Tranformational leadership in schools:
Are ‘Transformative’ rather than merely ‘Transformational’ Leaders the key to a mentally healthy school?
The 2017 Department for Education Survey1 “Supporting Mental Health in Schools & Colleges” found that overall schools in the UK report having a clear commitment to, and activities aimed at, creating mentally healthy schools. However, as we saw previously instances of mental health related issues in teachers and pupils alike are rising; leading to a “Catch 22” of increasing attainment targets for schools at a time when significant and growing numbers of staff and pupils are less able to function at their best.
Identifying the Solutions
In order to identify solutions; we first need to better understand the problems facing children and the impact of their mental health issues on school life. The DfE have established that in any given year around 25% of children will either have (10%) or be at risk of (15%) having a diagnosable mental health issue. The Centre for Mental Health’s2 research has shown that whilst there are a whole range of issues that affect children’s mental health status, the most common outcome displayed is conduct disorders (severe and persistent behavioural problems). As well as directly affecting the child’s own ability to learn and achieve, these behaviours also risk disrupting the education of their peers and add to the challenge for teachers of achieving pupil performance related targets; leading to increased stress.
An education review study published in January 2019 interviewed 39 teachers who had experienced long-term absence from work due to mental health issues together with six senior school leaders who had dealt with mental health issues among staff.
Much of what the study revealed highlighted the key role that the managerial style and approach of senior leaders plays in affecting teacher morale and ultimately their mental health. The study found teachers felt under constant scrutiny and pressure to perform to unrealistic expectations. It also highlighted how managerialist approaches to education led to a loss of teacher decision making about classroom practice leaving many teachers feeling they had little choice but to prioritise management targets over the non-academic needs of individual children.
Whilst having effective provision for supporting children’s mental health plays a vital role it seems that having leadership that genuinely seeks to change the landscape of the whole school is the key to addressing the problem. A real illustration of this appeared in an article in The Telegraph4 in 2016 looking at schools where a proactive approach to children’s wellbeing and resilience formed a central part of the ethos. This evidenced many positive benefits (including in one school, a 20% improvement in SATs results in 12 months – something most teachers can only dream about).
The common factor in the schools described is not so much what they did, but that the leadership in those schools recognised and acted upon the need to truly transform the wellbeing landscape in their schools.
If we are to see a more universal improvement in wellbeing in our schools, it seems that having Transformative rather than the more usually recognised Transformational Leadership is the key.
1 Department for Education
2 Centre for Mental Health
3 Study conducted by The Bamford Centre for Mental Health & Wellbeing at Ulster University
4 The Telegraph