Why are you in my building?

Direct. Clear. Seemingly straightforward.  Perhaps too blunt? If our receptionist decides to use this as an opener, she may not receive quite the answer that she wants. But my feeling is that it is one key question we should be asking as school leaders.

Take our students. They are in our building because they have to be at an establishment to learn. This is generally called a school. Someone, probably they or their parents, decided that this school was either the right, or perhaps the least worst option, given the legal requirement for education. So they are in our building, through a combination of force and choice, to study. Therefore, I need to make sure that they do learn. And that they needed to be in our building to do it. If they are here and receive any poor quality teaching, they would be quite right to complain.

Equally, if they are being asked to do things that they could easily do at home, we have to consider why we are asking them to do those things in our building.

Take reading. Easy to do anywhere, including on the train and in the bath. And at any time of day or night. So why do we ask students to do it in the classroom? There needs to be a good reason. Take writing. Again, pretty easy to do almost anywhere. There are pens that work underwater and plenty of pencils in IKEA (or plenty of IKEA pencils in my nine year old’s bedroom). But why do we ask students to write in our buildings. We need to consider the precise rationale.

The initial question is as important to ask of our staff. They are in our building to do all or part of their jobs. The teacher has to fulfil their directed time. The member of support staff has their hours to work. There is a general assumption that teachers will need to work beyond these 1265 hours a year when planning, preparation and marking are taken into account. And a general feeling that support staff will be paid over and above their hours and probably not have to plan and prepare outside their contracted hours.

But as our schools increasingly become businesses, as heads increasingly become business managers and our schools are increasingly filled with those who haven’t trained to teach but whose presence in the school is vital to its smooth running, there are some questions to resolve. Is the cleaner there in the school ‘just’ to clean and the teacher there ‘just’ to teach? Is the Finance Director, Business manager or the Head needed in the building at all? Is it really clear not just why we are employing someone but which parts of their role need to be done while they are physically present in our buildings?

Take our Home Support Officer. Much of her role would seem to involve being out of the building, visiting parents and being welcomed into their homes. When she is in school, she helps extricate students whose behaviour is challenging from classrooms; our on-call system.  Good luck trying to operate the latter remotely or the former from the school building.

And our IT Manager. Teachers know that someone needs to be there to help when the technology fails (maybe the students?), but is the IT manager better suited to creating online platforms for learning and interactive websites that the students can access outside school hours, and then delivering training for teachers after school hours?

As always it is the role of the leader to bring a degree of order to seeming chaos: a clarity of purpose and direction amidst a sea of voices. I think we need to help all who come into our building understand why they are really there and then we need to communicate this message carefully to all in our wider community. For the individual it is therefore worth asking: ‘Why am I in the building today?’ As well as the contemplative and rather frightening, ‘And what have I brought in with me?’

Julian Dutnall is Headteacher, The Frances Bardsley Academy for Girls, Romford.

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