Your body knows what it’s talking about. 

I’ve been putting this one off. I know I’ve got to include it in my blog at some point but I’m nervous about approaching the subject because I don’t want to totally gross you out. 

I have been open about a significant period of stress in my working life in previous blogs. The fact that I got through it all those years ago, that I’ve learned a considerable amount from the experience, and that I now feel ready to share some of it shows that there is always a positive corner to turn. Wellbeing is a big part of my daily life and it is turning into a recurring blog theme – I guess you never really know what is going to surface until you start writing.

So here goes. I now recognise that I had been going through a low level of continually rumbling stress (probably the most damaging kind because you think you are functioning normally) that was slowly rising in a crescendo for about 18 months. 

I can see that I had all kinds of symptoms. For example, I would sit in the weekly SLT meeting and literally itch all over. I’d buy nit shampoo on the way home because I was convinced that I must be totally infested. My body was screaming at me that there was a problem but I chose to be practical and stalwart, chin up and keep going. 

Eventually, in an effort to be heard, my body tried a different tack and decided to introduce IBS.

Before you can be handed a diagnosis of IBS you have to go through a whole raft of tests. Over the testing period I had 3 endoscopies, a cystoscopy and a CT scan, and I saw a lot of consultants. Eventually, probably because they hadn’t found anything tangible, I was told; “You have IBS, take these drugs for the rest of your life”.

By the time I was diagnosed, however, I was actually in a much better place emotionally. I had a new job, a supportive Head and colleagues, I fitted in and was happy (and there were no more skin issues). So I decided that there must be an alternative to a life of popping stomach calming pills after every meal and I hit Google. 

Basically I just stopped eating what my digestive system had decided it doesn’t like. That is gluten, dairy,  eggs, fresh grapes; and it is also much happier when I’m not eating sugar (real or synthetic – including fruit!)

Yes it can be rather limiting sometimes (I’m not popular in restaurants) but if I fall off the ‘wagon’, boy do I pay the price!

I guess in the back of my mind I thought that my digestive system would heal itself and I could go back to a normal diet eventually but I’m still waiting for that. The good news is that I’ve been referred to a specialist IBS clinic later this year so maybe they can help repair me on the inside.

So, in true blog fashion, from my experience I’d like to share two pieces of advice;

1. Listen to your body. It knows what it is doing. It will protest in a myriad of ways and just keep upping the ante until you stop and take notice. 

2. Take the time now to research ways to manage stress, build yourself a toolkit and use it all the time. Stress symptoms creep up slowly. If you get to the point, as I did, of being overwhelmed, you’re too late. 

Finally, I hope you’ll now understand my dislike of ‘cake culture’. I think it’s only because I can’t have it that I see how much my colleagues are eating and it’s taken my SLT 2 years to stop apologising that I can’t eat the cake they’ve made!

Introducing SWOT’s big brother – PESTLE

I don’t know about you but sometimes I get so engrossed in the little bits of nonsense that goes on in a school that I forget to take a breath (or have my lunch, or go to the toilet!) It is like when you have been staring at your screen for so long, and when you look out the window everything is a blur. 

Sometimes it is good to remember that there is, actually, a world out there and that it is, unrelentingly, having an impact on what you do in your everyday life and work. So let’s take a moment to look at the big picture and use a PESTLE analysis to help. 

PESTLE, used frequently in the business world, is an acronym (or mnemonic) for the external factors that most commonly effect the functioning of an organisation and is, I find, particularly relevant to a school;

The factors are; Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental

I’m sure you already have loads of influences leaping straight into your mind but I’ll list a few that spring towards me just to get you going;

Political – Politics infuriates me, mostly because as I can see it as the distraction that is supposed to be. Don’t want me to talk about the Funding Formula debacle? Throw in a grammar school threat? Don’t want me to realise that your manifesto is so scant to be practically non-existent? Threaten to change the FSM entitlement. Whatever your view, schools need to keep up with the political situation so that their curriculum planning is informed and their budget is accurate! Who are your local representatives? What do they know about education? Get them in to talk (you’ll need them on-side).

Economic – Brexit is still a big unknown. If the cost of living rises will more families be looking to schools to support them? How could you do that? And what is happening to funding? Up, down, fair or unfair? Who knows? Plan for every scenario!

Social – this includes housing (your staff need somewhere affordable to live), transport links and local infrastructure. You might have one big employer in your area, how does it effect you? What would happen if it moved? What are your demographics? Age, ethnicity and income profiles? Are they changing? How? 

Technological – what is your broadband speed like? How easy is it for you to access IT support? Are you reliant on an authority or external supplier for advice? How can you stay that step ahead of the students? Who can help protect your data? How at risk are you from data corruption?

Legal – Do you have a relationship with legal support? How do you ensure you are up to date with employment law? What if a member of staff falls over a manhole cover? Compliance, compliance, compliance!

Environmental – Are you in the city or by the sea? Is your local population transient? Do you have industry near you that effects you environment? Are you in an AONB? Are any of your buildings listed? How do you ‘sit’ in your environment and how does it impact your school. 

Once you start thinking about a PESTLE it is hugely interesting and made even more so because every one will be different. Give it a go, you’ll be amazed at how vulnerable your school is to external factors but realise that you can prepare for change. 

Forewarned is forearmed and all that!

Challenging Behaviour? – For Jack

My youngest son (pictured a VERY long time ago) asked me the other day if I could write a blog on “managing stupid people” to help him cope with an issue at work. Jack is coming to the end of his year in industry as part of his University course. He got an excellent (and very highbrow) placement but still, work relationships anywhere can be difficult. 

After getting some more information from him and imparting some advice (mostly revolving around “stay out of it”), I pointed out that we usually call them “challenging” rather than “stupid”, and it is the behaviour that is challenging, rather than the person! 

But it got me to thinking about what I actually knew about the subject. Of course every situation is different but what is the general advice when you work with someone whose behaviour is tricky to manage? Here are my thoughts;

1. Defuse the situation. This might mean that you need to give them time to calm down, move away or let them have some ‘time out’. A state of high tension is no place to resolve even the tiniest issue. 

2. Listen to their concerns or complaints. The fact that you have listened can sometimes be all they need. Don’t judge, agree, disagree, or try to resolve the problem instantly. Be attentive and let them talk it out. 

3. Be objective and try to understand their point of view. They might have a real issue that you can use to make improvements to your working practice. (I’ll admit that this one is quite hard and takes a significant amount of emotional intelligence – see earlier blog Am I Emotionally Intelligent? !)

4. Manage their expectations. When you have identified the actual issue, you might find that there isn’t an obvious resolution, it might not be something you can control, or it might be something that you will just have to agree to disagree on. Don’t forget that there is always the ‘Do nothing’ scenario. But you need to tell them that. You might like to say that you’ll keep it under review if it helps them accept it. (Note – make sure you keep it under review).

5. Help them find solutions. There is nothing more satisfying than having a problem and finding the solution yourself. Don’t take that away from them and take over. Help them towards a resolution and then give them all the credit for the work. 

I’m sure that these aren’t all the tools with which to deal with colleagues who can make the workplace tricky to be part of. It is worth remembering that there is always a resolution to a problem or a way to help someone whose negativity impacts on everyone, even if, as a final straw, it is to manage them out of the organisation. 

Hope that helps you Jack xx

Stronger than yesterday

You will have guessed by now that an important stress-busting tool for me is finding a distraction. I couldn’t do my job without it. It can be a very small thing but doing it regularly gives my brain something to think about other than where the heck I am going to find the money for that new laser cutter tube.

For five years I posted a “thought for the day” on the VLE…every school day…for five years…until someone convinced The Boss that it wasn’t valuable and he told me it was time to try something new (it was at that point I turned to blogging so, although it pains me to say it, he was right!)

Finding a new “thought” or, more usually, a quote for 190 days of the year is no mean feat, but scrolling through all the incredible things people from all walks of life have done or said, gives you an amazingly positive outlook on life.

I’ve think I have probably used all the most popular ones over time. My very favourite is still – The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones – it reminds me that I have to keep moving forward, embracing change and innovating. That I’m not going to get anywhere by standing still.

I also love the Ronald Reagan quote “When I’ve heard all I need to make a decision, I don’t take a vote. I make a decision.” This reminds me that I am responsible and accountable for my own decisions, good or bad. And that I also must take responsibility for the decisions of my teams too.

Lastly, a quote that inspires me every time is something Spock says to McCoy at a time of high tension on the Enterprise. “If crew morale is better served by my roaming the halls weeping, then I will gladly defer to your medical expertise”. This helps me remember that my role is to lead teams and manage processes, to be strong, to solve problems and resolve issues, not collapse in a heap when the going gets tough or someone tries to put me down.

And what makes me strong? My family (of course) with their wonderful diversity of personalities and interests as well of the strength of our love for each other. The fields surrounding my home. Getting enough sleep, exercise and eating right. Letting my hair down occasionally. Inspirational people (like you). Mindfulness and yes, those little distractions that even in a day full of nonsense makes me feel like I have learnt something

So when I stop learning, when I stop growing stronger, when I stop being challenged, when I stop being excited by change…that is when I will hang up my SBM boots and retire. Hopefully that day is still a long way off!

Out of the mouths of babes. 

I’m conscious that I often write or speak about my Dad but rarely about my Mum. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps because her career in children’s services was confidential and we didn’t really talk about it. Growing up, I was just vaguely aware that if she was dressed in a suit it meant that she was spending the day in court.

Of course, stories occasionally came out. Like the time she admitted that she couldn’t allow us to drink out of a milk bottle because she had worked with a child who was only able to wee if he did it into one.

Retired now, and enjoying a life of travel with my Dad, she is still upright, curious and involved. She volunteers in a charity shop but, you will understand what I mean when I tell you, they don’t let her use the till.

My parents are Mr Chalk and Mrs Cheese. Dad is highly technical, what marketeers call an “early adopter” in all things technical. (Our house had a tracking dish connecting to the newly launched satellites so that we could watch tv from all over Europe!) Mum is a people person, gentle but firm. She is an amazing Mum, one of those types to whom you can tell anything and I always knew she had my back. She would have made a great teacher but for the fact that she worked to find solutions for children with much bigger issues than school.

It doesn’t come out often but she has an incredible sense of humour and she was telling me recently of a conversation with a small boy she met at a bus stop.

For their retirement my parents decided to purchase a base flat in the local city, near their family but something they could leave to travel the world. The flat is within walking distance from the city centre but Mum gets tired quickly and now catches the bus home after her volunteer shift.

On this day she was sat at the bus stop next to a fidgety boy. The boy was busy swinging his legs and his exasperated mother was losing patience, so my Mum decided to distract him.

“Hello, what’s your name?”

“Charlie” he replied.

“How old are you Charlie?”

“I’m five.”

Charlie then thought for a moment and leaned in close to Mum. In a very serious and confidential voice he imparted words that only someone so young and innocent can say…”Little old lady, you’ve got a bogey.”

Trying hard not to giggle, my Mum did what a five year old would expect. She reached for a tissue, blew her nose and said “Thank you Charlie, is that better?”

After a moment of close inspection Charlie replied, “Yes it is, little old lady”.

It took my Mum some time to tell us this story as she kept laughing. She loved Charlie’s ability and confidence to speak out and his concern that she shouldn’t continue her journey with “a bogey”. But most of all she loved his choice of name for her…

…even at 76, my Mum is still 5ft 8! A “little old lady” she is not!

Pickled eggs is grounds for divorce

The time has arrived. Like I knew it inevitably would. I am starting this blog without any idea in my head of what it’s going to be about. I’ll decide on the title at the end.

I have so much swirling around my head this evening that it is difficult to produce much in the way of coherent thought. Perhaps if I list them here I can tease an interesting subject out…

1. The MAT budget. I’ve worked with the schools and got their budgets approved, all that is left is to join it all together, along with the central allocation budget, and it’ll be ready for Trustees. Then I will prepare to embark on deciphering the EFA budget return again so that I can hit the deadline of 31st July. At this time of year I always take a moment to thank my old monitoring system as it is relatively easy to manipulate into what the EFA wants as well as providing suitable outturns for Governors and SLT. It also doubles as a fantastic modelling tool so I can tell you instantly how much of an impact a p/t M6 is going to have on the budget in 2023!

2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream needs a backdrop. I’ve been hassling the Drama teacher to produce an outdoor Shakespeare play in our new amphitheatre (which sounds very grand, and is also a misnomer the Latin teacher tells me as it is not a complete circle – think large sunny patio with steep semi circular steps to sit on.) Anyway he has consented (and roped a few willing KS3 in) but the massive Dining Hall window will need covering with a curtain so I’ve agreed to get my sewing machine out!! The things I get myself into…

3. It’s spending fury time again. At this time of year we close down purchasing (or rather we tell everyone we have – of course if they need something we’ll accommodate them – I’ve been doing my current role for 6 years and you’d think someone would twig that we don’t actually close down!) All the budget holders frantically try to spend their budget by my “deadline” for fear I’ll take it away (I’ve never done that either!)

4. Pickled Onions. Having known Barry for 30 years it has just come to my attention this evening that he likes pickled onions! Yuk! I’ve made it quite clear that pickled eggs is grounds for divorce!

So that is four big things going on. I’ve also got website design, prospectus photography, other budgets modelling, a new building that got planning permission last week, grant evaluation returns and electricity that won’t go where I want it to (my senior caretaker eventually resorted to drawing me a diagram this afternoon). All with a month left until the summer break.

Sometimes I wonder who would be an SBM…you’re right, I love it!

P.S. And see? The title found itself!

SWOT now?

Congratulations! You’ve done your SWOT analysis. You’ve chosen a not-too-broad section of your school. (Trying to look at a whole organisation in one go is often too massive a task). You’ve researched, discussed, gathered opinion, consulted and analysed. You have your SWOT. Now what?
There are lots of websites telling you what a SWOT is and how to produce it, but not so much on what to do with it when you have it, probably because the variables are endless. But there isn’t much point in going to all that effort to produce a framework for your research if it is just going to sit in your file as proof that you must be a leader…you’ve done a SWOT analysis! 

It is sometimes counter-productive to share the SWOT table itself with the uninitiated but it needs to be converted into competitive advantage for your school and (after all, the reason we’re all here) be of benefit to your students. 

So, let’s look at some possible examples;

Your SWOT analysis looked at SEND provision in your school. You have listed the fact that you have a long-standing SENCO as a Strength. He/She is well regarded in your area and achieves visible results both academically and pastorally. So with your team now think about;

1. Do you effectively communicate that Strength on your website, newsletters and prospectus? Do your “customers” know it is a Strength?

2. Do you use your SENCO to impact all students or just the ones eligible for support? Could they improve outcomes for a wider body of learners. 

3. Is your SENCO involved in training your other staff?

4. Have you also listed your SENCO as an Opportunity? Could you offer their expertise to support staff in other schools?

5. Are you over-reliant on your SENCO so have you also listed it as a Threat? What plans do you have in place should they leave or retire?

These questions can now be converted into tangible actions; Communicate your success in SEND to your community, find ways of disseminating their practice outside the department, make local schools aware that you are open to collaboration, and also plan for staff succession. 

Your SWOT has succeeded in its purpose to deliver school improvement. 

Your next SWOT analysis looked at your site and building stock. It is clear that, due to the age of your school, you have some small Weaknesses that, while not currently effecting your ability to deliver the curriculum, will need to be addressed to ensure long term sustainability and anticipated growth.

1. Use what you have found to draw up a five year premises plan.

2. Talk to other schools and experts in your community to gather advice and experience. 

3. Sort out your “wants” from your “needs”.

4. Prioritise the “needs” (I know that sounds rather obvious but you must be focused and ruthless.)

5. Show stakeholders your plan and consider Opportunities for fundraising, grants and bids for capital.

Again, your SWOT analysis started you on a path of specific action to achieve resolution of a future problem, also leading to benefits for your staff and students. 

The usefulness of a SWOT analysis cannot be underestimated, but it is what you do with it when you have finished it that is the real test of its capacity to improve your school.