I find myself writing this blog post for 2 reasons:
1. Over the course of the next 6 weeks I will feature heavily in a documentary series made by the production company Label1 to be broadcast on BBC 2 - ‘School’
2. I wish to shine a light on my own experience of leading schools in challenging circumstances, with the same intent as the programme referred to above, to spark a debate about the state of the education system in its current iteration.
I believe, my own experiences, described here and shown in the series will resonate with many school leaders up and down this country. It is not my intent to deliver a blow by blow account (I’m saving that for the book!!), rather to describe some of the key contexts and decisions taken whilst managing a challenging set of circumstances. It is the first in a series of blog posts that will aim to discuss some of the broader challenges that we all face.
In 1997 I trained to be a teacher. I didn’t have any particular desire to work in education, it had not been a long-held career aim. In reality, I stumbled into it. At best I endured the college sessions. However, from the moment I stepped into the classroom with my first attempt to deliver a lesson and light the fire of science learning in students, I loved it. For the first time in my own education and working life I had found something that I really enjoyed doing and to my own surprise appeared to have some aptitude for it! At the end of my training year I secured a teaching position with my main placement school. Over the next few years I grew in confidence, buoyed by the impact my lessons were having on students. I guess I was fortunate to be working in a confident organisation surrounded by brilliant colleagues who guided and helped me. I was also fortunate to work for a very inspiring headteacher. Leadership opportunities came my way and I took them. I loved teaching and the craft of teaching, but I also loved pastoral work – I really enjoyed working with kids. I became a Head of Year, then a Head of Science and finally an assistant headteacher. From those early leadership opportunities grew a desire to be a Headteacher – I believed (and still do) that if I could impact on students as a teacher then I could broaden that impact by leading and working alongside my colleagues. If I was to secure a headship I felt I needed more than one school experience, I secured a deputy headship at another school. I continued to learn and develop but my core belief did not change. I wholeheartedly believe in the power of distributive leadership, for me it is not about how good I am at something but that as a leader I can help others to become better at what they do.
Headship, here I come!
(Leadership applications are a brutal process, from the moment you start to pen your application letter you are riddled with a strange mixture of self-doubt and self-confidence. For me this also defines leadership “I can do this/I can’t do this”! In part this is driven by the context of our profession, we labour, with moral conviction and good intent in a sector operating as a deficit model – the negative rhetoric is relentless and presented, sometimes, gleefully, in the media ‘education is poor/inadequate, it needs to improve’. Is it any wonder that the profession is racked with self-doubt! I will expand on this in later blogs.)
After a few failed applications I was successful at Marlwood School. Some context. Student numbers had been falling for a number of years, simplistically this had been attributed to the school not providing a good enough education resulting in parents sending their children to other schools. Whilst there was an element of truth in this, what had not been looked at in any depth was the local demographic, in short there were not enough students in the area for the school to ever return to the size that it had been in the past. This point is very important for the context of my leadership at the school, the lack of any action or forward planning to address a problem which had been known about since 2008 created a key issue that needed to be urgently addressed and would impact on everything we did educationally and financially. In December 2013 the school was inspected, the headteacher at the time was absent and the staff did their best in very challenging circumstances with no leadership. The LA were heavily involved as was the CEO of an emerging trust. The school secured a Requiring Improvement judgement on the understanding that it would join the trust and rapid action would be taken to resolve the issues. The remainder of that academic year would be spent trying to secure the best results possible for Year 11, recruiting a new headteacher, restructuring and working to restore some sense of order prior to the school joining the trust formally in December 2014.
Marlwood felt like a school where I could achieve something. It was clear that the school had endured a difficult few years. At the time of my interview it did not feel as if these would be insurmountable. I was struck by the openness of the staff and the acceptance that something was not right and it had to change – the ‘burning platform’ was obvious to all and there would not be a need to overcome resistance from the staff body. Completing ‘due diligence’ whilst being interviewed over a 48 hour period is nigh on impossible in my experience. The budget, as presented, looked good and there was even some carry forward to help soften the increasingly tight finances. More than that it felt like a good fit for me, I liked the school, the staff and the students. The fact that it was joining a trust also gave me confidence.
Once I had been offered the job I spent the remainder of that academic year finishing off my work as a deputy and working to get up to speed on my new school. This is a strange period of time in the education world, you feel like you are holding down two jobs, excited about the one ahead and sad to be leaving the one you had
To be continued...