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.
The rhythm of the year, Year 3 for me. The added ingredient? We were definitely getting an OFSTED visit this year. We continue to do all things we had in our plan, we face the day to day challenges and celebrate the day to day joy. Every Monday to Wednesday we wait for the phone call. 12 noon, breath, get on with it. It’s almost comical, but it’s too important to laugh at it.
It comes towards the end of the year. A year in which it felt our momentum was building. Like buses, for me, as executive headteacher of a primary, it came twice. Primary first. Hard, we toughed it out. A primary school that had been struggling for years. Last inspection, special measures. This one we were self-evaluating at RI but in truth we had changed a lot in 14 months and we had a secret hope of pushing to a good. In the end we got the RI with lots of positives to take forward that the school would be good very soon. A smile, a job well done, a celebration and then back to the planning board. Tick. 10 days later OFSTED visit two and it was brutal. Day 1 you fight for all you are worth. This is my school this is me. Let me show you what we are. We know ourselves, we are not good, we are RI – progress is our key issue but we are not below the floor, we have identified the problem and we are acting. The kids were amazing, the inspection team did not see one single piece of disruption, low level or otherwise over the two days and they referenced it. By breaktime on day one, two hours into the inspection, I know we are in trouble as the word ‘inadequate’ is launched for the first time by the lead inspector. If you have experienced it, you will know the sinking feeling in your gut. They listened to the context, save £2million pounds in two and a half years and improve the school– interesting, not relevant not in the framework. As I write I this I am looking at my notes from the day 1 ‘feedback’ session and the anger rises in me. It is so surreal, it is so contradictory it isn’t what the OFSTED leaders have been saying for the past 10 months across the media and twitter – the historical data seems to be all that matters in this inspection. When talking about teaching and learning the Maths inspector reports that he hasn’t seen anything less than good and some excellent practice. The English inspector agrees. Teaching and learning – inadequate. Don’t get me wrong there were things that were not good and we didn’t disagree with them but they were also not surprises to us. This is what our self-evaluation had said. In the end, despite the positive, despite the obvious positive culture displayed uniformly by our students the die was cast. We were ‘inadequate’ and it changes everything.
It all came down to the following, perverse and circular argument - In the last inspection the school was RI (as described above this is highly questionable) the school self-evaluation says RI – therefor you have not improved quickly enough, therefor, you are inadequate.
Inadequate colours everything and you have to rip everything up and start again. As a headteacher it is personal, your school reflects who you are and the report is a reflection on everything you have given in your time at the school. For the remainder of the year you dig deep into your emotional intelligence reserves. Face your public with a mixture of anger and pain but remain the composed leader at all times. What was a fragile but tangible recovery has been blown out of the water. I think about resigning (self-doubt reinforced by external feedback) but actually, I believe in what we have done (self-confidence despite the feedback). I talk to staff one to one, I describe the difficult year ahead, I see the fear and the emotion in their eyes and in their body language – it reflects my own, suck it up buttercup.
At the same point we, the secondary schools within the trust, have agreed to make a tv programme. So the ‘what happens next’ will be visible in a strangely compelling 2 hours of television to be broadcast on BBC2. In summary what you will see is the unravelling of everything we had achieved in regard to the culture of the school. The worst moment of the outcome? Having to stand in front of the staff and the students and tell them we are in special measures. When I call the assembly the sense of anticipation is palpable. I know what they are thinking as they sit there in front of me in their perfect uniform ‘did we get a good?’. For them, the majority of the students, the school has changed beyond recognition, they are happier, their learning is better. When I say it there is an audible gasp in the sports hall – the emotion is real from these kids. I swallow hard to stop my own emotions overtaking me. The parent reaction is similar – anger and upset from those who have not bought into what we have done but from the quiet majority a series of very supportive e-mails expressing disbelieve, for many their journey has been the same as their children.
I resolve to fight and fight hard on behalf of my beloved school. A lot of challenging, difficult and emotionally draining work is done before and during the start of the next academic year.
The year starts, perversely, with the celebration of our best ever attainment results and the welcoming of the first significantly increased number of year 7 students in 6 years. We worked hard to manage the messages to those parents who had bought into our philosophy and they stuck with us. Despite what has been reported by local press I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of parents who took students out of the school and stated categorically that it was because of the OFSTED judgement. The rest stuck with us and I am eternally grateful to them for doing so.
The reason they did? What they said was it doesn’t ‘feel’ like an inadequate school. My child is happy and safe and they are enjoying their learning. Go figure!
The year also starts with the same financial pressure, savings required for the next budget equal £970,000. By the end of the academic year 2017-18 the income for the school had reduced from £5.4million when I was recruited to £2.6 million for the start of the academic year 2018-19. Each and every school has its own challenges but I would maintain that ours were pretty unique – take a rural, leafy comprehensive that has been neglected for a while and improve the quality of the education whilst saving £2.8 million pounds in 4 years. I don’t think this is spelt out clearly enough in the TV programmes so I am doing it here.
In me, though, something has shifted. I am by nature a glass half full person and I have carried that glass right through the last 3 years. But now the anger and the sense of injustice are taking over. This is compounded as I watch things around me start to disintegrate as a consequence of the outcome, sadly some of the students will wear the cloak of inadequate very quickly ‘this school’s shit’ and the ongoing pressures created by the staff reductions. We all fight on but it feels very different. For me there is a rising sense of doom on most days, I can hear in my own head the rising note used in Movies to provoke a feeling of impending disaster. I smile, I joke I try to keep everyone positive but there is just not enough capacity to deal with everything we need to do. My days get longer, my sleep gets shorter and I watch it all happen on television as I look ill and tired.
Monitoring visits? Turned out to be one step forward and two steps back. Apparently, things are improving but not quickly enough, we were fortunate to be allocated a HMI who was astute and sensitive to our context. Ultimately, though, there is a framework and Marlwood does not fit the framework.
Despite all of this we ended the year with the books balanced, another ok set of results and a systematic restructure (how many restructures in 4 years?). The School is set up very well for the future if someone can find a solution to the financial difficulty. The foundations are strong and the succession plan to replace me has left the right leader in place to see it through – I think he will be brilliant.
I thank my lucky stars I was in a trust surrounded by brilliant and supportive colleagues, I’m not sure how I would have coped as the head on my own.
This was my reality of being a headteacher in a challenging school. We work in a system where the margins between an inadequate and an outstanding school are quite small. We all know that in our inadequate schools there will be an awful lot of good stuff and some brilliance going on every day but the term ‘inadequate’ permeates everything and becomes all consuming. I know that there will be teachers, support staff and leaders who will have got up this morning and have had to take a big deep breath to face the reality of what is in front of them. As a headteacher? Well the reality is that when we are asked if we are ok – we all say yes, don’t we?
I think the time has come to say ‘no’. it’s not ok.
It is inevitable as we prepare for the launch of the programmes that people ask me – why did you leave? Well actually not for the reasons people may assume. I genuinely think we achieved something at Marlwood but I am self-aware enough to recognise it needed a new energy to see it through. I don’t think any big decision we make in our lives is ever for one reason. For me there were a lot of reasons to think that I had done my bit professionally and I needed to invest a little bit in my personal and family life. I loved my job. Without a leadership post I still think of myself as a school leader because that is who I am, riddled with self-doubt and self-confidence. If anyone will have me I hope to step back into the ring soon.
The second question I am being asked a lot in the current climate is ‘would more money have helped?’. Well, yes of course. I think it is dismissive and ridiculous to be told it is not about the money – this was stated several times to south Gloucestershire headteachers. However, I agree that it is not all about the money. In fact, what I needed more of was, time. I get dismayed by our finances, but I get more dismayed by the short-termism that currently exists in our system. I will unpick this in another blog post.
If you are an aspiring leader please continue to aspire, our profession needs you. If you are a current leader I doff my cap to you, keep going! In either case if you want to get in touch and discuss your context, or an issue you are facing, or you want to rant, or celebrate something please get in touch through my website contact firstname.lastname@example.org. I am looking to build a network of likeminded leaders who are fighting hard, in extraordinary times, to prevail but who also believe that there has to be another way. This work is happening with the brilliant NourishED.
Round one to the machine. I’m in training for Round 2.