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!

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.

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.

The value of sharing bad practice

Several years ago, I was given the task supporting a school in an Interim Headship capacity that had recently been placed into Special Measures. The teachers were hardworking and keen to improve but the school was in a challenging context, and over time inconsistency in the quality of teaching had led to entrenched low outcomes.

I came up with a plan – a colleague knew of a school a couple of miles down the road that had been consistently outstanding in Ofsted. I rang the Head, booked a visit and the whole staff headed over there, notebooks at the ready – we were going to watch and learn.

Of course, it was a disaster. None of the things that were being drilled into teachers to get the school out of Special Measures were anywhere to be seen – no detailed curriculum planning, progress checks or three levels of differentiation (it was a while ago) – and in fact it was very difficult to understand how the school had ever got an outstanding judgement. The teachers did not seem to be putting in the extra hours that their Special Measures colleagues were, there were no detailed and complex systems of review and analysis, no endless meetings. However, there was no reason to question the inspection judgement – the children’s achievement was exceptional, they loved school and the place had an air of quiet purpose.

We left downbeat, demoralised and none the wiser.

The problem with observing truly high performance is that it looks so effortless. If I want to learn how to juggle, then it doesn’t matter how many times I go to the Cirque du Soleil and watch someone throwing and catching 6 flaming torches, it still wouldn’t be advisable for me to have a go. If, on the other hand, I could spend time watching someone struggling to learn the technique of keeping two tennis balls in the air, I might learn something.

It’s an often-stated fact that we learn more from our failures than our successes, so it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that we may learn just as much from watching the failures of others as we do from watching their successes, for exactly the same reason.

Behaviour management is a perfect example. If a teacher is struggling to control their class, then sending them to watch your most skilled behaviour manager is unlikely to be effective on its own. They won’t be able to see how their colleague manages poor behaviour because they probably won’t see any – they’ll just see that mysterious alchemy which means that the student who refuses to stop talking in their class, will be the model of conformity with their highly-skilled colleague.

Of course, we need both to really succeed – we need to know what good practice looks like, but we also need to know how to overcome the hurdles that stand in our way, and understanding what not to do is equally as important as knowing what to do.

I’ve been privileged to have been present in a great many lessons taught by a huge range of teachers over the years, as a school leader, adviser and inspector – I can honestly say that I have learnt something in all of them. It’s an unavoidable human instinct to think ‘What would I have done in that situation? What can I apply to my own practice and what would I do differently?’ It’s this reflection and application to one’s own context that makes observation such a powerful tool for learning.

I have been very interested in the revolution that is taking place in CPD at the moment. I welcome the desire to establish a coherent structure and the recognition that high-quality professional development is at the heart of effective school improvement. I also welcome the way that those who are charged with leading CPD appear to have been selected based on the evidence of their own good or outstanding practice. It gives them credibility and experience of practical strategies. However, it’s very important for those charged with delivering CPD to remember the overwhelming importance of context.

At the risk of over-simplifying, it appears that there is definitely a favoured delivery model. Find individual examples of very good practice, gather them together in a ‘Hub’ structure, pair them with underperforming schools or individuals and let them learn from the experts. I’m sure this has the potential to be effective, but only if it goes beyond the master-pupil dynamic, and once that relationship is established it can be hard to disrupt.

When we’re engaged in improving teaching, especially in the light of underperformance, it’s crucial to take into account that teaching is a complex process, especially teaching large groups of individual pupils at the same time. That’s not to say that there may be simple changes that can make a difference – we’re all always on the lookout for those inspired tips that we can pinch from colleagues and that make our lives easier. However, if we want improvement, the first step is understanding, not compliance, and the way we gain understanding is to see how something works, and why it sometimes doesn’t work.

Teaching is not the same as following a recipe, although CPD can often present it in this way. Whether it’s following a National Strategies 3-part lesson, or ticking off a Rosenshine checklist, there is often a temptation to say that the key to a successful lesson is simply to make sure that you’ve done certain things in a certain order. If only it were that easy.

One of my favourite CPD approaches is Lesson Study – groups of peers working together under the guidance of an expert facilitator to observe one another and give constructive and supportive criticism. It’s a safe place for people to try things out, some of which will work well, others will fall flat – it’s a brilliant learning experience for the person being observed and for their colleagues who are being observed. Sadly, it’s one that it’s very difficult to deliver on a practical and cost-effective way – wouldn’t it be great to install a teaching and learning classroom in every school, with cameras and recording equipment and space for teachers to work together?

The key principle, however, is that while teaching is often an individual endeavour, learning about teaching is far more effective when it’s a shared activity. Opening up our practice takes courage and a culture change – many colleagues are understandably very nervous about allowing others to see them at work, especially if they aren’t feeling particularly confident. If we want to improve schools, leaders have to establish professional communities of trust. To do this we don’t need less observation, we need more – but it needs to feel very different.

I’ve never seen a lesson so perfect that it couldn’t possibly be improved, and I’ve never seen a lesson so terrible that there was nothing that could be built upon. If we can establish the principle that the point of observing teaching is not to judge, but to learn, then we really will be revolutionising CPD.

The Three Little Words that no leader should be afraid to say

We all have an image of a great leader – usually someone who is wise, fair and inspiring, who we turn to in times of need. When we go to them with a problem, they provide the solution. They know stuff, and when they tell us, we can put our trust in it.

The problem with such aspirational images is that those of us who are mere mortals feel the pressure to present this model of leadership to their team at all times, however unrealistic it might be. The irony is that it is often the most inexperienced and unconfident leaders who feel the greatest pressure to be all-knowing. They are terrified that the mask might slip, and they will be exposed as someone who has no more special powers than everyone else in the team.

This means that there are three words that many leaders feel terrified of saying – ‘I don’t know’.

We see this most starkly with politicians. When the Prime Minister stands up at Question Time, or a minister is being interviewed on Newsnight, or even when a prospective MP is taking part in a hustings at the local church hall, ‘I don’t know’ is almost the worst answer they can give. They need to be able to talk about energy strategy, crime figures, fiscal policy, trade agreements – whatever the subject that’s thrown at them, they feel the need to project an image of someone with the facts at their fingertips and the knowledge securely in their head.

Of course, that’s not the reality – we can’t know everything. Leaders have not been chosen simply because they can store more knowledge than anyone else in the organisation. Not knowing is not the same as not being able to.

In fact ‘I don’t know’ are words that can have great power – depending on the words that immediately follow them.

‘I don’t know, what do you think?’

‘I don’t know, I’ve struggled to find that out as well. I wonder if X might know?’

‘I don’t know yet, I’m going to read up on this.’

‘I don’t know, this is the first time I’ve seen this happen, we need to watch this very carefully?’

‘I don’t know, let me have a think about it and I’ll get back to you.’

Let’s face it, if a leader knew everything, they really wouldn’t need a team. There is a simple solution to the problem of not knowing something – finding it out. Having spent so much time in classrooms where pupils expect us to know everything, we fall into the habit of assuming that’s our default position.

Schools are complex institutions, and have become progressively more complex in recent decades. Managing this complexity is an essential part of school leadership – school leaders have the ultimate responsibility for pupil outcomes, safeguarding, premises management, HR, data management security, pedagogy, behaviour, staff CPD, the list goes on. It’s impossible to be an expert in all these areas, and ultimately it’s not sensible to try. In fact, when the desire to be seen as all-knowing and super-confident becomes too great, it can prevent us from seeking advice and support, or from admitting that a change is necessary.

Obviously, presenting a confident and positive face is an essential leadership skill, but so is authenticity and honesty and we sometimes have to balance the two. It also can work against building a true collaborative team – if the leader of a team has all the answers, the rest of us are simply functionaries.

By 2020, I had been in school leadership positions for 28 years in a wide variety of roles and contexts, and it was 23 years since my first headship – I had been round the block a few times, bought the T-shirt, seen it all. I was falling into the trap of thinking that ‘I don’t know’ was something I didn’t really need any more. Then came coronavirus. Suddenly ‘I don’t know’ was the only sensible response for school leaders, and I was no exception.

However, the myth of the all-knowing leader proved a hard one for many people to ignore, and much of the pressure and stress that many school leaders felt came down to the fact that they felt that they should have the answers, purely by virtue of their job title. On many occasions, members of staff, parents and governors come to the Head with crucial high-stakes questions – when will schools be open again? How can you guarantee that everyone in school will be safe? How are you going to make sure that students aren’t disadvantaged by the time they have spent learning at home? – to which the only honest and sensible answer is ‘I don’t know’, but that may be the last thing people want or need to hear. This is why the words that follow it are the ones where true leadership can be shown.

Thanks to the excellent range of training and development opportunities available for leaders, new Head Teachers take on the role far better informed and equipped than in the days when I first became a Head, although it could be argued that the complexity of the role has increased at the same rate. Does that make this message more or less important?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know…

If you can lose your head when all about you are keeping theirs…

As an exercise in futility and blind optimism, it would be hard to beat the example of a Head Teacher setting out a detailed plan of their day during 2020. Even the vaguest idea of clearing a few emails, writing a letter to parents, and contacting the Chair of Governors is likely to be scuppered by the phone call from a key member of staff letting you know that their 7 year old has been sent home from school with a persistent cough and they won’t be back for a fortnight, or working out how to get laptops and dongles to the latest group of self-isolating disadvantaged pupils, or god forbid, a phone call from the HSE asking you to explain how you’re maintaining social distancing in a classroom of 30 10-year olds.

Perhaps the most accurate plan for the day would be to scrawl ‘Deal with stuff’ in large letters across every diary page. It’s crisis management, it’s exhausting and at the end of the day, you’re no further forward than when you started. We’re standing at the baseline, desperately trying to reach the next 100-mph serve and just somehow keep the ball in play.

Hats off to everyone in this position – you’re doing an amazing job and rising to all the challenges that face you. It’s understandable if you have no physical or emotional energy to be looking at the longer term, or the bigger picture.

The problem is that we know from all the experience we gained before coronavirus that if we completely neglect the long term and the big picture, then we don’t stay still, we go backwards. The great strides forward that have been made in a whole host of areas over the last few years – curriculum design, research-based pedagogy, teacher well-being, support for early career teachers – will be lost, and we will emerge from the crisis weaker than before. The agency of schools and Head Teachers in particular to set their own trajectory will be lost if it’s not used. Somehow, we have to continue to move forward.

It’s tempting to think, ‘Yes, but not now.’ But, unfortunately, the longer this not-as-we-know-it school goes on, the less likely it seems that it will disappear very soon, We celebrated when we welcomed students back to school at the start of term, but it was unlike any schooling that I’ve experienced. There’s no return to normal around the corner, and it wasn’t long before even the ‘new normal’ became out of date.

So, it’s not a question of pretending this isn’t happening, or even trying to carry on with everything that we would be doing at the same time as managing today’s emergency. However, it is vital to make sure that we don’t completely lose sight of one of the most important aspects of school leadership – the ability to stand aside from the fray, scan the horizon and set a course.

If we’re going to motivate and inspire our teams to deal with the challenges that they’re facing in the here and now, we need a vision of how it will be better in the future. And if we’re going to have that vision, every so often we need to have our head in the clouds, not just in the game.

It won’t be the same as it would normally be – how could it be? At this time of year, in my own schools, we’d be analysing data, identifying patterns and trends and setting our plans to build on strengths and address the issues. We’d be drawing up School Improvement Plans and identifying success criteria and cpd opportunities. We’d be looking at opportunities and wider themes, and evaluating our progress towards our long-term vision. To even suggest that at the moment seems to dismiss the very real day to day pressure.

But it needn’t – it’s the role of leader to seek out and seize new opportunities when tried and trusted ways don’t apply. At the height of this crisis, we need to look at what we’re doing now, and what we’re doing well and how we can fit that into our longer-term narrative? What would I recommend goes into this year’s hypothetical Improvement Plan, whether or not we get the time to write it down? What are the things that we’re experiencing now that can make us stronger in the future?

First of all Building team – in a crisis, people come together. They roll their sleeves up and do what’s necessary. In many schools this experience has brought the team together in a way that no amount of paintballing sessions could ever do.The generosity and selflessness of our colleagues has been humbling and must not be lost if we go back to normal. What are the strengths we’ve identified in our people? Who has shown a talent that we never suspected? Who is ready for greater leadership responsibility? We need to make sure this isn’t forgotten and they continue to have the opportunity to develop. Is this an opportunity to look at our structure and systems, to consider a more collaborative leadership approach?

Redesigning curriculum – this is happening in almost every school, it’s happening at a pace and scale that is staggering. Given the hours that have been spent in establishing an online or blended curriculum model – deciding what are the key areas of content to deliver when access is limited, reconfiguring schemes of work to plan for revised exam specifications, establishing innovative ways of delivering reading programmes from a distance – we now have an opportunity to think about what we’ve learnt and what we’re keeping, and to take curriculum way beyond face to face classroom sessions. The task is to evaluate what’s worked and embed it in the curriculum and in our instructional techniques.

Building community – the place of schools at the centre of their community has never been so clearly seen as during the current crisis. Schools have arranged for food to be delivered to homes, have provided advice and counselling, have been a place of comparative calmness and safety. I’ve been staggered by the extent to which our communities have turned to their schools when the chips are down. We’ve also learnt about the crucial parts of our local community that have gone under the radar before – food banks, care homes, delivery services. How do we redefine our values and vision to recognise these community links? How do we work with community champions and encourage our children to give something back?

Finally, Developing an understanding of the world – one of the most mistaken assumptions about children during lockdown is that unless we were providing a full programme of live online lessons, somehow their development would be frozen at the point where they could no longer physically attend school. However, they haven’t been in cold storage, and their natural interest and curiosity has been working overtime. Was there ever a group of young people who were more engaged with political issues and national debates, not least because of the direct impact it had on their lives. If this crisis doesn’t lead to a significant increase in students studying power structures in social sciences, or understanding global interconnectivity in Geography, or showing curiosity in the spread of infections in Science, then we’re missing a huge opportunity. There’s hardly a single subject studied in school that can’t claim increased relevance as a result of the Covid crisis, so let’s build on that natural interest.

So, good luck to everyone who is dealing with extraordinary challenges. I hope the next few weeks go as well as possible. But I also hope that, every so often, you have the opportunity to allow your thoughts to drift to the the future as well.

The school leaders Covid dilemma: ‘With limited power comes great responsibility’ (as Spiderman didn’t quite say)

In normal times, the English education system runs on the principle that schools and school leaders are given the freedom to make and take action and are then held accountable for the impact of their actions. Our Head Teachers are among the most accountable in the world. There are multiple levers – Ofsted, performance tables, RSC / LA intervention powers – all are part of a system which allows judgement to be made and consequences, good and bad, to be felt. Underpinning the system is the fact that the Head Teachers and governors are subject to statutory responsibilities, and in extreme cases, could suffer legal sanctions.

Challenging as this may be, there’s a logic to it – compared to many systems, there is a higher level of school autonomy for school leaders in England. Head Teachers make important decisions about curriculum, staffing and budget that they wouldn’t have the authority to do elsewhere. They can decide the style of pedagogy they will promote, the structure of the day, the behaviour policy and many other things that, in theory, give them the levers to bring about effective change. We may argue about the balance, and there is undoubtedly a heavy accountability pressure, but there is also power and agency.

This delicate balance has been completely upset by the events of the last few weeks. Schools, and Head Teachers in particular, have been given a huge responsibility – the responsibility to begin opening their schools safely to an increasing number of children. They have to decide how to organize their teaching groups, how to deploy staff, how to maintain a safe environment. They need to maintain distance learning for most pupils while staffing a significant increase in face to face teaching.

Ultimately, they have the absolute responsibility to keep their community safe, whilst at the same time opening schools up to greater risk and maintaining a high standard of education. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that they are now potentially making life or death decisions.

The problem is that despite having this accountability, despite bearing the full responsibility if their staff and students walk into a potentially unsafe situation, they have not been given the agency or autonomy to ensure that this doesn’t happen.

They are responding to a bewildering series of government instructions, many delivered at the last minute or contradicting a previous announcement. You will deliver education to these specific year groups, from this date. You will organize your classes in this way. This will be your approach to social distancing, PPE, school meals, First Aid. The diktats come thick and fast, from people who don’t know the school site, the community, the staff profile – all hugely relevant factors. Detailed planning is essential, but plans are often rendered completely redundant when a new 11th-hour announcement turns things upside-down.

Meanwhile, it is very clear that accountability has not gone away. Head Teachers and school governors remain answerable for the consequences of decisions with which they may totally disagree. Unions (quite legitimately) provide challenge to Head Teachers, as the people who carry the formal legal responsibility. It can be tough carrying the can for the impact of our own decisions – it’s really unfair to do it for someone else’s.

The irony is that by following this path, the objectives that the government hope to achieve are actually undermined. By not trusting Heads to make the best decision for their local context, in consultation with staff and local community, they take away their ability to find creative ways of achieving the outcome that everyone wants.

I believe that the objectives are clear and sharted by almost all – to open schools to pupils as soon as it is safe to do so. School leaders recognise the role we play in ensuring that people can return to work, as well as the social and educational imperatives in opening schools more widely. We do not want to frustrate or undermine this ambition. This may involve a gradual process, possibly part-time, with a mix of year groups. It may need groups of schools to share capacity, it may require prioritising certain groups of pupils, or areas of learning. Schools should be required to liaise with their LA in designing their approach, then publish their plans on their website, together with a rationale explaining why they are following this path. That’s how true accountability works.

We need good and clear advice from government, as much relevant information as possible, and as soon as it is available. We need support to procure equipment, we need model policies , checklists and risk assessment – all the things that will inform good planning and implementation. We need government to work closely with stakeholders, including trade unions, local authorities and parents groups That is the support that will help us bring pupils back, not put obstacles in our way.

Then, please let us get on with the job – if we’re to be held to account, then trust us to make the right decisions.

Failure – delay, not defeat

I moved to the East Midlands at the end of 1994 with my wife to take up my second deputy Headship in a large primary school. It was a time when rapid promotion was possible and by this point, after an eventful first six years in teaching, I had taught in three schools – primary schools in Islington and Haringey, and my first Deputy Headship in a First School in Borehamwood, on the outskirts of London. I had taught Years 5, 6, 4 and 2, thrown myself into all the CPD I could find, and been subject leader for Maths and Music. I’d also had a three-month period of acting Headship, covering for a Head who was on sick leave, but always available on the end of a phone.

After two weeks settling into the new school, at a point where I had just about got the names of my colleagues and most of my class sorted, my new Head sat me down in his office. ‘I’ve been waiting to appoint a Deputy’ he told me, ‘so that I can put my retirement plan into action’. The plan was to be signed off by his doctor with high blood pressure and continue on sick leave up to the point where his pay would start to drop, when he would hand his notice in and retire. This is exactly what he did – I was now Acting Head, 31 years old, six years in teaching, in a new city.

The next four terms were challenging but exhilarating. I had a brilliant staff team, great governors and a supportive LA, and I threw myself into the role. I used the knowledge I had gained in London to redraw our curriculum model, prepared for our first ever inspection and taught a class of 44 Year 5 children (yes, really) for half the week. Parents seemed to like me, the staff were supportive and every governors’ meeting ended with a word of thanks and the comment ‘what on earth would we have done if Paul hadn’t been here?’

Finally, the retirement was confirmed and the permanent job advertised. I spent a long time on my application and made sure my preparation was just right. On the day before the interview, I received a card from the staff wishing me luck, and lost count of the number of parents who told me that I was a shoe-in.

The day arrived. There was only one other candidate, a Head from a local school. Everything went well. My presentation was a thing of beauty, my prepared answers slick. I was able to reference all the things that I had done over the past year and show off my detailed knowledge of the school. I went home, rang my wife to give her an update, and awaited the phone call.

You’re probably one step ahead here. The phone call came. The Chair of Governors thanked me for everything I’d done for the school, congratulated me on my performance during the day… and told me they had given the job to the other candidate.

I couldn’t tell you the reasons she gave – I was in no state of mind to listen to them. I mumbled a ‘thank you for letting me know’ and hung up. I sat there feeling slightly numb and was still sat in the same chair when my wife came in an hour later with a bottle of sparkling wine, ready for a celebration which never happened.

My first instinct was to buy that week’s TES and search the Jobs section – I felt cheated, that I’d been lied to. They had taken advantage of me, strung me along while I had kept the school going, only to ditch me at the first opportunity. The next day was hard, I was the victim of my own hubris, but I fronted it out and thanked everyone for their support, all the while dreading the next few weeks during which I would still be the Acting Headteacher – good enough to be the caretaker, but not good enough to be trusted with the job permanently. I resolved to stick around for just long enough to be able to apply for a job without my application looking like a fit of pique.

As it happened, I stayed for two more years. The new Headteacher arrived, and made her presence felt straight away. The office, which had been unchanged in a year apart from a small photo of my wedding and a framed picture of Goodison Park was now resplendent with dried flowers and pot pourri, and inspirational quotes framed on the wall.

Her initial Assembly was brilliant – warm, authoritative, funny – and set the tone for her first few weeks. She suggested we write a School Development Plan. At this point, School Development Plans were like duck-billed platypuses – I had heard of them; I had just never seen one in the flesh. This one was a Rolls-Royce of a plan – sleek and efficient, identified what we needed to do, and set out the how, who and when. A decent start then, in her first few weeks of doing my job.

Over the next two years I watched her at close quarters. She asked people’s opinions, considered them, but was unafraid to make decisions. She had a way of passing on difficult messages supportively and professionally, in a way that didn’t really brook any argument. She was thorough, hardworking, knowledgeable and always professional. The school grew and blossomed under her leadership. Ofsted came, (6 inspectors for a week, with an 80-page report) and liked what they saw.

She was also kind, and took an interest in people. She was particularly kind to me, and instinctively knew that she was dealing with someone with a bruised and fragile ego. She had a way of giving me good advice whilst at the same time making it sound like she was asking my opinion, and without realizing it, I was learning my trade every day. It was my Head Teacher apprenticeship.

Eventually, I felt I was ready, and applied for headships. The first one I didn’t get, up against a strong and well-respected internal candidate. The second one was different – I knew I had a chance and it felt like a good fit.

There was a moment in the final interview when the LA representative on the panel asked me ‘What makes you think you are ready to be a Headteacher?’ I can’t remember my answer, probably a fairly anodyne and cliched response. However, I do remember it as a moment of clarity. I could not be certain that I was ready, but I was absolutely certain that I hadn’t been ready two years earlier.

It had felt like my period of Acting Headship had been the archetypal steep learning curve. However, the real learning was done afterwards. You learn by observing expert practitioners, who coach you and allow you the freedom to try things and fail safely. I learnt because there were people who were prepared to make the right decision, even though it was not the one I wanted.

It’s common to see social media posts from disappointed people who haven’t been given their dream job. After a few years in any career, most of us can empathise and sympathise with that feeling. I suppose the point of this story is that in the moment of disappointment it’s hard to see the bigger picture, and the job that is the perfect fit for each of us is by definition the one we eventually get.

In the meantime, every application and interview really is a learning experience. As Henry Ford said ‘Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently’. It just sometimes takes time to realise it.

NB Title quote from Denis Waitley

Same Difference

The problem with research is that sometimes it discovers things that are inconvenient. This is particularly irksome when someone takes a detailed, analytical look at something into which you’ve invested quite a lot of time, energy and faith, and discovers that the evidence says that your investment is based on inaccurate information and so is unlikely to pay the dividend you’ve hoped for. When this happens, the best strategy is usually to look away and hope nobody notices – after all, what do the so-called ‘experts’ know anyway?

This might be the scenario following the paper published this week by the Nuffield Foundation, and carried out by UCL and NFER: Better Schools for All: School Effectiveness and the Impact on Pupils. It’s a fascinating analysis of large-scale data designed to answer some key questions about the factors that influence student attainment and school performance. The authors, Alex Bryson, Lucy Stokes and David Wilkinson, provide a clear-eyed and readable summary which throws up some fascinating findings.

There are two in particular that caught my eye and which raise some awkward questions for policy-makers in education. The first is that ‘schools account for a relatively small share of the variation in pupil attainment (not usually more than 10%)’ and the second that ‘Head Teacher characteristics … explained a relatively small part of the variation in school performance’ and in fact the research found ‘no impact on attainment of a change in Head Teacher’.

Academic language sometimes allows remarkable things to slip through, so let me repeat and rephrase. The data shows that the school you go to and the performance of the Head Teacher have a very small impact on how well you do in our education system.

Why is that so significant? Well, we’ve built a system that is absolutely dependent on the opposite being true. How do we deal with school failure? We re-broker, change the Head, ‘turn the school around’. We pay huge salaries to CEOs of favoured Trusts, and laud them for the difference they are making to children’s life chances. We’ve hard-wired competition into our education system through league tables and unlimited parental choice. We have engineered huge penalties for inclusivity and rewards for exclusion. We’ve treated Ofsted judgements as an outcome, as an end in itself. All based on the belief that if only all schools were as good as the best schools, and all Heads were as good as the best Heads, the problem would be solved.

Turns out, according to this data, that’s not true.

Now, that’s not the same as saying that school performance and quality of leadership is unimportant. Although the authors of the report do conclude that ‘attending a ‘good’ secondary school only adds a small amount more value than attending a ‘bad’ secondary school’ this is about the variance between schools, and does not imply that schools don’t have an impact overall. However, it certainly begs the question whether a relentless focus on competition between schools is likely to make the difference. In other words, given that the difference between the best and the worst is so small, the only sensible response is to develop a system designed to improve all schools. A system, in other words, based on collaboration and shared ownership.

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Recognise that school improvement is not about the ‘best’ showing the ‘rest’ how it’s done. Every school has good practice and every leader has wisdom to share;
  • Make sure that all the schools in a locality have a shared ownership of the outcomes of all students in that locality – no incentive to ‘off-roll’ or tactically exclude;
  • We do know that teacher quality matters. Give as many opportunities as humanly possible for teachers to collaborate, share and network, in person and on line. Develop teaching through open research and opportunities to study;
  • No more ‘hero’ Heads – understand that this is a team effort;
  • Use current accountability systems – inspection, assessment data – to inform improvement. What a difference might all of that knowledge make if it was focussed on improving the system as a whole?

If there is little difference between the impact of the best and the worst, then trying to improve by closing the gap between them won’t achieve much. The only thing that will make a difference is by working across the system as a whole. A rising tide lifts all ships, as the cliché goes. Like all good clichés, it has more than a grain of truth. Just look at the research.