For those among you considering senior leadership:
As many of you may know, I will be embarking on my 2nd Headship in September this year following 5 really great years as HT in my current school. Whilst things are insanely busy at the moment, I have taken a little bit of time to reflect on my first headship and what I’ve learned about leadership in schools. This blog is not intended to be a ‘I think this is what you should do’ blog but a personal reflection on the things I have learned in the last few years as Headteacher and the things I think are really important for new school leaders in the current educational climate.
1: Lead your schools for your students and not OFSTED. Education is about the young people we teach day in, day out. They are with us 190 timetabled days a year (for either 5 or 7 years in the secondary sector) and many, many days and hours beyond this in extra curricular activities. You know them, know their parents and know what your school needs to do to ensure that they have the best possible opportunities when they leave your school. The job we do in schools is one of the most fundamentally important jobs in the whole of society. As school leaders, we have a duty to the children in our schools to ensure that our curriculum, our approach to teaching and learning and our whole culture and ethos ensures that they get the very best education possible. In the 5 years I have been a HT, OFSTED have been in my school for a total of 5 days. Just do the maths on the time our children are with us compared to OFSTED and you should quickly see who you should be focusing on.
2: Ensure your staff don’t worry about OFSTED. It is not the job of the teaching and support staff to worry about OFSTED. Make sure that you do everything to support your teachers to do the very best they can and, in my opinion, a big factor in this is to stop referring to OFSTED. If anyone needs to worry about OFSTED it is SLT. Oh, and never, ever do a ‘mocksted’-your self review processes should be robust enough to tell you everything you need to know about your school.
Point of note: This is not to say that I am dismissive of OFSTED-far from it. OFSTED are there to regulate and ensure that there are consistent standards of assessing the quality of schools in England. This is a very important role and a necessary one-somebody needs to ensure a consistency of standards. My point is that the current OFSTED set up is not fit for purpose so therefore we must set about creating an educational climate that supports our staff and students and look to ensure the highest standards of attainment without prescription from a centralised, regulatory body. OFSTED should inspect on standards, not instruct on how to attain these standards.
3: The behaviour of students is fundamental to the success of your school-and it is down to SLT to take the lead. Behaviour, behaviour, behaviour. 3 words that will lead to success (or failure if you ignore them). Have robust, consistent systems for ensuring good behaviour and make sure everyone follows them. Reward the hard working, polite, determined students. Reward those who try their very best regardless of ability. Reward those who make a contribution to your school. Even more importantly though, do not tolerate those who disrupt lessons. Do not tolerate those who abuse staff and students. Do not tolerate violence and do not tolerate bullying. Lead this from the front as a school leader. Make sure that your students know who is in charge in the school. Yes, staff need to support this by being consistent in following school systems and ensuring they are planning and delivering great lessons, but do not blame staff if a student chooses to disrupt a lesson. Support your staff and ensure that every child knows that every member of staff, and in particular the SLT, will not tolerate those students who disrupt lessons or behave poorly. Don’t worry about exclusion figures either-you do what you need to do to get a calm, productive environment within a school. I argued with OFSTED that the reason our behaviour in school was good was the fact that we challenged all aspects of poor, disruptive behaviour with sanctions that included exclusion. If you want good behaviour you have to have a system that punishes persistent disruption or poor behaviour severely (we were graded outstanding for behaviour by OFSTED last year).
4: Be visible: you have to be out there. Start of the day, break, lunch and the end of the day. And during the school day as well! This goes hand in hand with point 3 (above) and really helps other staff on duty. Also develop a system that allows SLT and middle leaders to be visible during the timetabled day around the school. Go to the lessons where there is supply cover, go to the really challenging groups, pop your head in, stay for a while maybe, but just be visible. I spend 6 hours a week on ‘visibility’. These are in my diary and take priority. My SLT and I cover all 25 lessons a week on the timetable to ensure someone is ‘visible’. If we are out we cover it because we think it is so important to create a positive, calm, productive environment across the school site.
5: Do the right thing: sometimes the right thing to do is the most difficult and it would be easy to compromise and fudge a solution. Don’t! Always do the right thing, no matter how difficult this is. I have had to make some incredibly difficult decisions that I know will have a profound effect on those who are affected but I took them because they were the right thing to do for the school community. Stick to your principles. Ultimately there are a lot of pressures out there and they can present as easy fixes or solutions but remember that, as a leader, you have to look yourself in the eye and know that you have done the right thing for your students. I have a number of ‘red lines’ that I will not budge on as a leader because I know that, if I allow them to be crossed, I will not be able to reconcile them with myself and I would lose all credibility. This may sound really old fashioned but I think you have to stand up for what you believe in.
6: Collaborate and share with fellow leaders: It is easy to become isolated and think that everyone and everything is against you-the stakes are high and the levels of accountability and pressure immense. Talk with fellow leaders. Visit their schools and have them visit you. Talk to them about what they do and what works and share your experiences with them. I have found the majority of HT to be open, honest and very willing to share resources, time and experience if you are able to reciprocate.
7: Read, read, read: theory isn’t better than practice but, importantly, it does inform practice. Twitter has been fundamental in helping me expand reading around my job. There are a huge number of bloggers, blogs, books and articles that I have read that have made me a much more reflective, informed and, therefore, better leader. Sign up for Twitter now!
8: I want my school to be the best school ever: Not for me but for the students. If we are the best school ever then all our students will have the opportunity to experience life changing opportunities that will allow them to access education/jobs/careers beyond their life at school. I have always started with the line: ‘why can’t we be the greatest school ever?’ We may not be there or ever get there but why should we settle for 2nd best? Start with this in mind and then you will focus your thoughts.
9: Don’t worry about what ‘might’ happen: I should start by saying that I do not make this point lightly. I personally know 3 HT colleagues who have lost their jobs in the last 18 months as a result of OFSTED inspections or as a result of a process of ‘academisation’. I also know of others, through social media, who have suffered the same fate and all of these are good people who were doing a great job in challenging circumstances. They are victims of a perverse kind of system that unilaterally sees the removal of the HT as the solution to a problem in a school. To qualify, there are some poor HT and it is right that they are held to account but I am staggered at the sheer quantity of good HT who are losing their jobs recently-particularly when the data and information about their school suggests their performance is far from inadequate. Ultimately, I have come to accept that the job of a HT is a very vulnerable one and that I could lose my job at any point following a poor OFSTED/poor GCSE results etc. I cannot, however, afford to worry about that. It does terrify me, particularly as we have a young family, but I will not let it take over my thoughts. I will not change or compromise what I believe to be the best for my school community because I may lose my job somewhere down the line. If someone thinks that what I’m doing is not good enough then there is very little I can do about it, hence why I can’t worry about it. As HT I have a mandate to do what is best for the students in my school and I’ll keep going and doing the best for them and the school community as long as I am privileged to hold the position of Headteacher.
10: Don’t forget what really, really matters: Being a leader in a school is an amazing job with many great opportunities and many highlights as well as many demands. If you are like me, then you probably throw your heart and soul into your job to make it work. Don’t, however, forget what is the most important-your family and friends. They will be there to pick you up when you are down, to counsel you, to support you and to share in your successes. They are also the most important things in life and, whilst my job is so important to me, it is fundamentally a job and comes nowhere near the importance of my family and friends. School leaders and teachers should never lose sight of the importance of those we love the most and the need to spend as much quality time as possible with them.