Inaction Speaks Louder Than Words

Anyone who has taken over a new leadership position will know that feeling of nervous excitement as you contemplate what you are able to do now that you finally have the opportunity. In most cases, you will have learnt from the work of others, and have developed your own ideas of what to do and what not to do. Finally, you will have the opportunity to put your ideas into action, and to really make a difference. Given that most Heads are appointed months in advance of taking up post, by the time the day dawns, you are likely to be straining at the leash, desperate to repay the faith placed in you, to ‘hit the ground running’.

It’s very easy, however, to get things wrong in those early days and weeks, and examples are legion. When Brian Clough took over at Leeds United in the 1970s, he famously announced to the hugely successful and experienced squad of players ‘The first thing you can do for me is throw your medals in the bin because you’ve never won anything fairly; you’ve done it by cheating.’ He was sacked 44 days later.

If you want an even more dramatic example of the dangers of plunging into action without taking the time to really understand how and what you need to do, then the 45 days of Liz Truss’ Premiership provides a salutary lesson. As she took over the role, it was almost an article of faith that she was not going to listen to others, or be deflected from the plan she had decided upon. Whether by consciously choosing to draw up economic plans without asking the experts in the Office for Budget Responsibility for their considered view, or by dismissing respected senior civil servants on the grounds that they may have a different view, she made sure that her plans would not be derailed by inconvenient facts, or critical expert advice. As we know, it didn’t end well.

There are plenty of similar examples from the world of education. I know of one new Headteacher, taking over a successful and stable school after her much-loved predecessor had gone on to a Local Authority adviser role, who announced in her first staff meeting ‘I’m here to improve the school, not to be popular’, which is just as well, as it turned out, since popularity was in short supply after that introduction.

Another Headteacher used their first few days to put up an eye-catching display in the school entrance, with the display board divided into two, one side labelled ‘Before’ and the other ‘After’. He then proceeded to take lots of photos of the most unsightly areas of the school, and display them on the ‘Before’ side. The not so subtle message was perfectly clear, and it’s fair to say that it didn’t go down well.

I’m not underestimating the importance of the Headteacher, or the impact that new ideas can have, but a school is so much more than an extension of the image of its leader. It is a living, breathing community, with traditions, nuances, and unique characteristics, many of which are all but invisible to the casual observer.

If there is one thing above all else that every new leader should do when first taking over a new post, it is to listen. By listening, they will do two things – firstly, they will be giving a strong message to their new team: what you think is important to me and it will form part of what we do, and secondly, they will be gathering vital intelligence to inform the next steps.

Unless a new Head takes time to understand the school and the staff, seeking out the areas of strength and vulnerability, then any new initiatives run the risk of failing, not necessarily because the idea is not a good one, but because the wrong people were expected to lead, or the people who could have made a difference have not been consulted.

Every school will have some key people who keep the whole place running seamlessly, but whose impact is almost invisible at first glance. They are very often members of the support staff, and they provide the glue that holds the place together. ‘The way we do things here’ is often seen as a negative force, but if it can be harnessed to support improvement, it can make all the difference.

Sometimes, it’s a question of tone or terminology. Of course, a new leader will want to get into classrooms to get a feel for their new school, but do they say ‘I’d love to come and see the great things that are happening in your class – please suggest a good time for me to visit’, or do they hand out  a lesson observation timetable? Apart from the way it makes people feel, I’d suggest that you would probably find out more from the former approach.

There are always some quick wins, those things that people bring from their last role that make everyone’s lives a little easier or more efficient, without being seen as a commentary on the existing practice. But all the time, wise leaders are building trust, making sure that as people get to know them in those first few weeks, they are focussing not so much on what their new leader plans to do, but who they are – their values and ethos. In the months and years to come, this effort will pay dividends many times over.

Soon enough, it’s time for action!

Four Wishes and a Star

The eve of a new year is usually a time for optimism. The promise of a fresh start, a blank slate to be filled by new resolutions. There’s something about the turn of a year that makes us feel more positive about the future.

Sad to say, in the world of education, the start of 2023 doesn’t particularly feel like that. Almost all of the problems that saw out the old year will still be round when the new term begins. A year ago, the prospect of the end of Covid disruption was an enticing one. Vaccines were proving successful and despite the Omicron wave, it appeared that schools were likely to stay open and largely remain safe. There was a new Education White Paper on the way which promised some clarity about future policy and a national focus on education.

Fast forward twelve months and the optimism has largely evaporated. I’ve rarely seen staff in school who have been so desperate to reach the end of term, exhausted by continual challenges. Some of this is as a result of the cumulative effect of three years during which the demands on schools have never been higher, and the work we do has never been so vital and wide-ranging. Much of it, however, is because of genuine issues that are facing the system and which need addressing urgently.

When evaluating the current situation, in keeping with sound educational practice that teachers everywhere would recognise, I’d ideally like to be positive, pick out a few things that are going well, and identify something that needs improving – a technique you may know as ‘3 stars and a wish’. However, I’m really not sure that would give an accurate picture of the educational landscape, and some of the challenges facing us are too pressing to be skated over. So, at the risk of appearing over-negative, and despite the fact that there are always positives to be found when we work in schools, I think a more realistic picture would be represented by ‘4 wishes and a Star’. Here’s my evaluation of the key issues facing education a we go into 2023:

Wish#1 – Recruitment: It’s a truism to say that the quality of our education system is entirely dependent on the staff who deliver it. Of course, they need to be well-trained, motivated and highly-skilled, but more importantly, they need to exist. Looking at the impending recruitment crisis is like spotting a tsunami far out to sea – it may not be causing issues for everyone at the moment, but we can see it coming and unless we act quickly, it will be upon us, too late to do anything about it.

According to the government’s own figures, in 2022, the number of new entrants to initial teacher training fell to 93% of the target needed to maintain teacher numbers in primary and 59% in secondary. 62% of the target was achieved for EBacc subjects (compared to 84% in 2021/22). All of these figures represent precipitous drops compared to previous years. The total number recruited was 71% of the target, down from 97% in the previous year. In addition, the number of teachers leaving the profession last year, especially in the early years of their career, leapt significantly.

There are already areas of the country where schools find it incredibly difficult to recruit high-quality specialist staff, whether that’s teachers of A level physics, early years specialists or any point in between. It’s particularly noticeable at Head Teacher level, where many posts are advertised and re-advertised several times over.

Put simply, if we do not attract more good quality graduates into teaching, and then retain them when they’re here, then the system will buckle in a few short years, and resolving the problem will take a generation.

It’s not just teachers. Attracting good-quality support staff can be almost impossible, given that the skills that we need are often far better rewarded in the private sector. Business managers, TAs, site staff, Midday Supervisors – schools all over the country have found it almost impossible to recruit well.

There isn’t one simple reason for this, of course – it’s a combination of pay, working conditions, status and the impact of performativity cultures, but if we have a strategy, it’s not working.

Wish#2 – SEND: The truest indicator of the success of our system is the way that it treats our most vulnerable children. On that measure, we’re failing. Increasing numbers of pupils with significant needs in mainstream schools, special schools full to overflowing, independent non-maintained provision of variable quality and spiralling cost – all point to a system that is breaking under the strain.

We have somehow managed to create a national approach to SEND that combines the worst of every possible world – a system that costs eye-watering amounts of money, serves pupils badly, and creates division between school and home. What’s more, the effectiveness of the system varies hugely depending on the locality – a situation that is both inefficient and unfair.

As well as the internal implications for the SEND sector, the crisis is bleeding into the wider funding crisis. In November, Schools Week reported that rising demand for SEND has left councils with a £1.9 billion deficit on everyday school funding, with some councils warning that without immediate aid, they would consider declaring effective bankruptcy.

Despite previous promises, there is still no clear timetable for the implementation of SEND reforms promised in the Green Paper, and as we get closer to an election, the chances increase that this will be shelved yet again. In the meantime vulnerable pupils lose out, parents are despairing of finding appropriate provision, and schools are buckling under the strain.

Wish#3 – Structural reform: One of the most eye-catching elements of the White Paper was the intention to move to a Trust led system by 2030. Whatever your views on this as a model, it at least represented an attempt at coherence. However, since the initial momentum generated by the announcement, little has actually changed and the shelving of the Schools Bill leaves us precisely where we have been for the past few years.

That is to say, we have a system completely lacking in coherence – a combination of maintained schools, small local trusts, national MATs, single academies, and a few variations on the above. All operate under slightly different conditions, with different rules, funding arrangements and accountability frameworks. The occasional school will be forced down the MAT route following a poor Ofsted, or a school leader may choose to join a trusted local colleague in a Trust, but at the current rate of progress, this patchwork system will exist for decades.

It makes effective policy decisions extraordinarily difficult, because the impact of a policy will often depend upon the status of an individual school, and it also hard-wires unfairness into the system. If the vision is still of a Trust-led system, then the Government needs to spend more time and energy in engaging with schools to make the case, and needs to join the debate.

Wish#4 – Funding: It’s important to recognise that the additional funding announced in the Autumn statement was extremely welcome and has certainly bought us some time. My initial scepticism has been misplaced – this is new money and has arrived in the nick of time. However, it is most definitely not ‘problem solved’. There is a well-founded fear that unless we take a longer term view, it has postponed the crisis rather than solving it.

Sensible and well run schools don’t plan a few months ahead, and hope for a benevolent Chancellor to rescue them when times are tough. We use all the information we have to take a view over the medium and long term, and then make decisions accordingly. For years, we have been asking for a long term view on budgets. There are a few key factors that we need to know to avoid the sort of angst that has been in evidence over the last few months – overall core funding over the coming years, broad policy on pay settlements, support (or otherwise) for extraordinary factors such as stratospheric rises in energy costs, and the policy on funding large scale capital projects.

Above all, we need a continuing commitment across the political divide to fund our education system properly, giving it the value it deserves.

And a star….

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the issues we’re facing at the moment. However, whenever the broad educational landscape appears to be lacking in hope, the best way to restore optimism is to look at what is happening in classrooms across our schools.

It’s my greatest privilege that I get to visit many classrooms in many schools and see teachers and support staff across all phases and sectors of education. Given the unimaginable disruption since the start of 2020, it is remarkable to see how successfully our schools have picked up the reins again, and children and young people are once again learning key skills, acquiring vital knowledge and making progress in their learning.

The core strength of our education system lies here – in the skill and dedication of staff, the positivity and warmth of our schools, and the strength and unity of our communities.

The message for those in power is simple – take problems seriously, engage with the stakeholders, particularly school and Trust leaders, and develop a coherent plan. We’ll do the rest.

Now, that would lead to a Happy New Year.

Dear Ms Truss…

First of all, congratulations on your election, and on becoming our new Prime Minister. It’s a great achievement, of which you should be very proud. It’s also good news that we have a Prime Minister who has been educated at a state school, and does not come from a background of immense privilege – I have to say it never felt as if your predecessor had any understanding of the lives of real people, and hopefully you will be very different.

I know you will have a busy few weeks as you settle in to your new job. As was discussed many times during your leadership campaign, we are facing many challenges as a nation – cost of living, fuel poverty, war in Ukraine, climate change, and we are faced with the transition to a new monarch. It’s an unenviable in-tray, and you will certainly have your hands full. I see that delivery is the theme of your tenure, and I know you are anxious to get on with things.

I did find it surprising that during your campaign, there was so little mention of education. Apart from some passing mentions of grammar schools, I am very much in the dark about your views on the key issues and concerns facing schools. The scale of the disruption to schooling during the pandemic has been very well documented, and the fact that this has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable in society was only confirmed by this summer’s results. As Nadhim Zahawi said, during his short time as Secretary of State for Education: ‘Young people have put up with an awful lot over the past two years. By doing everything that has been asked of them, they will have sacrificed many of the things all of us here took for granted when we were growing up…We all owe it to this generation to give them the world-class education they deserve’.

I sincerely hope that you share this view. So, speaking as someone who is charged with dealing with these problems on a daily basis, I would like to give you and Mr Malthouse a ‘heads-up’ on the most pressing problems that are facing us.

Firstly, make no mistake – there is a funding crisis out there that schools are finding devastating. Help with fuel bills will make a difference, assuming it continues for a reasonable length of time, but unfunded and unanticipated increases in wage costs have hit us hard, however much they are needed and deserved by our dedicated staff. Schools and Trusts tried to be responsible and factored in increased costs at the recommended level, but given the scale of the increase, the proportion of our expenditure that we have to commit to wages, and the lateness of the announcement, it is impossible for this not to impact significantly. This will lead to cutbacks and impact provision directly. My greatest fear is that we will have to prioritise the core business of class teaching and therefore the individual and small group help and support will suffer. This will mean that our most vulnerable children and those most affected by covid disruption will suffer most. I can’t believe that you want this to happen. An announcement that government will fund the pay rises that schools were not asked to budget for would be very welcome, and help avert a significant diversion of resources for all, and catastrophe for some.

Secondly, whilst I understand and fully accept the need for schools to be held to account for the way they perform their vital task, this only works if the information used is fair and accurate. My observation is that two years without published external data have not led to complacency or a lack of effort, it has allowed us to focus on the most important things for our pupils. We have navigated a successful return to exams and external assessments and schools have prepared their pupils in the best way possible. However, the fact that the profound impact of the pandemic was so unevenly and arbitrarily distributed means that using these results to publicly evaluate school performance is deeply flawed, and will lead to unfair and counter-productive outcomes. Until you have absolute  confidence that this data is accurate and meaningful, naming and shaming should be put on hold.

Thirdly, the White Paper and subsequent Schools Bill signalled a direction of travel in terms of the future structure of education, but the uncertainty that has surrounded the change in government has left many schools unsure of the best way to plan. We need a clear signal around the plan for the future of education system. If all schools are to be part of Multi Academy Trusts, how will that be done at a reasonable scale and pace? How will you convince reluctant schools that they will not risk diluting their ethos and values by joining a larger partnership? There are many great trusts out there who are keen to grow (not least our own) but we have no desire to bring schools into our partnership who don’t want to be there. Hearts and minds have to be won if this is the way forward.

Fourthly, please don’t be distracted by phony culture wars. In my experience, teachers and school leaders take a pragmatic, responsible and ambitious approach to the curriculum. We want our pupils to have a balanced and rounded view of the world, to have a secure grasp of important core skills as well as the opportunity to develop their own particular talents, gifts and creative skills. We don’t use the curriculum to pursue ideology or promote particular lifestyles. In my experience, governments are advised to tread carefully and work with the profession when it comes to curriculum development.

Finally, please don’t be afraid to celebrate the achievements of pupils, teachers and schools. It is my privilege to see wonderful staff inspiring children every day of my working life. During my 34 years in the profession, I have seen remarkable improvement in the quality of all aspects of school provision – pedagogy, curriculum thinking, behaviour management, safeguarding, pastoral care. It has sometimes seemed that politicians view our education service not as a jewel to be celebrated, but as a problem to be fixed. When everyone is working as hard as they can, we all want to feel appreciated. When the pressures of your very difficult job weigh heavily upon you, then my advice is to arrange to visit a school – close contact with children, young people and the wonderful staff who support them will revive your spirit and remind you why you wanted to be in a position of influence. Just let me know and I’ll put the kettle on

The key questions to ask the MAT CEO

It is noticeable that in all the political chaos of the last few weeks, the Schools Bill has continued it’s passage through parliament. The flagship policy, namely the ambition in the White Paper and subsequent Bill that all schools will be part of a strong multi-academy trust by 2030 seems to have been far less controversial than a similar announcement made by Nicky Morgan in 2016. It appears that now we have well over half of pupils taught in academies, and further erosion of the capacity of LAs to directly manage schools, there is an acceptance, or at least a realisation that this change is coming.

As the CEO of a small but growing Trust, we have certainly noticed a dramatic increase in the amount of enquiries we’ve been receiving from maintained schools and single academies, and have a real sense that the number of schools now seriously considering conversion has grown dramatically. In our Trust, this has already led to conversations, school visits and a couple of information meetings for potential new schools.

To be clear, we welcome the interest – even though we are committed to remaining a relatively small Trust and don’t have any immediate imperative to expand, we are hoping for sensible and sustainable growth over the next two or three years. As a result, it’s easy to get drawn into a selling role when talking to perspective schools – there’s always a temptation to tell them what they want to hear in order to get that all important governing body vote over the line. I’m not suggesting that Trusts are not being completely honest with their answers, but they may certainly be painting things in the most favourable light possible.

In my experience, most of the questions we get are fairly straightforward and relate to systems and processes – contracts, TUPE arrangements, policies etc. They’re relatively easy to answer, and although there may be some differences in nuance, most trusts will be saying similar things. After a few years of the MAT system, most Trusts of any size will have employed competent specialists to deal with the operational side of things.

The reason, therefore, to join a particular Trust is not because they may shave a few pounds off your photocopying contract, or that they have a good bid-writing team that may get you a new class set of ukuleles. The reason is because you share their values and ethos, and that this is a comfortable home for your school – a partnership of schools that is a good fit for you, not just at the moment, but in the years to come.

Your questions, therefore, need to get to the heart of this – what’s important to this trust, what makes them tick? When the chips are down, what do they hold dear? You will be placing your trust in this person and their team, and that trust is precious. You are entering into a marriage without the possibility of divorce – the answers to your questions need to tell you not just what they do, but who they are.

So here’s some suggestions for questions that, if asked of me, would make me think, would reveal something of my motivation for the Trust – and may take me by surprise:

How would you define a strong Trust, and does your definition differ from the government’s?

Make no mistake, the CEO will have thought about this, not least because it has been highlighted in the White Paper. Although it did not make it into the proposed Bill, it is clear that MAT evaluations are on their way, and judgements will need to be made against some clear criteria. So what’s important to them? Achievement outcomes, presumably; Ofsted grades, probably; proportion of students going to university, oversubscription rates, sound financial management? How about exclusion / attendance rates; support provided for schools outside the Trust, engagement with parents and the local community? This may give you an indication of where their values lie.

When did you last permanently exclude a pupil, and where are they now?

As in most of these questions, there’s no correct answer, but it will certainly give you an insight into the culture of the MAT. Firstly, is this an exceptional event and therefore it has stuck in the mind of the CEO, or is it fairly routine? The most revealing element of this question is likely to be the second part – to what extent is the Trust committed to the long-term interest of their pupils, even (or especially) those who have failed?

How often do your pupils sing?

If the CEO starts talking about the medium-term planning framework for music, they’re probably missing the point of this question. Their answer should give an indication of the importance that the Trust gives to joy, wonder and awe in the curriculum, to a school experience that is broad and rich.  

Are you an expert in teaching and learning? How do you keep your knowledge up to date?

Once again, the most important part of this is probably the second question. Whether someone defines themselves as an expert may tell you more about their own levels of confidence, but their commitment to keeping their own knowledge current is a key indicator. Do you want to be part of a Trust where the senior leader does not have a clear grasp of the key skills needed to do the job, or shows insufficient interest in their core business? Without this, how do they effectively support schools and decide on policy?

What does your Trust do for the most vulnerable member of your school community?

This, for me, goes to the core of the MAT’s approach to inclusion. Once again, look out for the glib, rehearsed answer that references Trust-wide policy. Firstly, who is defined as the most vulnerable member? Educational need, risk of exclusion, family upheaval? Then, does the CEO take an interest in what happens to them – to the point where they would become personally involved if that could make a difference. I believe that you can always judge an institution by the way it treats it’s most vulnerable member.

Do you get paid a bonus, and if so, what for?

You may get an evasive response here, but it’s a simple question. The level of executive pay is to some extent a matter of record, but the awarding of a bonus and the criteria for doing so is likely to be more obscure. Is it for growth, for pupil test outcomes, for financial performance? Can you be completely confident that the values of your school and the Key Performance Indicators of the Trust are fully aligned.

What’s the one thing I could say that would convince you that our school was not right for your MAT?

It’s very easy for a CEO to go into a sales mode in these conversations, and to be focussed on ‘closing the deal’. If that’s the case, then this might make them shift a little uncomfortably in their seat. Groucho Marx is famously quoted as saying ‘I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member’. A Trust that would take any school is probably one that is not clear and confident in its ethos and values. So what’s the red line, and would you put it in the same place?

In your time as CEO, what’s the one thing you personally have done of which you are most proud?

Being a CEO is a strange job. For those of us who have spent most of our working lives in a classroom, we have to come to terms with the fact that the really important work is done with the pupils, and our role is to simply to create the conditions in which that can happen as effectively as possible. So are we most proud of the fact that we have grown the size of Trust, or received national recognition, or that we have intervened to support a pupil or a teacher?

In the end, it’s a question of faith, and whilst faith in the leadership is not enough of a reason on its own to join a Trust, a lack of faith is probably enough to convince you that this is not the right move. When it comes down to it, if I haven’t been made to feel at least a little uncomfortable under questioning, then I probably haven’t been asked enough of the right questions, and that’s not good for either side of the discussion. The only way to make this vital decision is with eyes wide open. Good luck.

Mission, Manner and Means

In my last blog ‘what’s the big idea?’, I argued that without a clear vision setting out what we want from our education system which is clearly understood and has wide support, then any reforms are likely to be piecemeal, disjointed and ultimately ineffective. In this blog, I am proposing a framework for setting out the vision and deciding the plan.

As ever, I offer this in the hope of contributing to the wider debate and am very interested to know the views of others.

Given that the education of our children is such a fundamental duty of society, the importance it has in our economic success, and the weight of experience and research that exists, the lack of consensus on how we should deliver it is striking. Almost every area of education policy is hotly-contested – governance structures, curriculum design, pedagogy, behaviour management, even the length and timing of the school day – all are bitterly contested battlegrounds, often drawn along ideological lines. No wonder we have seen dramatic policy swings and high rates of policy implementation failure. As I argued in my previous blog article, the lack of a broadly-accepted view of the way our system runs leads to incoherence, inconsistency and underperformance.

If we are going to succeed in the development of a system of education that enables young people to truly achieve their potential, we need to decide three things – what we’re hoping to achieve (our Mission), the strategies we will employ to get there (Means), and the way in which we will do it (Manner). It’s only when  we have decided this that deciding the structure becomes a relevant issue.

Most importantly, therefore, we define our MISSION. What is the point of education and what are we aiming for from our system? It’s a simple question, but without an equally simple answer.

When (Sir) Gavin Wiliamson, erstwhile Secretary of State for Education, memorably declared that “We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job”, he was roundly condemned for promoting such a simplistic and reductionist vision. What about becoming productive members of society, being happy and mentally healthy, developing cognitive skills and intellectual curiosity, understanding and taking responsibility for the world we live in, fostering creativity and so on? Education has multiple purposes, so encompassing all of them within one Mission is a difficult, but crucial task. I believe there are three key features that should come together to form our mission.

Firstly, our education system must be ambitious for our children and young people, not least academically ambitious. We are not aiming for mediocrity, we want to produce a generation of young people who are more knowledgeable and with a greater command of skills and talents than any that have gone before. We need a curriculum that stretches and challenges, that encourages children to have a deep understanding of the world around them.

When they leave compulsory schooling, young people must have the intellectual ability, deep knowledge and highly-developed skills to make a success of challenging university degree courses, or skilled technical jobs. We also therefore need effective and reliable assessment systems for verifying and calibrating this achievement.

Secondly, our system must be inclusive. There is often a false dichotomy drawn between ambition and inclusivity, but actually the two are inseparable – a system that does not drive all groups of pupils to achieve the very best, regardless of special educational need, financial disadvantage or family background, is one that is sadly lacking in ambition. An inclusive education system is one in which we have high ambition for all young people. A system that sends 50% of students to study high-level degree courses, but leaves 10% without functional literacy or numeracy skills has failed.

The final pillar of our educational mission is a system that is relevant. Designing a curriculum is a dynamic, adaptive process. Financial and health education, the climate crisis, equality and the Black Lives Matter movement, online safety – all and more have become vital elements of the curriculum alongside the traditional academic canon. The oft-repeated claim about most jobs of the future not yet existing may be overstated, but as we learn more, the body of knowledge continually develops. Our system must prepare young people for the modern world, the one in which they will live and work. This is not an argument for downgrading the existing body of curriculum knowledge, but for understanding its place and purpose.

Understanding the Mission is not enough on its own. Equally as important to the wider vision of education is deciding the values and principles that inform our system. The MANNER in which our system operates has to have the trust and confidence of the wider population who fund it and depend on its success.

Arguing that our system should be ethical is hardly controversial. Understanding what that means in practice is a different matter. Nothing is more damaging for public confidence in schools than reports of abuses of the system, whether that’s Multi-academy Trust CEOs creaming off huge pay packets from the public purse, or reports of schools off-rolling difficult pupils. Ethical standards must be clearly-defined and hard-wired into the system. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel – the Nolan Principles and the Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education are a good starting point.

The way in which our system is accountable is perhaps more contested. Ofsted, league tables, ESFA, LAs – all hold schools to account in a variety of ways, and have a huge influence on practice. Too often, we have evolved accountability structures that lead to compliance in one area at the expense of damaging impacts elsewhere, such as the way that the emphasis on demonstrating progress in core subjects has contributed to curriculum narrowing and off-rolling. Anyone who is paid to deliver education to young people should be accountable, but that accountability should be coherent, have the confidence of all stakeholders (including those who work in schools) and contribute to system improvement.

Deciding on our mission and the manner in which we will go about it will take us only so far – it’s the actions and policies that will take us along this route that will deliver improvement. In other words, we need to decide the MEANS.

One of the driving principles behind neo-liberal reforms that became dominant at the end of the 20th century was the idea that competition would drive improvement, and in many countries this was explicitly built into the structures and systems, for example,  in the US ‘No Child Left Behind’ reforms. However, there is little evidence that this has led to improvement, and the highest-performing systems almost all have an explicit ethos of collaboration. Despite the rhetoric about collaboration, systems have developed in the UK where the failure of one school can ostensibly benefit the school down the road, which is a disastrous state of affairs. Collaboration is not simply sharing good practice, it’s not schools that believe themselves to be outstanding passing on their pearls of wisdom to those less fortunate – it’s meaningful co-construction of practice, based on humility and willingness to learn, and when it’s done properly. It’s transformative.

If we look at the most successful education systems across the world, it can be difficult to see the golden thread that runs through them all. We see a range of pedagogical approaches, cultural influences and educational structures. However, the one consistent feature that they all share is a well-trained and highly-skilled workforce, with development not just focussed at the start of a teacher’s career but at every stage. Continued professional growth is the surest way to secure long-term improvement. Thomas Guskey wrote over 20 years ago: ‘one constant finding in the research literature is that notable improvements in education almost never take place in the absence of professional development.’ (Guskey, 2000). In other words, if you want outcomes to improve, then give the people who are responsible for delivering those outcomes opportunities to improve.

In this respect, it’s encouraging to see that the White Paper gives a prominent place to the development of effective professional development and training programmes, and there is an attempt to frame a coherent framework across a teacher’s career. However, we need to go beyond centralised training programmes to foster a workforce curious to discover the best practice and open to reflection and change.

Finally, if we want things to improve, we have to provide the resources to enable it to happen. On their own, resources do not secure improvement – the lack of correlation between high-performing and high-spending systems demonstrates this. However, investment in the right areas is essential. Providing the funding for professional growth might mean allowing teachers to access higher-level study, providing the technology for teachers to share practice, or enabling sabbaticals for teachers to engage meaningfully with research. Likewise, ensuring that sufficient funding was available to support pupils with the most complex needs would reduce the tug-of war between schools and encourage collaboration.

OECD analysis puts UK public spending on education at 3.9% of GDP in 2018. This was 19th highest out of the 37 OECD members with data on this measure and below the OECD average of 4.1%. (House of Commons Library, November 2021). A commitment to an improvement in this position over time would demonstrate the importance of education to our collective future.

Mission, Manner and Means – without a clear understanding of the big picture, the discussion about whether or not we have a fully-academised system, Local Authority control or the current curious hybrid is doomed to be uninformed.

A Vision for Education – What’s the Big Idea?

Education White Papers don’t come along that often, and when they do, we look to them to signal a vision and direction for the future. The latest Education White Paper, ‘Opportunity for All’, has created some headlines and signalled some policy shifts, but the proposal to establish a structure of education based on full academisation into large Multi-Academy Trusts is probably the most radical and fundamental change in decades, one from which there will be no easy retreat.

As we move to a system that does not exist anywhere else in the world, based on the evidence of just a few years of partial implementation, there are some big questions that remain – not least how this will deliver the education that our children and young people urgently need and richly deserve.

In a series of blog articles, I am sharing some thoughts on the way that this vision might be constructed and realised, in the hope of contributing to dialogue and debate.

What’s the big idea?

Education in our country is a complex, interconnected system. The problem is that there’s no real agreement what it’s for. If you asked a hundred people what the core purpose of our education system, I’m guessing you’d get 50 different answers – the rest would be ‘Don’t Knows’. This isn’t just a question of nuance or personal preference, but it’s fundamental to the actions that we take. In any sensible setup, all of our strategic decisions are driven by the contribution they make towards our final goal. Our education system has been driven by a whole host of competing ideas and initiatives. Do we prioritise academic excellence or breadth and balance? Is it about securing a good job, or becoming a positive member of society? Is it competition that drive school improvement, or collaboration?

Are we trying to make sure that the majority of our students go on to university or further study, or do we want to have a focus on the world of work? What should the curriculum contain – a celebration of British history and achievement, or an uncompromising look at the chequered legacy of empire?

This is not simply an academic argument about higher purposes – a lack of clarity affects the way we do things now. Let’s take a topical example – Covid recovery. Very few people with an interest in education or the welfare of young people would deny that we need to address the impact of educational disruption as a result of the pandemic, and that we should devote time and resources to do so. However, because there’s no fundamental agreement on the priorities and ultimate goals, then there’s no agreement on the best way to achieve them. We end up with hundreds of millions of pounds poured into a tuition scheme that appears to contradict the ethos of many of the schools expected to implement it. The results are depressingly predictable. 

At the end of last month, we finally received the long-anticipated Education White Paper – ‘Opportunity For All’. It might be an exaggeration to describe it as eagerly-awaited, but it certainly looks like it will be significant. Among the weighty topics it covered are teacher professional development, targeted support for pupils, central support for behaviour and attendance, and, perhaps most significantly of all, the move towards a fully-academised system. It was accompanied by the SEND Green Paper, containing proposals which, if translated into policy, will provide a far more consistent approach to SEND provision and funding across the country.

There’s a tendency for those of us struggling with the day-to-day challenges of school to greet the fanfare that surrounds this sort of announcement with a weary shrug – given the all too present impact of Covid, as well as curriculum development, the return of Ofsted, budget challenges and all of the other urgent items filling the inbox, it’s hard to focus on the nature of school governance in 2030.

Innovation fatigue is a familiar concept to anyone who has worked in education for any length of time. Every time we read an announcement of a new strategy or initiative, whether that’s to improve attendance, raise reading levels, address the vocational skills gap or any other perceived problem, the first reaction is one of frustration, or resignation at best. This is not because everyone in schools thinks that everything is working perfectly well – we know that change is needed (and will always be needed) but it’s often hard to see the wider benefit and to understand how this particular project fits in with everything else.

Put simply, we’ve lost sight of the big picture. Our system has developed in a piecemeal, reactive way, and so we are reduced to seizing an opportunity, applying a sticking plaster, or reacting to a crisis. We’re creating a Frankenstein’s monster of an education system – and we know how that story turned out. It can’t be sensible for so many different models of school structure, funding and governance to co-exist, given that ostensibly we’re all judged under the same accountability framework and that we should fundamentally be aiming for the same thing for the young people in our care.

In this context, the move to a coherent system where all schools have similar governance structures is sensible, and whether or not you agree with the MAT model proposed, it should at the very least provide greater coherence and consistency. For this reason alone, the attempt to map the way forward is welcome, even though serious questions remain, not least around accountability, autonomy and ethos.

The White Paper provides some clear answers to the way the government is proposing to improve education over the next few years. Proposals to establish a career-long CPD structure, a minimum length of school day, a national curriculum body, and many more set out how the improvements are expected to be delivered (albeit with little detail in some areas). The structural reforms set out the model of governance and delivery.

In other words, we starting to know the How. What we don’t yet know is the Why.

The government have made it very clear that their goal is that all schools will be part of a strong Multi-Academy Trust. They have begun to set out how this might work. They have also set out some (highly-contestable) evidence of the impact of MATs, although given the range of models and the uneven distribution of schools into MATs, single academies and maintained schools, the best we can say is that they appear to have the potential to improve outcomes for pupils. If we’re not careful, a policy like this becomes the end in itself, rather than a way of delivering the vision. For what it’s worth, it’s my view that a well-conceived MAT system has great potential to effect improvement, but the governance structure of schools is the means of achieving our goal, not the point of the exercise.

Clarifying this becomes even more urgent as we enter this period of reform. In the short history of Multi-Academy Trusts, we have already seen the way that the philosophy of education can vary hugely from Trust to Trust, leading to radically different policies on local autonomy, pupil exclusions, SEND inclusion and staff conditions, to name just a few. Unless we’re clear about principles, then moving to a fully MAT-based system could actually increase inequality, confusion and lack of direction.

Before we rush headlong into the next stage of upheaval, it’s surely worth pausing and defining our purpose, with the aim of trying to establish a broad consensus across society. We all invest in education through taxes, we all benefit from a well-educated population, and we all have a view on what’s good or bad, based at the very least on our own personal experience.

If we are to have any hope of achieving an education system that is fit for the 21st century and has broad public and professional support, we have to answer three fundamental questions – What are aiming to achieve? What do we have to do to get there? And what are the values and principles that guide us?

Head Hunting – Managing the Interview Minefield

The motivation to write this blog article came from the occasional requests for advice I get from colleagues who are about to be interviewed for a headteacher post, and one in particular I received recently via twitter. Whilst I don’t claim any particular revelatory insights, it’s fair to say that I’ve observed the process at close hand on many occasions – as an LA adviser, a Trust CEO and, given the fact that I’ve had five headships myself, as a candidate. On a rough calculation, I think I have probably been directly involved in at least 40 or 50 Head Teacher recruitments, across all phases. It’s always a privilege and often an inspiration – seeing colleagues who have so much to offer sharing their expertise and enthusiasm, and I never underestimate the emotional investment that people bring to the process.

I’m not going to talk too much about the detail, or the specific knowledge that’s needed, firstly because it’s often context-specific, and secondly, because it’s probably easy enough to predict. Prospective Headteachers need to be able to talk confidently about teaching and learning, curriculum, leading school improvement, managing pupil behaviour and safeguarding. They need to show their knowledge of the current educational issues that are relevant to the context of the school – could be workload, phonics, academisation, religious ethos, SEND. Even if they don’t yet have a great deal of experience, they need to demonstrate a broad grasp of areas such as managing a budget, HR systems or capital projects. They also need to evidence core leadership skills, including strategic thinking, communication, managing a team and so on.

However, if the recruitment process has been well-run and there are enough prospective candidates out there (a big if), then it’s fair to assume that everyone called to interview can demonstrate the core skills and knowledge. The purpose of the interview process is not to find out if someone can do the job, it’s to establish who is the best fit of the candidates called to interview in the specific context of the school.

The most important message I can give to anyone applying for Headship is this – be active, manage the process. Remember, it’s not simply the panel’s job to get the information about you – it’s your job to give it to them. Here are my five key steps for a successful outcome:

  1. Know what you’re applying for

I’ve visited hundreds of schools, and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that they’re all different. It’s why I’m suspicious of off-the-peg improvement strategies – when it comes to schools, context is all. Is the school on a rapid improvement trajectory following a disappointing Ofsted, or avoiding complacency after a long-distant Outstanding judgement? Does the school need to manage a community with highly aspirational, but sometimes unrealistic aspirations, or engage a group of hard-to reach parents? Was the previous Head a long-established and much-loved member of the community, or has the school had a period of leadership instability? What is the nature of the social, ethnic or cultural mix? Are there any glaring curriculum issues that you have picked up on?

There is nothing more off-putting to a panel who are steeped in their school community, than getting the impression that a candidate is churning out standard answers, and a generic, catch-all vision. A visit is obviously very helpful, but if this is not possible, then a phone call and a detailed look at the school website is essential. Remember, on most occasions, you’re not applying for the school you’re currently working in – all too often, candidates talk about their own context without applying it to the job they’re hoping to do.

2. Know what you’re offering (and what you’re not)

Applying for a Headship is a big step, and you wouldn’t be doing it if you didn’t believe that you had something to offer. So what is it? What’s your elevator pitch? I think it’s a good idea to do this explicitly – in one paragraph or a series of bullet points, write an honest account of the specific experience and qualities you bring, and how they are suited to this post.

Here’s a (mostly) fictional example:

My rapid rise through the profession has come about because of the immediate impact I’ve had in all my leadership roles. My energy and enthusiasm are infectious and have enabled me to have a significant impact on children’s lives, as can be seen by the improvement in Reading in my last school, which I led, and the positive comments in the Ofsted report. My CPD record shows that I keep in touch with educational developments, and this has enabled me to have a dramatic impact on the practice of my colleagues, through coaching and modelling of good practice. I have introduced innovative use of IT, which has transformed curriculum delivery.

Summarising your offer in this way brings clarity – once you’re clear about this, it becomes easier to communicate it to governors. However, less often recognised but just as important is knowing your potential weaknesses in relation to the job. You can be sure that the panel will be discussing them when they’re making their deliberations, so hoping nobody mentions them is not a sensible option, even if it’s tempting. Very often, a candidate will be so focussed on telling what they can do well, that they are unable to handle the questions about things they can’t do yet. Once again an honest and explicit process can be helpful, listing potential weaknesses in a paragraph, and setting out how you will address them if you get the job (don’t forget, this is for your own consumption only):

Using the example above, it might look like this:

Although I have had a number of jobs in a short time, this is not because I don’t stick at a job, it’s because my success in each one has led to opportunities being offered – I’m now ready to consolidate and stay longer in the next post. I have worked in a context of rapid change which has been difficult for some, but I listen to colleagues and take them with me, and if I was successful, I would spend time getting to know the needs of the school and building relationships before implementing radical reforms. Although my experience in leadership is focussed on English and the weakness of the school appears to be maths, much of my curriculum expertise is transferable, and I am looking for Maths CPD to develop my domain-specific knowledge.

Whichever way a candidate chooses to go through this process, whether by writing it down formally as I’ve suggested, or through their own reflection, I believe that understanding strengths and weaknesses is an essential task, and takes me on to the next step:

3. Control the process

When you’ve understood your strengths and weaknesses, the task is simple – you need to emphasise your strengths and minimise your weaknesses, to make sure that the message you’re giving is the one you want to.

Every activity is an opportunity to do this. I’m sure you’ve seen TV interviews with politicians, where the actual question is almost irrelevant. They have come with something to say, and will say it whatever they’re asked – the sort of interviews that go: ‘Well Kirsty, if I may answer your question by saying that the public is not concerned with scurrilous gossip about illegal payments from Russia to my secret Cayman Island bank accounts, they’re much more interested about my new initiative to increase sentences for dropping litter in public places, and so I’ve come down to my local park today…’

Whilst I’m not suggesting that you ignore the question, the activities during the day are simply the opportunity for you to get your core message across – why I’m the right person for this job. Whether it’s leading an assembly, looking at pupil data, observing a lesson, doing a presentation, carrying out an in-tray exercise, the aim is the same – emphasise strengths, minimise weaknesses, make sure that the panel are seeing the person you want them to see. Too often, candidates will be passive recipients rather than active leaders of the process.

4. Don’t stress about the detail

An exam where everybody got 100% is not very well designed and it tells you nothing about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the candidates. Likewise, an interview process that goes perfectly is similarly badly-designed. The majority of Headship candidates are going for a promotion, so be definition they are not yet doing a job at this level. In my experience, interview panels respect honesty and humility, and allow for occasional mis-steps.

There will be some areas that are more difficult for you – for example, if you’ve never had the opportunity to manage a school budget, you can’t suddenly pretend you have that experience. In this sort of situation, the important thing is to understanding basic principles, and show a willingness to learn and listen to good advice. Preparing for the day as if you were cramming for an exam, for example trying to remember all of Rosenshine’s principles or the Gatsby benchmarks, is not a sensible use of time, and will be less impressive than you might imagine.

5. Sometimes it’s not meant to be

It’s perfectly possible to do a brilliant interview process, showing everything you want to – and still the job goes to someone else. That’s always disappointing, but it really doesn’t mean that you’ve done anything wrong – it means that you were not the right person for this particular job on this particular occasion. By making that decision, the panel have done you a favour – the right job will be there somewhere, even if you have to wait a little while longer. 

So, good luck – our education system is totally dependent upon brave and brilliant people coming through and taking on the responsibility of headship. It’s a uniquely demanding job, but also one that gives tremendous joy and satisfaction.

New Year Revolution – the Power of Collaboration

New Year is traditionally a time for optimism – for looking forward, considering the possibility of better times ahead. However, unless I’m misreading the mood, that doesn’t seem to be the prevailing emotion in the world of education. Uncertainty, anxiety and exhaustion seem to be the themes from school leaders as we head into the new year.

Obviously, the impact of two years of pandemic has much to do with this, as does the fact that there is still an air of doubt clouding the situation as schools return. In-school testing, staff absences, the return of SATs and exams – all cloud the future and make planning more difficult. The most recent government announcements have only deepened the gloom.

However, in the spirit of the season, if we’re going to change things, then the start of a new year is a particularly good time to do so, and it also makes sense to apply the things we have learnt in the turbulent times of the pandemic.

It’s been notable that when we analyse the successes of the last two years, many of them come down to organisations putting aside their competitive relationship and working together. When we needed to get meals to families or source PPE, schools, Local Authorities, Multi-Academy Trusts pulled together and got things done. When the chips are down, sometimes quite literally, collaboration was the only option.

The problem is that collaboration is often seen as an added extra, a ‘nice-to-have’. Our system is structurally hard-wired to be competitive. Exam grades are allocated based on pre-determined ratios, meaning that whether or not a student achieves a Grade 5, for example, depends not just on whether they have achieved a certain level of knowledge or skill, but on how many others have done as well or better. School performance measures use metrics that compare individual schools to the group as a whole, so that even if everyone gets better, or indeed everyone gets worse, there are still exactly the same proportion of ‘failing’ schools.

The use of the word ’Outstanding’ as the highest Ofsted grade, literally means that the school ‘stands out’, or differs from the rest. By definition, it is impossible for more than a small number of schools to be outstanding – why can’t we have a system that hopes and expects all schools to be performing at very high level?

There’s a myth that to be successful in life, we need to engender a spirit of competition – that we should teach our children that success means doing better than the next guy. This isn’t how human society works, at least not when it’s operating successfully. In the vast majority of jobs in the real world, it’s far more important to work well with your colleagues and the people around you than to ‘beat’ them.

Of course, the belief that competition brings about improvement is ingrained into the performative, neo-liberal philosophy that has driven our public services for the last forty years. I’m not qualified to know whether it works in manufacturing or investment banking, but I can see the damage it causes in a public service like education.

A competitive system, by its nature, creates winners and losers. Successful firms thrive, weaker ones go to the wall. The problem with applying this to a public service like education is that we can’t accept the casualties of the system, we can’t allow some children to fail on the grounds that others will benefit elsewhere.

A system founded on the principle of collaboration looks very different. It’s a system where we all feel a genuine stake in the success of others and where success that comes at the expense of others is not seen as success at all.

Imagine if every policy decision was subject to this test – does this policy increase the potential for collaboration, does it improve the system as a whole? How do we take good ideas, share them, support their implementation elsewhere? Imagine if collaboration was the guiding principle behind discussions around admissions, exclusions, budgets, recruitment.

It’s not the same as sharing good practice, valuable though that can be. Collaboration is frequently interpreted as the favoured few telling the rest how to do it – Hubs, Tsars, accredited CPD providers – this isn’t a sign of a collaborative system, it doesn’t unlock the potential within each school.

But collaboration means working together to achieve a shared goal. It isn’t simply a soft option, free from accountability. If accountability is shared, then resources will be targeted where they’re needed, data will be used to support and inform rather than report and conform, and expertise will be put to work wherever it will have the greatest impact. If you want to see the research basis for the power of collaboration, see ‘Learning is the Work’ Michael Fullan, amongst many other studies.

It’s been my privilege to spend time in hundreds of schools, including many that were mired in difficulties. I can honestly say that I never visited a Special Measures school that didn’t have pockets of excellence, or an Outstanding school that had nothing to learn from others, regardless of their Ofsted badge or attainment profile. In other words, I’ve never come across a school that had nothing to gain from a collaborative system, or nothing to offer.

On a local level, 2021 saw the start of our own experiment in true collaboration – ‘Better Together’ a partnership of schools, some from our own small MAT, but also single academies, maintained and voluntary aided schools – special, primary and secondary. The aim is to run professional development courses delivered by our staff, for our staff. We chose a number of key themes – SEND, Governance, Behaviour, Curriculum etc – and asked for teams of people to take on the responsibility of running the courses. No expensive charges, no badge – just generous sharing.

It’s early days, but so far we have delivered courses to over 400 staff and governors, and feedback has been excellent. It’s also given opportunities for staff to deliver training to colleagues from other schools, and uncovered some real talent. If you’re interested in seeing how it works, our website is here

I realise that my new year’s optimism has probably got the better of me and we’re currently a million miles from this, but like all revolutions, it has to start from the ground up. If we want change for the better, we need to do it together.

100 Not Out! My century in teaching

As we come to the end of the autumn term 2021, the realisation has dawned on me that I am on the verge of completing my century in teaching profession – 100 terms since I walked into my Year 5 class in the London Borough of Islington, gave out the Scottish Primary Maths workbooks, and settled down to listen to someone read me the adventures of Roger Red Hat and Billy Blue Hat from the Village with Three Corners.

I loved working in schools from the first day – it was creative, fun and exciting. On reflection, I realise now that I had almost no idea what I was doing, but I was keen and well-meaning and thankfully no-one seemed to notice whether I was any good or not. Apart from someone from the Local Authority, who popped in for a chat towards the end of my probation year, nobody ever watched me teach, or did more than offer encouraging words.

We had schemes to follow for Reading and Maths, but mostly I did Topic, which basically amounted to what I was interested in at the time. The National Curriculum was around the corner, but I felt safely able to ignore it for the moment.

Some of my happiest times in school were sitting reading to my class at the end of the day, enjoying the freedom to decide what we did, and how we did it. I’ll never forget having a group of irate parents waiting outside for 20 minutes at the end of the day because we had 10 pages to go in Danny the Champion of the World and everyone refused to leave. I also loved singing with my classes, and found my guitar as indispensable then as my laptop is now.

The accountability pressures that are such a natural part of the landscape nowadays were a distant speck on the horizon. No Ofsted, no SATs or Progress 8, no league tables, no Parents’ Facebook Groups, and as a result, almost no internal scrutiny either – no lesson observations, learning walks, book scrutiny, development plans. It wasn’t clear whether we were trusted or simply ignored, but the end result was the same.

I’m sure that there are some colleagues for whom this seems like a nirvana – the perfect answer to the stress and workload that teachers struggle with today. But despite my fond memories, it wasn’t all perfect, and there are many things that are so much better today.

Firstly, these days you are far less likely to come across the mad, the bad and the dangerous to know. There were far more people teaching children who should not have been allowed within twenty miles of a classroom, who were shortchanging children with little or no consequence. We all knew they were there, but nothing ever seemed to happen.

Secondly, despite all of the issues we have regarding funding, the rights of pupils with special educational needs are given far more importance now. I’m ashamed to say that in the first classes I taught, there were children in my classes who left me unable to read and write or operate number at the most basic level. I had 30 in a class, no Teaching Assistant, no intervention programmes, no Senco or provision maps, and in fact no real way of knowing how badly they were doing and what we should do to help.

It has also become completely accepted that all children are worthy of a good education, no matter where their school is, or how active their community. Teaching in deprived areas of Tottenham and Islington at the end of the 1980s, it genuinely felt that no-one at the top really cared how our children did. No-one checked, or even asked, I received almost no constructive advice or instruction on teaching methods. I turned up every day, and my class was usually happy and busy – that seemed to be enough.

Nowadays, I’m convinced that the quality of education that children and young people receive is better, certainly more consistent (Note to the Daily Telegraph – that’s why results improve over time, not because the exams are easier). Teacher training is more rigorous, pedagogy is better understood, the curriculum has fewer gaps. There has been a price to pay for this progress, and by and large, the price has been paid by people in the teaching profession. The improvement in the quality and consistency of schooling in our country has been achieved on the back of greater and greater demands being made on teachers and their colleagues in school. Whether that’s sustainable, only time will tell, but there are some alarming warning signs.

Some things never change, of course – children are children, mostly they’re charming, eager and funny, occasionally truculent and difficult. However it shows on the surface, underneath it all, they’re looking to their teacher to care for them, give them stability, and unlock their natural curiosity and capacity to learn.

As I reach my century, I can honestly say that every term has been different, and that I have continued to learn something new. I’ve worked in Islington, Tottenham, Borehamwood, Long Eaton, Hucknall, Nottingham, Redditch, Leicestershire and now Broxtowe, in Nottinghamshire. I’ve been a class teacher in Key Stage 1 and 2, a Deputy Head, a Local Authority Adviser, and a Head four times over in Primary, Middle and Secondary schools. I’m a CEO, a job that didn’t exist in education for at least the first twenty-five years of my career.

I remember the first time I could say to a class ‘I was teaching before you were born!’. It’s now quite a few years since I was first able to say that to our newest teachers, and in fact we have teachers now who were yet to be born when I first became a Head Teacher!

In all that time, I’ve had many tricky moments and more than a few difficult days, but I don’t think I’ve ever seriously regretted my choice of career. Hopefully, I’ve got a few more terms left in me yet, but so far, it’s been a privilege and a pleasure. 100 Not Out!

Confessions of an Imposter

I’m sure you will be familiar with the Imposter Syndrome phenomenon – it’s commonly felt by someone following a promotion, and is the inescapable feeling that they have somehow succeeded in getting the job under false pretenses. At any moment they fear they could be found out and sent back to their rightful position.

Head Teachers seem to be particularly vulnerable. I’ve rarely spoken to a fellow Head who hasn’t felt this, particularly when first taking over a job, although for many of us, it never completely goes. It’s part of the loneliness of the job, the fact that honest and impartial feedback is difficult to obtain, and so many of us feel the need to present an air of competence which would be shattered if we suddenly turned round and asked ‘How am I doing?’

I’m no exception. I have all too vivid memories of sitting behind my desk, having given my most confident and reassuring smile to my new team, closing the door and thinking ‘what the hell do I do now?’ No amount of time in SLT meetings, or even assuming the acting Head role prepares you for that buck-stops-here feeling. It’s been useful to understand the syndrome, comforting to appreciate that what I have felt has been an entirely natural reaction to the situation.

However, it turns out I was wrong. With the benefit of hindsight and experience, I realise that I never actually had Imposter Syndrome at all. Turns out I really was an Imposter.

Not quite at the level of the occasional news stories where someone has faked their medical certificates, got a job as a doctor, and is merrily carrying out complicated operations before they’re finally rumbled by someone who knew them years ago and remembered them as a slightly eccentric individual with 3 GCSEs and an unhealthy obsession with Holby City. But an imposter nonetheless.

I started teaching in a primary school in London in 1988, at a time when London schools were finding it almost impossible to recruit, and through a combination of eagerness, luck and market forces, made rapid progress. After three years, I was invited to apply for a Deputy Headship by someone I chatted to over coffee on a CPD course, and was appointed. As a new Deputy Head with responsibility for teaching and learning, I observed the teaching of wise and experienced colleagues and gave then pointers for improvement, all the while storing away tips and techniques to improve my own teaching.

I became a Head nine years after I had joined the profession, spent four happy years in a lovely school full of challenges but surrounded by supportive and talented colleagues, before taking over an inner-city school in Special Measures. With wonderful support from colleagues in the Local Authority, in neighbouring schools, and most of all on the staff team, we began to make a difference. After six years there (by far my longest stint in a single job at that time), I became a Local Authority adviser.

As I walked around great schools, led by wise Head Teachers, and staffed by dedicated and skilled practitioners, my first thought was usually ‘that’s a good idea, I wish I’d done that when I was a Head’. In my time in the job, my imposter experiences came thick and fast – standing in the front of a conference room, explain to 200 Headteachers how to implement the new National Strategy initiative that I had read for the first time the day before, carrying out a performance management review for the Virtual School Headteacher who had already forgotten more about the education of looked-after children than I could hope learn in my whole career, feeding back to members of the education select committee about the challenges of running a small rural school despite never having worked in a school that was either small or rural. Thinking on my feet, reading everything I could, relying on great colleagues – they got me through by the skin of my teeth. As long as I stayed true to my own values and the values of the organisation I worked for, I felt I could make a contribution through a combination of hard work, willingness and dumb luck.

My greatest imposter moment came relatively late in my career. I took the opportunity to apply for a post leading a small Trust, a post that meant an increase in salary, in a stimulating environment, with schools full of potential, much of it not yet realized. The only problem was that it comprised two secondary schools and a sixth form.

Now it’s not as if I hadn’t been in secondary schools before. I’d attended one thirty years previously and often worked with secondary colleagues. However, with the best will in the world, you couldn’t call me an expert. I was suddenly introduced to a whole new lexicon of exam specs, BTECs, EBacc, ALPS, NEETS – my head was reeling. I was one carefully targeted question away from exposing my ignorance and shattering my credibility with my new colleagues, all of whom quite reasonably assumed that the person leading their organisation had a reasonable working knowledge of the sector in which he was working.

In all my early meetings I was in constant danger of displaying an entirely justifiable sense of panic. Over time, of course, my expertise grew and knowledge increased to the point where I feel confident enough to share these reflections, but the memory is still vivid.

Now, I’m not naïve, on reflection, the privileges that so often accompany my race and gender are likely to have been a significant factor in some of the promotions I have gained, particularly early on in my career. Not directly or overtly, and almost certainly not with the conscious knowledge of the people doing the appointing, but it’s there nonetheless. It’s a regret that it has taken me until late in my career to recognise this, and to acknowledge the responsibility this places on me to make things better for others.

So what has my career as an Imposter taught me? Firstly, that knowledge and skills can be acquired along the way and that if you wait until you are totally ready to move to the next step, it’s a step you probably won’t ever take. A bit of impostership is inevitable, and no bad thing if you get the balance right.

Secondly, that no matter how important anyone’s role is in an organisation, they’re only ever part of a team. The important thing is not whether everybody in the team has the full range of knowledge and skills required, but that somebody does. In hindsight, even when my knowledge gap has been greatest, there has usually been something that I have been able to usefully contribute, and some skills can apply in almost all circumstances.

I’ve learned that in terms of career development, there are some vital things that don’t come under the category of skills, knowledge or experience, but are attributes and attitudes that make a huge contribution to any leadership team. Perhaps most importantly, positivity and optimism are an essential prerequisite for leadership, not least when they are in short supply elsewhere – everyone wants people on their team who has a belief that success is achievable and can communicate that with a degree of infectiousness. Loyalty and trustworthiness are always noticed and appreciated – every leader has to trust his or her team implicitly, or open discussion and dialogue is impossible. That doesn’t mean being a yes-man, in fact giving an honest opinion is the most important thing to do, as long as it takes place at the right time and place, and with the right audience.

I’ve learnt that if you want to do a job, you should start doing it before you’re appointed. For example, if you want to be a Deputy Head, start volunteering to be doing Deputy Head-type roles – assemblies, timetables, mentoring, policy development. Join the Governors, attend the PTA, chair the Parents’ Forum. Apart from the professional learning and enjoyment these roles can bring, don’t see it as doing something for nothing, see it as an investment to be cashed in at a later date. Don’t let people down – meet deadlines, contribute to meetings, check emails, be a supportive colleague – when you achieve a leadership role, you realise just how much you value the colleagues who can depend upon to do these apparently simple things.

Finally, the thing that allows the Imposter to survive without the whole shaky edifice crumbling – never forget that you’re always learning, whether that’s through formal structured professional development, through reading and reflection, or simply by engaging with professional conversations on social media. In an ever-changing education world, when we lose our curiosity and stop learning, we don’t stay still, we go backwards. As leaders, whichever direction we go, we take others with us, so forwards seems like the best direction of travel – now that we’ve bluffed our way into this position, we may as well make it count.