Keeping up appearances

Hilary Moriarty reflects on whether schools are doing enough to look after their staff

They say that by your works shall ye be known. Actions, reportedly, speak louder than words. Don’t announce what you will do to improve things, or describe your good intentions: just do it, to coin a phrase.

So, if it is a school’s intention to do all that it can to improve the happiness of its staff and students – or are those two aims mutually exclusive? – what exactly does it do about it?  What action does it take? Or, more likely with such an ambitious aim, what actions? 

The thought is prompted by a press article about a start-up firm, run by young people in their early 20s and phenomenally successful. The company is called ‘Social Chain’ and it uses social media accounts to advertise, influencing trends and buying patterns in their young devotees.  It has 100 employees, and one of these is – wait for it – the Head of Happiness.

Isn’t that wonderful? The very idea in the first place, then the appointing of the holder, and the financing of the post, which presumably has quite a budget, because this Head of Happiness organises nacho days and gin and tonic days (I know, I find it hard to imagine too), as well as mentoring staff and celebrating their birthdays and anniversaries. It’s all a very long way from what – I fear – most schools do. Which is not a lot. I admit to a shiver of recognition when I read the young boss’s opinion that many companies say that they are passionate about valuing their workforce but, in reality, that translates into a solitary suggestion box for grumbles and complaints – which, of course, may or may not produce action.

There is probably a halfway house between, ‘They always complain about that, and we’ve tried to fix it but they are never happy – next?’ and actually appointing a person, seriously, whose job is to make people happy. But there is something inherently attractive, seductive even, about a company which goes the whole hog. Happiness matters. We believe it matters. Here is what we will do to try to make people happy. Make it someone’s job. It is a real responsibility, as important in a school, perhaps, as Examinations Officer. Arguably, more important.

In these difficult times, when we read daily of headteachers leaving their posts in droves and deputies and other senior staff being reluctant to step up to the top job, we must surely question the processes by which schools aim to foster and retain talent. Taking real, identifiable action to make or keep people happy. Be prepared to report to governors: we did these things to help keep our staff happy. And we started with a happiness survey, perhaps?

Many companies say that they are passionate about valuing their workforce but, in reality, that translates into a solitary suggestion box for grumbles

Of course, the major difference between this sparky and innovative start-up company and any school is that Social Chain only has to worry about its employees. Schools need to worry about employees and pupils, which adds a layer of complication. You can bet that most schools attend very closely to pupil happiness: there has been real, positive growth in this area in recent years. Children are encouraged to consider happiness overtly and purposefully, with an expectation that whatever befalls them they can be happy, with the right mind-set, with appropriate exercise, mental and physical, and diet and company and support, including readily available professional counselling where necessary. We have come a very long way from the days of expecting a child to square up – shoulders back, stiff upper lip – to misfortune or mood, and get on with the homework. I once saw a school reluctantly appointing its first counsellor for just a couple of grudging hours a week. These days, a counsellor is likely to be one of the most valued – and busiest – members of staff. Now it is commonplace to find schools with a counsellor on tap half a week and probably wishing for more.

But the Counsellor may well be seen as a resource for students – what of staff?  

The physical things are fairly simple – most of the battles for decent refreshments to be available in the staffroom are surely won. Such a trivial thing, but like a stone in a shoe, often a cause of irritation. Good coffee, fruit as well as biscuits or cake, are now commonplace. I remember days of having to bring a mug, wash it up, dry and put it away because catering staff were far too busy to cater for staff – who did they think they were, that someone should tidy up after them?  

So far so good. But employing someone to remember birthdays and arrange cards and birthday bashes? Many a Head already manages a card for all members of staff, indeed, takes pride in doing so, and perhaps a member of staff would value such a card more than one provided by the person employed to do such things. Arguably, it’s the fact that the Head does remember you personally and writes the card accordingly, that adds to your happiness quotient – it suggests you matter to the Head, which is what matters. You might not care at all about being remembered by the Head of Happiness’ spreadsheet/app which keeps them up to speed with important personal dates and pokes them into action. If the truth is that the Head never did remember, but had a super PA who kept an eye on such things and presented the Head with a card – ‘sign here!’ –  well, perhaps the effect was the same. It may not have been truly personal, but it appeared so, and that was the trick of it.

Appoint someone to do the happiness bit, and what are you saying? ‘This matters so much to us, we are going to make it a real job.’ Or ‘Having someone employed to do this will make you think you matter to us and we really care about your happiness – we don’t, but we want to give the appearance of doing so.’ Tricky stuff.

The other problem, of course, is the money. The sheer hard cash in a tight economy. Techie start-ups may have the spare cash, but schools? Every penny is accounted for. But, honestly, how much was left at the end of the year? Might some of the surplus have been ploughed back into a broad-brush intention to help everyone in the school to be happier, however that might be effected? I quit one school where I taught in a temporary classroom so far flung from the main building and the cosy staffroom that I wore out wellington boots tramping through mud and grew to hate the enormous green mac I wore four or five times a day just getting to class in a dreadful winter. Happy?  I was simply livid most of the time. The creation of a new school while the old one was still in use by some 800 students and their dogged staff created an environment so dreadful that if I had received a birthday card from the Head – and I remember that I did not – I think I’d have torn it up. 

And funnily enough, just doing so might have made me – for a moment – quite happy. 

Hilary Moriarty is an independent advisor for schools, a former Head and former National Director of the Boarding Schools Association


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