Gary Wilkie talks to Rachael Gacs about how the Learning in Harmony trust has put wellbeing at the heart of its work and culture.

Gary Wilkie

We have spent the past few years building a strong culture at the Learning in Harmony trust which has put wellbeing firmly at its core. We’ve always believed wellbeing should be at the absolute heart of everything we do, and that has placed us in a very strong position to support staff wellbeing through this particularly challenging time. At the moment I think that the personality and culture of every trust is being magnified, and I know that the way that we’re operating during this time is building on, and further demonstrating, the values we have always believed in at Learning in Harmony.

How have you built up a culture of wellbeing at the Learning in Harmony Trust?

We have been strategic in developing a culture with wellbeing and openness at its heart over the past few years, and that starts with really trying to understand the things that affect wellbeing. We do annual staff surveys across all of our trust schools, and we use the same survey in each school so that we can do comparisons- not in a punitive way, but so people are able to get together and discuss what’s working in each school, and what can be improved. The fact that we do staff surveys isn’t particularly ground-breaking, it is how we act upon them which is key. Our trust wellbeing group (made up of members from across all of our trust schools) come together and discuss what can be done to improve wellbeing in each school off the back of these surveys, so that they have a real and tangible impact. The wellbeing group also does regular visits to each school, and takes the opportunity to learn what works in each individual school; members can then take ideas and initiatives back to their own schools and try them out.

Another way in which we’ve built up a culture with wellbeing at its heart is by working with our leaders from the book ‘The Fearless Organisation’ by Amy Edmondson. I bought a copy of this book for every leader in the trust from assistant head level upwards, so that they could use it to do a piece of work on psychological safety, specifically, the kind of things that you need to do to create psychological safety for your staff. As teachers we are very good at creating psychological safety for our children, but can neglect to do it for ourselves. With this in mind, we encouraged staff to consider how some of the tools which they use in the classroom day-in, day-out, could be extended to how they deal with colleagues. For example, there is no reason why a focus on growth mindset (Carol Dwek), and the concept of ‘being in the learning pit’, shouldn’t work just as well with staff as they do with our pupils, and it’s been helpful to get people to consider this more consciously.

As teachers we are very good at creating psychological safety for our children, but can neglect to do it for ourselves

One of the main ways we ensure that wellbeing is always a priority across our trust and our communities is through our Collective Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy. The CSR strategy is all about putting our values into practice every day, and engaging everyone in the trust with helping to create a happier, more socially and environmentally responsible organisation. The strategy addresses five key areas; people, curriculum, community, good causes, and responsibility. The ‘people’ aspect of the strategy is specifically focussed on improving, maintaining, and protecting the wellbeing of every person across the trust. We do this in a number of ways, including through policy reviews, representative groups who discuss improvements to wellbeing- which are then discussed by trust-wide leaders, and also by having a CSR champion in each school. Our CSR champions are usually teachers in their second or third year, who we are supporting to become leaders through this role- it’s a strategic part of the way we implement early leadership. Through coaching our CSR champions learn about change management and how they can implement it, and learn how to influence people to bring about positive change to their school environment.

How have you supported and maintained staff wellbeing at the Learning in Harmony Trust during Covid19?

Whilst wellbeing is a priority across our trust at all times, we have, of course, had to respond specifically to the current situation, and implement new strategies. About three months ago we realised that we had to ensure we were being proactive, rather than reactive, in how we responded, so we asked the question, ‘when we are looking back in September, what would we want to have achieved during this period?’ The answer has included (but is not limited to) the following objectives:

  • Our pupils have remained safe and well looked after
  • Our pupils have increased general knowledge, life skills, and awareness of the world in which we live
  • Our parents feel that they have been supported in keeping their families safe, happy and purposefully occupied
  • The wellbeing of our staff is strong, they feel that they have been well supported and have a positive attitude towards returning to work in our schools

This strategic approach has had a profound impact on our decision making, as it has helped us to focus on what is important, and to reflect on exactly how each decision we make is supporting us to achieve our objectives. It also means that all our staff are clear about what we are trying to achieve, and understand how they play a vital part in making these objectives a reality. We aim to look back at this period knowing that, wherever possible, we have done the right thing for everyone in our community.

We put together a number of groups to implement the strategies which would help us to achieve these objectives, each of which would focus on one of the aspirations we had set out, and made up of representative members from each of our schools. The group focussed on staff wellbeing has been key in setting out new initiatives, ensuring our staff are well-informed and well-supported during this time, and ensuring that communication remains strong despite the change in circumstances. Many new strategies have emerged from this group, including:

  • sharing and promoting online social events that are taking place in the trust (quizzes, coffee mornings etc.);
  • making a range of resources available for staff to engage with individually and collectively, that recognise and support different types of personal challenge;
  • building a resource bank of thematic articles, blogs, film clips, podcasts and websites that support wellbeing;
  • outlining a clear communications strategy to ensure that we keep in touch with every member of staff, especially those who are shielding, and systematically sharing how each school has been ensuring regular contact with staff;
  • creating a document with advice to support staff in working from home, and distributing a ‘working from home’ survey to identify any issues staff may be facing while working from home, so that they can be supported.
  • use of the trust-wide shared google drive to share useful resources, including wellbeing resources as well as lesson resources.

However, to only focus on the group which specifically deals with staff wellbeing, and outline what they have put in place, would not be telling the whole story. That’s because within the culture of our trust, everything we do ultimately comes back to the issue of wellbeing. For example, in the group that’s looking at our education offer, the first questions asked weren’t ‘what is the best IT system for us to use?’ or ‘what’s our curriculum coverage going to be during this time?’. Instead the conversation started with members asking, ‘what are the things that we need to avoid?’, and the answers were things like ‘adding a burden to families’, and, ‘conning ourselves into believing that children completing lots of tasks is equivalent to real learning’. We decided that the wellbeing of our children, our families, and our teachers needed to be at the heart of our educational offer during this time. We wanted to ensure that families didn’t feel that they had to do a particular thing at a particular time of day according to our timetable, and that there was always a range of activities available that they could choose to engage in. We also didn’t want our staff to feel the pressure of having to teach online lessons as soon as our schools closed to the majority of our pupils.

We decided that the wellbeing of our children, our families, and our teachers needed to be at the heart of our educational offer during this time.

The approach we have taken as a trust is to create ‘learning challenges’ for our pupils. Our main educational offer has been through these learning challenges, and we believe that this approach has helped to support the wellbeing of pupils, parents and teachers alike. Through our shared google drive teachers are able to share the lesson resources they create with one another, and many of those resources have been co-created, which has helped to reduce workload at a difficult time. That ability to share across schools so easily is one of the brilliant things about being part of a trust. All of our learning challenges are created in the same kind of format, so that they can be posted on any of the school websites across our trust. We’ve also greatly benefitted from the generosity of the Robin Hood Trust who have shared their own learning challenges freely; we have been able to take some of those, and amend them to fit with our own context. We have also shared some of the learning challenges created within our trust with them. There’s no doubt that this kind of collaboration has supported the wellbeing of our staff immensely.

We have also encouraged parents and teachers to use twitter, so that activities taking place at home can be posted with the hashtag #lihtlearningchallenge, and anyone from across the trust can see those pictures and comment. This is one of the things which has helped us to keep that sense of our trust community strong. I think the most important thing in all of this has been maintaining our connection with one another throughout our trust during this time, and despite being physically apart, everyone has made a great deal of effort to ensure that we have not been emotionally apart as a community. Ultimately, wellbeing is not just a list of things that you do. In schools and trusts it is found in the every day acts of kindness and care that make a difference, including your attitude, what you say to people, how you smile at them when they enter the room, and how well you listen, and I see these acts of kindness and care demonstrated within the Learning Harmony Trust every day.

Key learning points

  • Make use of (consistent) staff surveys across the trust to really understand the factors which affect wellbeing, and then use this information to identify best practice, share ideas, and take positive action to further improve wellbeing.
  • Consider how strategies used in the classroom to promote the psychological safety of pupils, and encourage a growth mindset, could also be applied to staff and colleagues too.
  • A clear commitment to social responsibility within your trust will lead to increased wellbeing across your communities.
  • Keep your desired outcomes at forefront of your mind when making decisions, and ask yourself how your decision will support you in achieving a desired outcome.
  • Wellbeing should never be an afterthought, but a key starting point for all your planning and decision making.
  • Communication and connection are a vital part of maintaining wellbeing across an organisation.
  • A culture of wellbeing is not simply created by completing a checklist of actions. It is created by every day acts of kindness and care that make a difference, including your attitude as CEO and how you model this to others – including what you say to people, how you acknowledge people when they enter the room, and your ability to listen!

You can follow Gary on twitter at @grwonline

See a video about the culture at Learning in Harmony Trust: https://lihtrust.uk/