Lessons in Leadership – Building Relationships

Nick Gibb in School

Leading a large comprehensive school of 1650 students and over 150 staff presents many challenges. Having had the unique opportunity of setting up a new school I often think about what the key ingredients are of creating a successful school.

In October 2011 we were graded as ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted. The report opened ‘The school’s effectiveness is outstanding. The headteacher, governors and all staff are rightly proud of what has been achieved in the school’s first decade.

Without doubt the key to the success of Oaks Park is that it has been built on relationships. In Jeremy Sutcliffe’s book ‘The Desert Island Challenge – 8 Qualities of Successful School Leaders’ he has a section on relationships and values. He quotes Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon, who believes that ‘relationships matter more than anything else when it comes to establishing a happy and successful school’ He goes on to say ‘if you want to get the best out of your staff you have to build good, trusting relationships’

My views arevery much in accord with those of Roger Pope and in setting up Oaks Park this was the key to developing the school. The school is built around relationships. Relationships with staff, students, parents, governors and the local community.

Ofsted recognised the quality of the relationships that existed within the school. In 2003 Ofsted commented ‘the head teacher and staff have established a very positive and ethos and harmonious atmosphere in which strong relationships are based on the mutual respect of students and staff’  I did not write the above but I couldn’t have wished for any better vindication of what I had wanted to achieve at Oaks Park. In the 2003 report it also went on to talk about staff commenting, ‘they treat students with respect and they are generally treated with respect in return. This has helped to establish the strong relationships on which the school’s harmonious and trusting ethos is built’.

Future Ofsted reports also recognise the quality of the relationships that exist in the school. It is also something that is commented on by visitors who often refer to the special atmosphere they have found in the school, even if that have been unsuccessful at interview!

How have we achieved this? Well undoubtedly in setting up a new school there are considerable advantages as we started with a small staff who got to know each other and the students very well. However this is not the case now, where we have over 1650 students and 150+ staff.

The work we do at Oaks Park is built around teams. We don’t have Heads of Department we have Team Leaders. This is because the school is based on teams, groups of individuals working together in the best interests of the students. We have a Senior Management Team. I expect them to be highly visible around the school and having hundreds of conversations every day with staff and students. We are at the gate in the morning and after school and we are also around every break and lunch time. We are a very visible presence to staff and students.

It is important to know your staff. You need to show an interest in their work and their achievements. I have an open door policy as if a member of staff wants to discuss something with me I want them to be able to do so. You will need to deal with lots of personal issues and often you will need to be compassionate and show understanding. You may need to be flexible in applying policies. You will get re-paid many times over.

It is really important to know your Senior Management Team and spend time making them feel valued and part of the decision making process. You need to speak to them daily and be readily available for them. You are only as good as your Senior Management Team.

I always make it a priority to speak to all staff within the school as often as possible. This includes the cleaners, the caretaking staff and the canteen staff. It also includes meeting as many visitors to the school as possible, particularly the regular ones. Of course as part of my role at parents’ evenings I try to speak to as many parents as possible.

Finally in developing a harmonious atmosphere within the school, a key part of this is the way in which staff work with students. Our staff show a real interest in the students as can be seen by the large number of extracurricular activities available to them. The students appreciate this and respond by behaving for the most part in a way that enables the school to be a positive environment for students and staff to work.

Developing relationships takes time. But if you want to get the best out of your students and staff it is essential that you build good, trusting relationships that enables everyone to flourish.

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