Why schools need to put staff first

Written by: John Tomsett | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A new education book offers a ‘2030 blueprint’ to revitalise our schools by unashamedly putting our staff first. Co-author John Tomsett – a school leader and the co-founder of the Headteachers' Roundtable – explains why it is staff, and not students, who must come first…

In 2014, I began writing my first book called Love Over Fear: Creating a culture for truly great teaching. It was a book which swam against the cultural tide.

It was published some five years after Michael Gove’s academies legislation was brought into force, and a year after performance-related pay (PRP) was made mandatory in schools.

My attitude then was distinctly anti-academisation; our approach to PRP was that our teachers had to “unearn” their right to a pay rise. More recently, those people running schools have largely accepted that changing school structures has little impact upon improving student performance. Great teaching by great teachers is what makes the real difference to young people’s lives.

Now, in 2020, as we find it increasingly difficult to recruit high quality teachers, the mood is changing and, far from being an alternative view, much of what I wrote in 2015 is becoming mainstream thinking. That said, there is one important paragraph that I now believe needs amending:

“One of the most obvious truisms about schools is that when it comes to educating students, teachers are your greatest resource. Any headteacher who explicitly puts the students first hasn’t thought that decision through; the implication is that teachers are less important than students. The best thing for students is a happy, motivated staff; by putting the staff equal first with the students you are doing the best you can do for the students.”

Five years on, I think putting staff first does not require qualification. I think we need to put staff first, period. “Students first” is a misplaced sentiment; Professor Michael Fullan, noted that “children-first stances are misguided”.

By putting staff first, you are on the way to providing for students the one thing which will help them make good progress in their learning: truly great teaching.

The thinking behind the new book – entitled Putting Staff First: A blueprint for revitalising our schools – is best exemplified by an oft-used metaphor: If cabin pressure falls inside an aeroplane and the oxygen masks drop down, parents are directed to fit their masks before they fit their children’s. It is obvious why. Once hypoxia – a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the brain – sets in, even the simplest tasks become impossible.

Symptoms of hypoxia vary from person to person but include blurred or tunnel vision, hot and cold flashes, euphoria, numbness, tingling, apprehension, nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue and belligerence.

Without an oxygen mask, within a few minutes parents suffering from hypoxia will be incapable of fitting their children’s masks, let alone their own. If parents fit their oxygen masks first, it turns out to be better for their children, who have a competent, healthy adult to support them through what can be a challenging experience.

The parallel with being a teacher is striking. If we do not ensure, first and foremost, that our teachers are happy, healthy, well-qualified, highly motivated, hard-working, well-trained experts, they cannot be their best for their students.

Consequently, a school which does not prioritise professional learning and managing staff workload – which, as a consequence, will help improve staff wellbeing – is disadvantaging its own students.

What we need – as recruiting subject specialist teachers, school leaders and specialist support staff becomes increasingly difficult – is a revolution in how we treat the adults in schools.

An article published by the OECD Observer in 2007, entitled Attracting and retaining teachers (Schwartz et al, 2007), said: “What is the most important school-related factor in pupil learning? The answer is teachers.” If the authors are correct, then we have to put our staff before our students because it is the only hope we have of securing what our students need most: top quality teachers.

The longer our schools are populated with hypoxic adults, we imperil all our futures.

And while we are determined to put staff first, that does not mean working in a blueprint school is an easy ride; far from it. We expect teachers to work hard and to be the best version of themselves they can possibly be.

If high-quality teaching is the only thing that really matters when it comes to improving students’ outcomes, it follows then that we expect teachers in blueprint schools to accept the professional obligation to improve their practice; indeed, we consider that to be one of the most important aspects of being a teacher in a blueprint school.

The leadership wisdom in this book is neither dogmatically based upon educational research evidence nor is it solely derived from our experience – it is a synthesis of both. What is common to everything we propose in our blueprint is that we unapologetically put staff first.

We have a communal responsibility to help teaching in our schools improve, right across the system.

Working on this book with friend and colleague Jonny Uttley – I am a traditional headteacher and Jonny is CEO of the Education Alliance Trust – epitomises a third way of working. It is no cosy collaboration, but cooperation with mutually high aspirations to improve working conditions for all our colleagues, irrespective of the school structures within which we operate.

A blueprint is an “early plan or design that explains how something might be achieved”. Ten years after the academies legislation disrupted the structures of the English school system irrevocably, we want to look forward 10 years hence, to a revitalised school system where our nation’s teachers are thriving and, consequently, so are our students.

  • John Tomsett is headteacher at Huntington School in York and co-founder of the Headteachers' Roundtable. John and co-author Jonny Uttley, CEO of The Education Alliance MAT, set out their shared vision for a revitalised school system which “unashamedly puts staff first” in their recent book Putting Staff First: A blueprint for revitalising our schools. Visit www.johncattbookshop.com/putting-staff-first


Schwartz, Wurtzel & Olson: Attracting and retaining teachers. In OECD Observer (261), May 2007: https://bit.ly/2AKLDM6


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