Relationships are at the heart of a great school

Henry Stewart's picture

Two years ago Sir Alasdair Macdonald gave this speech at the Happy Schools conference, organised by the Guardian and my own company, Happy Ltd. Reading it again I believe it deserves a wider audience. Sir Alasdair focuses on values, relationships and trusting your people as the keys to a great school:

The idea of happy schools is not a soft option

"I expect I am already among the converted today, so I don’t want to say too much about the Why, but rather about the How of this. Before saying anything else though, I think there is a tendency with the media in particular, and the politicians and so on, to think that ‘Happy Schools’ is somehow a soft option. That somehow it’s going back to the 80s where we put our arms round children and didn’t have high expectations.

"I don’t think it is that at all and certainly wasn’t the perspective of the school where I was Headteacher  We had outstanding Ofsteds, we had very good exam performance, we had very little gaps in terms of pupils. So it is about still having incredibly high expectations.

"When Henry contacted me it reminded me of something that happened about a year before I retired. We had a visitor in school who visited many schools and at the end of the day she came into my office and said “why is staff morale in the school so high?”

"It was quite an interesting question. Obviously I was quite pleased to hear that. Yet obviously quite worried that this wasn’t the case in lots of schools because she was “shocked” to find high morale, which says something quite significant.

"It made me think about this and also unfortunately reminded me of what I suspect will be with Michael Wilshaw forever: “If morale in the staffroom  is at an all time low you must be doing something right”. That is probably the worst quote I have ever heard from Michael.

"But that question she asked me made me start to think about what we had been doing in the school. I couldn’t pretend for a moment that what we had in the school had been planned from the beginning, from when I became the headteacher.

"I think events in the previous 10-15 years, the amount of external change we’d had to manage was massive. It’s always changing, its always there. What it made me realise in fact was that what's important are the values that underpin what is going on.

The importance of core values

"And my view is probably that over the last few years as leaders and headteachers of schools, we haven’t as a profession been strong enough to hang on to the core values that we should have in our schools. We’ve allowed governments to push us and pull us all over the place.

"I think the crucial thing in this discussion this morning is the thing that has to underpin our schools is strong values that you cling to, which drive the school and in particularly in times of change. For me there are just a couple of fundamental values which are there.

"One is to do with relationships. I think relationships are at the core of good schools. I think headteachers are key within that. However I also think for me personally, perhaps even more important than that, is the idea that everyone in the school - adult, teacher, sports staff, pupil - has potential and is capable of doing whatever they are currently doing better.

We need to celebrate success

"Now it seems to be that that is a ‘duh’ sentence. Why would you be in education if you didn’t believe that? Why would you be in a school if you didn’t believe that? Unfortunately I think much of what happens in schools at the moment has become rooted in the opposite of that, which is about making sure there isn’t failure. Ofsted, performance management, all these things are about rooting out the failure, rather than supporting and celebrating success and professional development.

"And I think in schools when you get that really strong core value mindset about relationships and about belief in people, you are going to get consistency. By that I mean the way the headteacher interacts with the staff, and that has got to be the way in which the staff interact with the pupils.

"A friend of mine went on a course recently, a history teacher, and it was about creating independent learning in year 11 teaching. Yet the whole day was planned from start to finish. They didn’t understand that pupils don’t learn from teachers who are told what to do. And I think you have to have that institutional consistency in that you want the way you interact with the staff to be the way your teachers interact with students.

"If you’ve got inconsistency then the institution won’t function well. You can have institutions that function well with consistency that isn’t based on trust. Going back to Michael Willshaw, his institution worked well. I didn’t agree with the way he did it but there was institutional consistency.

"So going back to the values. I think it’s important that schools are all at different stages. Somebody earlier was talking about Mckinsey. There are different stages; schools will have to have different strategies at different times depending on where the school is, but the values can underpin that whatever stage your at.

"If you are in a stage where the school is really struggling and you’ve got to drive the school forward in a more mechanistic way, those values can still underpin that. That is the crucial thing, you have to hang onto those values.

Are we deprofessionalising schools?

"You can go into schools where I think that has become the end game. You create systems that are about monitoring and checking everything that moves.  If that is the means to get somewhere where you then start to behave differently then great, but if that becomes the end game and something you carry on forever then we’re not in a good place.

"And unfortunately I think that’s happened in a lot of schools. That style of professional management I think is leading to the deprofessionalising of teaching and the exit of so many young teachers. Some schools actively burn out teachers, get them for three or four years, get as much out of them as they can, knowing that they will probably move on.

"This seems to me a terrible way to operate. So I think leadership has to have the courage to hold values. The worst things I hear - “don’t show weakness to your staff”, “never say sorry” - we still have people talking in that way. 

The more power you give away, the stronger you become

"My belief is the more power you give away the stronger you become. So in terms of practicalities, I think there are fundamental things about relationships. When I retired a couple of years ago, it was fascinating what people said to me. One of them was something like you always say good morning to me whenever you pass me (if it was the morning), and I thought well there’s something to that.

"Somebody else said “that time when you let me go to a funeral, when it was just a neighbour, it wasn’t a relative, thank you”. And its all these little things that are remembered by staff because they help to create that culture. And the work-life balance is incredibly important and to know whats happening in your staff’s lives.

"I think my default position is yes. I think when people come to you with ideas the default position should be yes, lets think how we do that. I think that immediately creates an environment where people feel supported and encouraged. The default position is often about the negative. 

Trust your people

"I know of no schools where the majority of staff can’t be trusted and yet we base our model on the minority, and often it’s a tiny minority, who can’t. One of the great things to do is to keep a little bit of money, have a slush fund. When people come to you with a great idea you can actually support it.

"That’s a huge liberating thing. A lot of the best schools I go to are playing around with the school day. Once a fortnight sending the kids home early, in order to get that extra time that staff need. Absolutely it's about investing time in the staff, I was surprised that was so low at 4%, when we did a survey that came out incredibly high, staff felt that professional development and us supporting professional development was extremely important.

"Going back to that statement from that visitor, why was staff morale so high? I think it is because the values that underpin the school are there and are incredibly strong and in all our actions we are acting out what we believe in. We don’t move when the agenda changes and those values can be recognised.

"I believe that relationships are crucial and that everyone who is in the institution can achieve better than what their doing at the moment. If that underpins the school, then you can do all the other things. Because people know that’s there, they will want to come to work and they will enjoy their work. "


Sir Alasdair received his knighthood for service to education. He was headteacher of Morpeth School in Tower Hamlets for 16 years, rated Outstanding by Ofsted and celebrated for its work in reducing disparities. 

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 08/02/2017 - 11:05

I agee with Sir Alasdair on attending funerals. As a head I always allowed staff time off to attend them. To have rules based on the category of relative is inappropriate and insulting. Children can be very close to grandparents/Aunts/Uncles etc who often played a large part in upbringing. Then there is the question of support for the bereaved spouse/parent/son/daughter.  For some, the loss of a close friend can be just as harrowing as the loss of a relative. It is surely a personal decision that any reasonable employer should support, especially in a school where all staff should be able to rely on the support of each other.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.