School management – the Downton Abbey way

Kate Gilliford
Kate Gilliford

This festive season marks the end of an era – the Edwardian era! On Christmas Day, after all the turkey, stuffing and sprouts, the last episode of Downton Abbey will air.

For many fans, Downton Abbey is pure escapism into a lost world of romance, fashion and dry British wit. However, as the series has progressed, I’ve noticed that running Downton Abbey is an awful lot like running a school.

“Don’t be daft”, I hear you say. “Carson would never stand for the disorder of a school!”. I grant that the settings are quite different, but, when you think about it, the staffing issues faced by Lord Grantham and headteachers are pretty much the same.

Downton

  • Recruitment and retention are a problem – finding and keeping a trustworthy lady’s maid is just as tricky as finding a good maths teacher
  • Personal relationships matter – there have been four staff weddings at Downton Abbey by my count: Anna and Bates, Carson and Mrs. Hughes, Daisy and William, and Lady Sybil and Branson. While it’s unlikely romance will blossom with such regularity in a school, how teachers work together is really important. If teachers don’t get along, pupils’ learning suffers
  • Staff get pregnant – how schools should support expectant and new mothers and fathers is pretty clear. I seriously doubt that Downton has a maternity and paternity policy to consult now Lady Mary’s maid Anna is pregnant
  • Staff get sick – when a teacher is off ill, schools often get bogged down in paperwork like fit notes and return to work forms. At Downton, the word of Dr Clarkson is sufficient
  • The working hours are long – both in schools and at Downton, twelve-hour days are not uncommon. Staying up late to mark books or polish the Earl’s shoes are equally exhausting
  • Staff need training – a school’s continuing professional development (CPD) programme is closely linked to the quality of teaching. CPD is also important at Downton Abbey. Daisy and Mr. Molesley both recently pursued academic ambitions, Barrow learned how to be an ‘under-butler’ (whatever that is), and way back in series one, Lady Sybil helped Gwen the maid get a job as a secretary

I’m not advocating that school leaders make Lord Grantham and his senior staff their role models, because Downton is not the perfect place to work. Nobody is DBS checked (Miss Baxter wouldn’t have got a job there if they were) and no one pays any attention to health and safety. And when was the last time anyone had more than half a day off, barring medical emergencies  – or being locked up on suspicion of murder, like Anna and Bates?

But there are some things we can learn from the Downton management style. Whenever a staff issue emerges, it is handled first and foremost with compassion. Whether it’s to do with absence, conditions of employment or pay and progression, Downton always puts the welfare of its staff first.

So perhaps next time a staff problem crops up, school leaders should ask themselves: what would Mrs. Hughes do?

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