Staff well-being

In my first week at a school for students with severe (SLD) and profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD) I was badly bitten on the bottom by a girl in Year 4 whilst on duty in the playground. At the end of that same break time I attempted to enter the main building only to find the door handle and, subsequently, my hand covered in human faeces which had been left there by a young boy with autism.

Previously I had worked at a school for boys with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. Soon after arriving I was sent on a week’s course to become a tutor in restrictive physical intervention. The week after passing the course I stood in the school car park, rooted to the spot, laptop in one hand, lever-arch file in the other, as a Year 10 boy ran from one end of the car park to the other screaming that he was going to hit me. Despite my training, and, to his credit, his clear warning complete with expletives for added emphasis, I did nothing. I stood there honestly believing that nothing would happen. He then proceeded to punch me in the head. At least I didn’t drop the laptop.

In addition I have been bitten, kicked, spat at, had furniture thrown at me, had my lab trashed, been threatened by parents, had students die (including one double murder), had parents die (including one suicide) and had colleagues die. I am not an unusual case in having had that breadth of experience and some colleagues have fared worse. Having been through all of that my one school-induced visit to A&E was as a result of cutting my hand open whilst washing some glassware in my science lab before school one morning.

To the uninitiated these examples may paint a picture of special schools as places that barely resemble mainstream schools but that would be a mistake. The percentage of special schools graded as outstanding by Ofsted (35%) exceeds that of primary (17%) and secondary schools (22%) and PRUs (15%) with only early years’ providers (57%) bettering that figure. The pattern is also true for schools graded good or better.* Interestingly though special school headships remain the hardest of all to fill with over half of all vacancies having to be readvertised in the 2012-13 academic year.


Very few adults choose to work in a special school for an easy life and those that do don’t last long. Every student that attends a special school finds learning difficult by definition. They are challenging places to work because of the significant educational, social and health needs of the students and the demands that this places on the adults working in the school to make the environment orderly and ready for learning. Professionals, therefore, choose to work in special schools often because of a deep-seated desire to support those human beings for whom the world as it is today is a very difficult place for them to thrive. It is therefore vital as a leader to consider the toll that working in a special school can take on professionals. Staff will accept the challenge, relish it and rise to it if they feel that the systems are in place, suitable training is provided and the support is available when it is needed.

It is fair to say that, despite experiences such as those outlined above, I was slow as a Headteacher to tackle this issue. As a leader I have found the line between getting the best out of my colleagues and improving the school and overworking them to be very difficult to judge. There are some obvious indicators to staff welfare with absence being the prime one. Sir David Carter, the Regional Schools Commissioner for the South West, told me years ago that he could tell you all you needed to know about staff morale by looking at the staff absence data of a school. There’s obviously something in that. I am also reminded, though, that the current Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said that, as a Headteacher, if staff were saying morale was at an all-time low, then you must be doing something right. I find that much harder to believe.

There’s more to it than staff turning up for work. In a special school they’ve got to be firing on all cylinders. There’s no place for my old Head of Department whom I worked for in a selective boys’ independent school, who told me proudly, “I talk to the students as little as possible and their work is up on the board. I have enough practical kit for them all to work individually and in silence.”

Once it became clear to me that I needed to pay closer attention to this issue I sought from staff their key needs in order for them to perform at their best. There are obviously many ways to do this but we chose the Diamond 9 method which prioritises needs with the most critical being at the top, the next most important in the second level, and so on. It was done during a training session on restorative approaches to resolving conflict that we use at our school. Staff were presented with approximately two dozen cards detailing various needs such as money, responsibility, promotion and some blanks to add their own. The results, detailed below, remain important to us two years on.

Staff well-being poster

At the end of the exercise I was conscious that this could be another activity that drifts off in to the ether never to be seen again. To prevent that I committed to reviewing our progress against these needs regularly. I also display the results around the school on that poster to ensure prominence and it also serves as a daily reminder to me and the other leaders in the school.

Prior to this our annual staff questionnaire was a somewhat dry and dusty document that sought the view of staff on matters about which I should already be aware such as student behaviour. This was undoubtedly fed by my mistaken desire, as a new Headteacher, to gather reams evidence for an Ofsted inspection.
Our staff questionnaire now asks what we do well and asks for suggestions for improvement in each of these nine areas. This information is of much greater value to the senior leadership team and gets to the heart of the matter rather than asking inane questions about homework. Within the next 12 months we will go through the process once again to see if the needs are still current.

In addition to focusing on those key areas we try to take care of the smaller details that contribute to staff welfare. We have a staff well-being committee, of which I play no part, that organises social events and charity fundraising opportunities. We provide flu jabs for staff and are looking at providing hepatitis jabs too after I was bitten earlier this year. There is free tea and coffee for the staff, obviously – why would a school not do that? The whole staff also took the decision to ensure we could all have one family day per year. Colleagues agreed to cover each other to allow staff to attend graduations, sports days, friends’ weddings and other events that school-based professionals often have to miss. I have been influenced in this by John Tomsett’s thinking on staff welfare in his own school (

For my own part I focus much more now on effective communication with staff as this was something that I was not good at to begin with. We have daily briefings and I publish a weekly bulletin, which governors also receive (don’t forget governors’ welfare), and this is an ideal forum to praise colleagues and ensure recognition. I also publish a termly How Well Are We Doing? report containing the key performance information that is given to governors in my termly report.

Finally, don’t forget your own well-being – check that door handle before you come in from break duty.

This article was published on the National Education Trust website in October 2014 –


6 thoughts on “Staff well-being

  1. Thanks Jarlath, excellent post and just as relevant for mainstream schools too – I’m going to use it as a resource at a staff/governor workshop on Saturday where it’ll be particularly helpful as you highlight the need to remember governors’ welfare too. Will also share with the Special Schools I work with and I’ll find out more about the Diamond 9 approach, too – you’re our “Star of the Week” now, thank you!

  2. Fantastic post, Jarlath. I have such admiration (and awe, frankly) for the job you and fellow Special School headteachers do.

    Just one comment about your ref to when “the current Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, said that, as a Headteacher, if staff were saying morale was at an all-time low, then you must be doing something right.” I’m no great fan of SMW but this remark has been taken out of context and used so many times to suggest that’s his belief. In fact, as he explained very well at a ‘Seizing Success’ Conference a few years ago, it was a sardonic response to the sort of ‘all the staff feel that…’ comment that heads sometimes are faced with. The one thing you know, as a school leader, is that whatever is quoted is definitely not what ‘all the staff feel’…. SMW doesn’t really think that low staff morale is a good thing in a school.

    Thanks again for the post.

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