The Thinking School: a glimpse into how autonomy can empower teaching staff

For the last few weeks, Sam and I have been reading about the workplace landscape in the UK, teacher wellbeing and theories that reflect the basic needs of workers. It’s not all been about the reading though; we’ve been lucky enough to be granted some time away from teaching to visit The Relationships Foundation in Cambridge, and more recently, we had a fascinating and insightful meeting with the some of the Talent team at Ogilvy’s London office, who run a successful programme to support the wellbeing of its employees, named Thrive.

Before escaping the classroom and putting some of our questions to those more experienced than us in the field of wellbeing, we had some uncertainty about how to conceive of a viable model in which a school environment can nurture both staff and students. We began to ask ourselves: is it possible to achieve a harmony between the demands of school curriculum, exam results, workload and facilitating the wellbeing of staff? Is it realistic to create a school culture that isn’t purely focused on the academic progress of the students? And finally, can teaching staff be valued in a way that promotes our autonomy, allows us to feel trusted and supported, and enables our own professional growth?

The answer to all the above is yes. And we’ve seen it in practice through the work of Executive Headteacher and author, Dr Kulvarn Atwal.

Dr Atwal’s book, ‘The Thinking School’, was a fascinating read; we were compelled to visit. So, after a few busy weeks in school, we eagerly seized the opportunity to go during Year 11 Mock Week (anything to escape the monotony of mock marking!) At 9am, on a dreary December morning, we arrived at Kulvarn’s school in Redbridge, London. The weather was dull: incessant rain, grey skies and bitter winds. But the atmosphere inside the school couldn’t have offered a more stark contrast: Kulvarn’s enthusiasm radiated throughout the entire building and the classroom displays put secondary schools’ to shame.

We met with Kulvarn and Sandeep, Associate Headteacher, for an inspiring presentation on how the school develops a culture of empowerment, trust, autonomy, community and continual reflection and improvement. Their philosophy is a powerful one: teachers should be trusted to create a curriculum in collaboration with other teachers, authentically engaging in, and trialling, research methods to facilitate student learning. The result: incredible student progress, staff who feel invested in through their own professional development, and an environment that is permeated by a feeling of trust. Whilst the children are at the centre of everything they’re doing, this isn’t to the detriment of staff wellbeing. It’s refreshing to see. Teachers take ownership over the curriculum and are encouraged to study for Masters Degrees, funded considerably by the school. “What if the teachers take advantage of this generosity and promptly leave after their studies?”, Kulvarn revealed he’s been asked. His response was admirable: “So what? They’ll go on to have an effect on students elsewhere!”

The passion radiates.

Meeting with various staff members throughout our morning at the school allowed us to see Kulvarn’s philosophy in practice. And how insightful it was. Staff were unanimously in agreement that they felt valued and supported, that they felt the leadership, although the school avoids such hierarchical terminology, were empathetic, approachable and have a genuine interest in the professional development of each member of staff.

The ethos of the leadership is fascinating; there is a completely open door policy where teachers are free (and clearly take full advantage) to come into Kulvarn’s office unannounced, propose a new idea and ask his thoughts about how to plan and deliver it; he then briefly touches base with them over the next weeks and months as they are empowered to carry out their idea or project. Having interviewed the teachers at length, the confidence and positivity they have seems rooted in this knowledge that at any point, they are in control of their workload, what they teach, how they teach, and the direction of the school.

This ethos is a game-changer. Kulvarn admirably holds the stance that being consistently monitored results in teachers who stop thinking; he suggests that without autonomy, you leave your brain at home. We are teachers because we enjoy learning and want to be challenged. Kulvarn’s ethos promotes self-development within a supportive environment and the power that this has to unlock potential in teachers is immense.

The students were no different to the staff. Articulate, engaged, reflective: the benefits of a school where teachers are happy are undeniably palpable.

We are so grateful to have been given the opportunity to see the work of Dr Atwal in practice. It leaves us with an overwhelming sense that there is hope for the profession; that school leaders can do more to look after their staff; that our research can facilitate actual progression in the wellbeing of teaching staff through very simple principles: trust, autonomy, collaboration and empathy.

We’re excited about the journey ahead: stay tuned!

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