we want people to know we value their thoughts. We reran the survey again and the results were very positive.

We value input from everyone in the school community, so we even did a similar survey for parents and carers. We improved our offering based on results, so families know we’re listening to them. Our last inspection report noted that parents said “there is a real buzz about the place” and we’re so proud of this and the work the staff have done to achieve this. Only a few years ago this wouldn’t have been said, so we’ve really come far.

It’s so important to look after everyone in our school. We’re not seeing significant staff turnover or recruitment issues. In fact, we received a record number of really strong applications las time we advertised a vacancy. When the candidates came to visit the school, they all noted the positive attitude of staff and pupils. We care about everyone, including the staff and Headteacher.

Learn more about promoting wellbeing in schools

How can governors enhance wellbeing provision in schools and promote a nurturing culture? Read our latest Wellbeing Report for a comprehensive overview of wellbeing issues in schools.