Teach First Achievement Partner Clare Spence
Clare Watson-Spence
Achievement Partner at Teach First

How can schools manage their wellbeing in the face of tough decisions?

School leaders face hard decisions every day – with the last few years on another scale altogether.

As a Leadership Coach, just being present, listening and encouraging conversation can, and often does, leads to solutions or actions that can be developed further. Identifying that the process of taking the time for this type of reflection can be the solution to budgets, bills, the daily stress of leading a school. However, in addition, the benefits to well-being of sharing and getting some sort of balance and perspective can and should be as equally important as an outcome.

Recently, I worked in a school where the headteacher was working a regular 12 hour day and as we know, when the clocks go back, we are heading into the dark when you leave and dark when you get home months. So I suggested that we did a technique called Dérive. It’s a technique that translates to ‘Drift’ and it allows you to take time out of your day to walk, notice and talk.

So, I walked with the head, around the locality of the school, noticing emblems, ages of houses, plants, people, environments, pathways and new shops and signs that have gone up around their school. But when asking about how often she sees daylight in the winter months she owned up to being part bat or mole. Whilst walking, we were also discussing the things that were on her list of things to do, accomplish and the order in which she feels they should be done v the directives that are coming from their MAT.

Just taking 30 minutes to get some fresh air isn’t a sign of negligence, on the contrary, it’s taking back some time for you. There is nothing different from you having a meeting walking, drifting and talking with a colleague than there would be in the 30 minutes sat at a desk. The session we had actually took 1 hour but, we had clear actions that came from the Dérive and we’d done in in a way that got some light, steps and time to think into the day. The school was all in one piece on the return and our heads were clear for the group coaching session we were moving into.

Seeing things from different angles often allows you to consider other options. In this stressful time where it seems all of our support staff are going to Aldi instead of applying to work with you, the promises of money for budgets and controlling sky rocketing inflation hasn’t been part of your 5 year plan and the after effects of Covid-19 on the pupils, the staff, the functions of the school haven’t quite settled into their new routines yet life in schools is stressful.

I often ponder the effects on all members of staff but leaders in particular are the ones who listen, advise and help but also find that they are empathetic to the point where they take on additional work to support their staff and by doing this, they add to their own workload and in turn experience burnout.

Much of the work we do, as coaches, on the Leading Together Programme supports taking a step back, thinking about what vision and values you are setting for your team, how it’s going to function well, what do and don’t we want to see and how the team can support each other to develop a more strategic approach.

In this really challenging time, we consider how we can balance strategy with moving the school forward. We consider how we make the changes we need without the money to invest, as we might have done before and we look to how this might balance out for us within the immediate and long-term.

Below, we reached out to several experts in education on the risks of getting things right or wrong for the people and communities we care about. All of them will speak at our upcoming Future Terms panel on this topic on Thursday 1 December.

This session is very much about hearing how our colleagues are setting about tackling these challenges and offering some support and empathy for the real issues that are facing our school leaders daily. Whilst it won’t be a solution to energy bills and inflation costs, it will be an opportunity to listen, reflect and take away some strategies that might just work to support you in this time of immense challenge.

We look forward to seeing you.


Laura Fordham

Associate Deputy Headteacher at Bedford Academy

I’ve been teaching for 18 years and working in leadership positions for the last 17 years. The NPQs inspired me to become a leader and provided myself with the tools I need to create an effective school culture and help all staff deliver our school’s mission. On a personal level, I also want to deliver change confidently and consistently, while inspiring more women to become leaders.

NPQ’s enhanced my skills in managing the curriculum, teaching and learning, behaviour management and professional development. I have completed an NPQ in in middle leadership (NPQML), which developed my confidence, leadership skills and ability to lead a large team. I then completed an NPQ in senior leadership (NPQSL), which improved my knowledge of strategic planning and management across different projects. I’m now on the NPQ in headship (NPQH) with Teach First.

In terms of tough decisions I've had to make within our school community, change has been difficult. This includes getting buy-in from staff, outlining visions, planning and implementation aren’t always skills we get a chance to practise regularly in the classroom - but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. I

I’ve taken on a range of leadership positions which has helped me understand the nuance behind making changes in schools and this has made a big difference to how I delivered them. After a challenging two years for teachers and students, it’s clear that staff wellbeing needs to be within the furnishing of everything we do!

In terms of support, giving staff a voice in decision-making is really powerful. Whilst making the big calls, it gives them the chance to contribute to conversations around how the school operates thus supporting leaders too.

Driving down unnecessary workload has a massive impact on wellbeing, and we cannot address one without addressing the other. Embedding wellbeing in professional development and line management is the nuts and bolts to a positive staff body that has staff wellbeing at the forefront of all practices. Providing staff with tools and resources to support wellbeing is important and this should be signposted via a multitude of platforms.

Follow Laura on Twitter @MrsFordhamBA


Francisca Overare-Olabisi

Assistant Principal for Assessment and Achievement (Oasis Academy Oldham) and National Lead Practitioner for Science (Oasis Trust)

Teachers are leaders in their classrooms from day one, so I would say that I've been a leader from the first day of my teaching career. At a senior level, It has been three years. I was keen to share my expertise, learn from other leaders and broaden by impact beyond my classroom. Working at this level has supported my development as a strategic and research informed leader and afforded me greater influence on developing the quality of education so that all students leave school with good outcomes and develop as well-rounded individuals, who can go on to lead happy and successful lives.

In terms of tough decisions I've had to make, these primarily include those based on the curriculum, staffing and stakeholder management. The best support I've found throughout my career includes undertaking continuous professional development courses, support from my family and colleagues and having a leadership coach.


John Uttley

CEO The Education Alliance Multi-Academy Trust

I became Assistant Headteacher in 2008 and then worked as Deputy Head, Headteacher, Executive Principal and, most recently, as CEO. I was inspired to get into leadership by my desire to improve schools through great teams so that people have better lives - and "Better Lives" is now the key part of our trust's core purpose. I have been lucky to work for brilliant headteachers and it was seeing the difference they made that made me want to do the same.

The toughest series of decisions I have ever had to make have been through the two years of the pandemic. The early days were both terrifying and inspiring! Having to re-invent schools from scratch overnight was the toughest challenge I have ever faced. Luckily I am surrounded by the most brilliant team of people who support each other and buy completely into our 'Why'.

As a group who are aware that we are servant leaders, each day we just asked "what can we do today to make better lives?" That led us to going to supermarkets to buy vouchers for free school meals before the DfE acted, buying 590 laptops to plug the gaps of the DfE programme, make PPE and a million other things. There were moments I had no clue what to do next, but someone in the team always stepped up.

In terms of support, a high-quality coach is worth their weight in gold for unblocking thinking and decision-making. And also working every day with a group of people devoid of ego and who have each other's backs.

Follow John on Twitter @JonnyUttley


Want to explore this topic further? Join the above experts at our upcoming Future Terms panel on Thursday 1 December, where they'll discuss what leaders can do to manage their personal wellbeing, plus what support is out there to help them make big decisions.

Sign up now

This blog post forms part of our new ‘Brilliant Leaders’ blog series. These posts will cast a spotlight on what leaders have found helpful in their leadership progression, what support is available in the sector for leaders to overcome obstacles to progression, and what existing leaders are doing to help build and diversify the future workforce.

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