A safety device designed to support the head

Co-founders Andrew Morrish and Ros McMullen tell us why we need Headrest

Never before has the job of running a school been so challenging, not just for headteachers, but also for CEOs, governors and trustees. As a system-led profession, we need to come together and offer a much-needed mutual support service, acting almost as a safety device for headteachers. Most importantly, in order for it to be available and accessible to everyone, it needs to be free. This is where Headrest comes in. 

We know that in many schools, heads are very well supported, be it in a MAT, federation, cluster or LA. But there are too many out there who are not so lucky, new headteachers especially, who are not able to access the traditional suite of face-to-face induction support as a result of the lockdown restrictions. It must be especially tough for them, not knowing what 'normal' looks like.

The job for headteachers has become so incredibly difficult that we are genuinely worried we will have none left going into 2021-22. Balancing the operational with the strategic is always a key challenge and something heads are constantly reflecting upon. 

Add into the mix the safeguarding concerns thrown up by the pandemic, the regularly changing and often inappropriate guidance from the DfE, the misinformation and coordinated onslaught on the profession from certain quarters of the media, and the desperation to get things as good as they can be for the young people they serve, the job can feel un-doable.

Most headteachers have been working with almost no time off since February: organising keeping schools open for key workers (remember most schools never closed totally); ensuring vulnerable children and families were fed; adapting safeguarding processes to check on the vulnerable; managing plans for ‘reopening’ with constantly changing demands; having to deal with the exams fiasco.

On top of this, heads have also been recalibrating budget and operations to respond to the pandemic, as well as; managing the concerns and training needs of staff; constantly responding to problems caused by increased staff absence; allaying parental concerns and managing complex communications, and strategically planning for a variety of scenarios in student assessment to ensure no young person is disadvantaged.

And then there's the spectre of Ofsted, forever hanging over their heads, the ultimate Sword of Damocles waiting to fall. Are schools being inspected or not this term? How will assessment data and school performance impact on future Ofsted judgements, given that the stakes will still be as high as ever? How will schools ensure they can provide continual schooling at home when they have limited funds and the families have little or no money? 

The solution? As always, headteachers will take it on the chin, step up to the plate and deliver as best as they can. This element of the 'old normal' will never go away. It will always be in the DNA of a headteacher to strive to do the right thing, regardless of the cost to their health and wellbeing (and not just of themselves, but also their staff, pupils and community).  

They are doing this with a complete lack of leadership from the Department for Education who are constantly changing guidance in areas they don’t need (headteachers are best placed to know how to make their schools safe), and none in areas where decisions and leadership are required (examinations in 2021).  

Stress levels are higher than we have ever seen. Headteachers are very good at managing the morale of others and ‘putting on the public face’, but need to ‘off-load’ to those who understand. It is in this context that the @Headrest_UK service was launched by a number of recently retired headteachers led by Andrew and Ros. We started out originally on Twitter, but the launch of this website means that every headteacher across the country can now reach out to us. We hope that colleagues will share it far and wide and that every governing body brings it to the attention of their headteacher.

The free service means that these experienced headteachers, who coach and mentor serving heads and senior executive leaders, are offering ‘a listening ear’ free of charge for those who are exhausted and needing to chat with someone who understands. One of those involved is Pete Crockett, a retired special school head, now a governor who blogs about governance at @moonrakerteach:

“Governors are desperately concerned about the wellbeing and safety of pupils and staff within the schools they govern. Governors particularly worry about the impact of the Covid pandemic on the children and families; they also worry for the staff team’s wellbeing as they are working flat out to meet often impossible demands with insufficient funding. Governors can also feel more distant from the school as a result of only being able to keep in contact with the school via online media.

All these frustrations are further exacerbated by it seeming that both national policymakers and the Department for Education, in their plethora of directives and guidance, have forgotten that governing bodies are made up of volunteers fulfilling this role alongside other workplace and family commitments.

All of this makes being a school governor in the midst of the Covid pandemic both stressful and demanding and I am involved with the Headrest initiative specifically to provide the support for governors.”

Central to Headrest is the fact that it is instantly available. We see ourselves as the first-responder almost. We aren't here necessarily to give advice, but if we feel a colleague needs it, we have a team of ex-headteachers who we can refer them on to. We aren't here to judge or to tell people what to do or how to do it. Other organisations can do this, such as unions or professional associations. 

Our job is to listen, and then to reassure, reaffirm and help recalibrate. By also showing heads how to refocus, our priority will always be their mental health and wellbeing. Leading a school can be a lonely job at times, and so by simply knowing that somebody is there for them at the end of the phone that knows how they are feeling might help. 

You can read more about Headrest and the impact of Covid in this article by Melissa Benn.

A similar version of this article features on the Innovate My School website here