Writing on LinkedIn, Alice Early, headteacher at Kings Hill School - a community primary in West Malling, Kent - highlights the importance of trust in fuelling personal and collective growth within primary school settings.
“Trust” means “the firm belief in the reliability, truth or ability of” something or someone.
We trust every single day.
For example, we trust that the stationery order will arrive, we trust that the security will lock up the school building at night, we trust that the first aiders will carry out their role when a child falls over and we trust that teachers will convey correct subject knowledge to pupils. If we examine countless decisions taken during the school day, we often rely on trust in another individual’s decision or actions.
When trust is misplaced, we learn from it. Trust is based on reliability and learning through repeated experiences. Therefore, if we cannot rely on something, we plan for contingencies and look for alternatives. That is our human instinct when something goes wrong, that to put it right we need to find a different solution.
But should we not think more carefully about how to build trust within a school and the value of building trust, so we jointly learn how to be successful rather than just seeking a contingency method when things go wrong?
By learning how to build trust not just for staff but for pupils too, will it link with our ability to be resilient and our ability to cooperate with others? Does building trust ultimately enable a culture of innovation and managed risk-taking that supports schools to flourish and grow at both a staff and pupil level?
To build and encourage trust and fuel personal growth, we must firstly give people the freedom to learn.
When I first started teaching in 2002, it was in a one form entry primary school in Eltham, in southeast London. There was no such thing as ‘performance management’. I remember it as something that was mentioned from time to time in staff meetings, but never actually happened and so nobody really knew what it meant! Lesson observations were also quite rare. In fact, I remember essentially as an NQT just ‘getting on with it’. There was little guidance and in actual fact, there was huge professional trust that I would teach the children what they needed to learn and that they would make good progress. Although it was the time of the National Strategies and QCA, I was still given freedom in selecting appropriate activities for the children and finding the right resources. I absolutely loved my experience as an NQT, and I know the trust element was crucial in this. I felt motivated because of this and gave huge amounts of my time to do everything I could for my class.
Although nowadays, things are very different in schools and NQTS are given much greater guidance, I learnt something about the importance of trust to give freedom to individuals so they can develop their talents and capacity. From my own experiences, I was able to grow professionally and learn from my own mistakes by the trust that was given to me. There is a danger that if you are constrained through lack of trust, you never learn from your mistakes. From that same one form entry school, out of seven class teachers, three of us have gone on to be headteachers and a fourth, a deputy headteacher. Clearly the headteacher at the time [now retired] understood the importance of trust for development and personal growth. I believe that he gave ‘earned autonomy’ to staff, in that he recognised and made certain of my abilities first and then allowed me greater autonomy. It is quite likely that things would have gone wrong, if the headteacher had given such freedom without first making sure of our ability to do the job. Interestingly, although I remember low levels of accountability, the school was still high performing. In fact, in a study entitled ‘Trust in Schools’, Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider found that those schools with the highest achievement levels also had the highest levels of trust within their school communities.
In the classroom, teachers and s upport staff model trust to children from a young age by incorporating the school values into everyday practice and social interactions. By giving children responsibility, children learn that they are to be trusted. By showing respect to others, they learn to trust others. By cooperating with others such as their peers, they also learn to give trust and demonstrate trust. Encouraging kindness allows children to learn trust. It is vital children develop the ability to know when to trust or mistrust a situation as they grow up into adolescence and adulthood. During the primary years in particular, children are in a psychosocial stage where they learn trust through social interactions.
Children can also develop their understanding of trust by feeling safe and secure. If we feel safe, trust can be built that leads to our own personal growth. This is because feeling safe ultimately allows us to connect with others. Schools must ensure that children learn and play in an emotionally secure environment.
I have identified three ways in which trust can be developed within a school to enable collective growth. School leaders can create a system whereby trust is built over time allowing the whole organisation to benefit.
The first of these ways involves creating a supportive environment. This means creating an environment where teachers are supported; examples are meaningful professional development, concern for wellbeing, reducing unnecessary workload, supporting work/life balance, involving staff in decision making, ‘earned autonomy’ and understanding individual barriers to success. Coaching too can really harness talents and provide opportunity for supportive development.
The second is balanced accountability. David Didau discusses trust in his recent book, ‘Intelligent Accountability’. To create the right environment for success in schools, trust, accountability, and fairness should be held in balance. He says that if we are given too much trust, we become complacent and similarly if there is no trust and accountability then stakes are too high. We also cannot perform our best as we feel like we must ‘constantly look over our shoulders’. There must be a ‘judicious balancing of trust, accountability and fairness.’
Often schools with lower academic performance have far greater accountability systems which in turn restricts trust growing and makes it harder for meaningful school improvement and trusting relationships which are needed for success.
Similarly, not checking the progress of objectives can create a feeling that someone’s work is not valued. Creating the right accountability system needs careful consideration from leaders.
Thirdly, for trust to develop within an organisation, leaders need to be authentic. By this, I mean that leaders need to demonstrate that they are honest, have integrity, humility, are compassionate and seek to make a difference. Leaders should recognise they are not perfect but believe that everyone has the capacity to improve and be responsive just as teachers are responsive to their pupils. It is important for leaders to model the right behaviours and respond constructively to problems, allowing others to learn too. Most importantly leaders need to ensure they develop a high level of self-awareness to ensure authenticity.