Empowering staff is a concept that will feature in many a presentation during headship interviews; putting staff front-and-centre and making sure they feel trusted in their work is something few school leaders would disagree with.
Yet creating a culture of staff empowerment is often easier said than done. My own work in this area still has room to grow, but I hope the thoughts below will be of value to leaders in a range of settings.
Meaningful staff voice
Upon starting in role, I assumed that simply having an open-door policy would be enough to show that I was receptive to feedback from staff, and thereby empowering them to speak their mind. However, creating space for meaningful staff voice and feedback, and truly empowering them to feel they can offer their ideas or insights must go further than this.
“I had assumed that simply having an open-door policy would be enough.”
No matter how open or warm a head feels they are being, some colleagues will always find it too difficult or daunting to cross the threshold into your office and speak their mind.
Think carefully about a variety of routes that might allow staff to be more involved in the direction and decision making of the school. Creating a variety of opportunities will mean a greater diversity of voices coming forward.
These can come in many forms including staff working groups chaired by colleagues beyond SLT, discussion forums to discuss matters within and beyond the school walls, advice surgeries or inviting pitches for running INSET sessions. Even if staff do not take up these opportunities, it is often enough for them to know they are available.
Make the decision
While a plethora of opportunities for including staff voice will always be welcome, this should not come at the expense of clarity over how decisions are made. Setting up a working group whose ideas are not ultimately going to be used because SLT don’t think they are workable will only bring disenchantment. Likewise, trying to respond to all perspectives in a staff survey will simply lead to further confusion.
It is a delicate tightrope to walk as a head, but making it clear about when you are open to any number of options, or whether you have parameters that need to be met will be far more empowering to staff than simply inviting feedback and trying to act on all of it, or deciding not to incorporate any of it.
“Trying to respond to all perspectives in a staff survey will simply lead to confusion.”
By way of example, we have recently set up a working group to advise the school regarding our use of AI. I have given some red lines, such as any usage of AI in school needs to be made clear to parents, but they also have a green light to explore any ways that staff workload might be alleviated in the months and years ahead through its use.
Meeting the needs of the modern workplace
Given the challenges of recent years, it is no surprise that teaching faces a recruitment and retention crisis. As workplaces of friends and colleagues become more flexible, schools are facing increasing challenges to respond in kind. The hybrid workplace might not be as achievable in educational settings, but there is more we can do as leaders to recognise and empower the decision making of our colleagues.
“Empowering staff means more than simply giving space to listen to them.”
This might come in small yet meaningful ways, such as allowing staff flexibility around the use of PPA time. More ambitiously, schools should be exploring what a more agile offering for staff might look like: Could we allow those who want to teach a five-day timetable in four days? Could development grants be made available more openly and consistently for staff to pursue areas of personal growth more easily?
Ultimately, empowering staff means more than simply giving space to listen to them. They need to know that they are trusted in their work, equipped with the tools to grow and develop, and offered the opportunities to shape their future direction and that of the school.