The secrets of a happy staffroom

Written by: Liam Donnison | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A vibrant staffroom can make a huge difference to a school. Head George McMillan gives Liam Donnison his perspectives on leading a happy and motivated school team

London headteacher George McMillan’s recipe for a happy staffroom is, on the face of it, a disarmingly simple one.

“Work/life balance is really important but the most important factor is whether that work environment is toxic or not,” he explained.

“You can work in an environment for five hours a week and break with stress or you can work much longer hours in a place that’s the opposite of toxic and be perfectly happy.

“It’s about creating an environment that is as far from toxic as you can possibly make it.”

George believes he knows an unhappy school when he sees it. In 2011 he took over the headship at what is now Harris Academy Greenwich, working with Dr Chris Tomlinson as executive head.

Things were at a low ebb. The school had been placed in special measures. The staff were unhappy, terrible pupil behaviour was endemic and attendance was at 88 per cent. Results were poor – just 28 per cent of GCSE pupils had achieved five good GCSEs in the year he joined.

George can now declare that the school is “smashing it” with some justification. It has been outstanding since 2014, staff retention is good, morale is high and exam results have been consistently in the top 25 per cent in England for the last four years.

“It’s about high staff morale, great training and sustainability, which leads to happy, well taught kids and great results. Finding balance in all the elements of a school is crucial,” he told me. So what are the key ingredients of George’s approach to building and sustaining staff morale?

Trust is crucial

“You’ve got to support staff and crack behaviour. From the beginning I said to staff: ‘If you contact on-call we will be in your classroom to sort out any problem within three minutes.’ People were sceptical. I said to staff that we would be on the gate every morning at 8am to welcome children into school.

“More than six years later, our on-call deadline is now two minutes and we’re still waiting at the front gate in the rain every morning.

“I also try to teach regularly. I currently teach up to 10 hours a week and do three hours’ intervention every week. You need to be able to walk the walk if you are to build trust.”

Mention the elephants

“When there is one in the room you should call it. When I arrived some people were in denial about the school being in special measures or what the specific problems were.

“It was having the bottle to call it – I just name the issue, without blame or judgement, so we can address it. For example, when I present to staff every Friday and I think the atmosphere is feeling flat I’ll just say so and then announce that I’m closing the building at 4:30pm sharp and tell colleagues not to mark over the weekend and go home and have a rest.”

Foster a shared sense of change

“Be clear on why change needs to happen. When we don’t understand why we’re doing something, we don’t buy into it. There are four conditions for successful change: new information enters the system; there is a shared sense of purpose about the change; people are given an input into what and how the change is going to happen; everyone understands how final decisions will be made.

“For example, we recently wanted to tighten up our behaviour systems even more. First I provided the information: staff were spending too long in detentions and kids were skipping through the net. Next, shared purpose: we want to reduce workload for staff and tighten the net. Next, we consulted key figures to float the new procedures past them. Finally we presented to all staff, then trialled it. After two weeks, we sought feedback and tweaked the system so everyone was happy with it. After half a term, it was like that system had always been in place.”

Evolve your vision

“When we were a failing school, our vision was vital but we needed to it to be simple and sharply defined. Brochure-style straplines were no good – it needed to be truthful, simple and something that our staff could buy into.

“‘Being the best you can be,’ is rubbish. ‘Good in a year’ was ours. I think it worked well. We coupled it with a mantra about our behaviours – ‘pace, purpose, pride’ – that the staff could use all the time with our kids and each other and still do. As we moved from good to outstanding our vision became ‘we want to be a unique and outstanding place of learning for all’.

“We did lots of work with staff on what this vision meant to them. By the time we were smashing it our vision became about creating ‘successful students who behave with integrity, demonstrate courage and live happy lives’. These words have become central for how staff operate too.”

Respect your team and have fun

“A shared ethos of enjoyment and achievement is crucial. In 2014 we got into the top 10 per cent of GCSE results in the country and were judged outstanding by Ofsted. But it was a time of mixed feelings for me. I asked the staff if anyone was having any actual fun because I certainly wasn’t.

“Achieving the very best for our pupils and having fun shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. There are small steps that we as leaders can encourage, such as coaching, team-building activities and being sensitive to people’s work/life balance.

“I encourage authenticity at work – we have great ‘craic’ and there is a huge amount of laughter at work. While accountability is important, I do not want staff to fear management, or Ofsted or whatever. We work on intrinsic, not extrinsic motivation: at the heart of our motivation strategy is for staff to really feel a sense of shared purpose, a sense of increasing mastery, which then leads to a sense of real autonomy.

“I knew of a head who was in many ways a much better head than me whose mantra was: ‘I burn out my staff and then get more’. That’s just not good enough for me.

“I think it is possible to have highly motivated staff who enjoy their job, achieve great results and can get home to see their kids – and are still teaching in five years’ time because they haven’t burnt out. We only get one life: let’s live it well.”

  • Liam Donnison is managing director of Best Practice Network, a national provider of professional development, training and school improvement.

Further information

George McMillan shared his perspectives with aspiring heads as part of Best Practice Network’s programme of head-led school improvement webinars. Registrations for a webinar tonight (Thursday, May 25) on leading a culturally diverse school, are open at Details on future webinars are available by contacting


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