Contemplating Headship

Posted on September 1, 2013

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I want to be a Headteacher. There, I’ve said it. I didn’t always want to be a Head. In fact I didn’t used to want to be a senior leader, or even a teacher. What I wanted to be was a journalist,but a proposal for an MA that straddled the domains of History and Literature put paid to that when both the BA and ESRC wrote to tell me that the other would be the ideal people to give me a grant for that (not bitter, honestly!!!).

And so the lure of an extra year as a student, funded by the taxpayer on a PGCE course, led me to apply for a teaching qualification late in the summer of 1995. I was bloody lucky. I had northern teacher training providers listed alphabetically to call about places on English or History programmes and got my first and only ‘yes’ from York University. But still I only wanted to be a journalist and so I planned a career path that would see me spend five years in teaching supplemented by pro bono journalistic work, perhaps through professional newspapers and the like, en route to my dream job.

Did I say I was bloody lucky? Well, even more so than I first realised as I was taught by Chris Kyriacou and Mary Bousted and had Geoff Barton as my first Head of English on my first teaching placement. Between them they made me realise that I wanted to be a good teacher, at least before I left to write for a living. Geoff even made me revise my career plans to defer the journalism a bit more and spend a few years as a Head of Department. This would, of course, help me in my quest to be an award-winning hack.

And then I got started properly teaching as an NQT and something weird happened: I fell in love with the job. All my plans to write semi-professionally drifted away under the pressures of planning, marking and sheer bloody determination to do well. Even so, I still only had hopes for middle leadership apropos of a successful career in writing: I was just prepared to postpone the writing. Still no dreams of leadership, let alone Headship.

Years passed (sorry James Theo, as it probably feels like they are right now waiting for this post to get to the point) and I secured junior departmental leadership roles in three schools before finally landing an internal promotion to become the Head of English.

I had four wonderful years in that role before ‘the itch’ started to, well, itch and I began, by degrees, to realise that middle leadership held more frustrations than I could cope with. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the job and still think that it is the best, most fulfilling role I have ever held in a school. It’s just that it is the worst at exactly the same time: you are constantly squashed (or pulled apart) by the needs and demands of the teachers you have responsibility for and the needs and demands of the SLT you have responsibility to. I have more respect for those that have and hold this role for years and years than for anyone else in schools.

The fifth and final year of my departmental leadership role was the most excruciating of my career. I could see, and suggest, better ways of doing things than our school leaders but I could make nothing happen and found myself at odds with them even as I wanted them to take a chance on me as one of them. It was a treacherous tightrope and I walked it tentatively at times and terrifyingly at others. Journalism was forgotten by this point and the only writing I did was schemes of work, departmental policies and proposals to SLT.

Finally (or so it seemed to an ambitious me), in 2005, I was promoted to Assistant Head. I won’t bore you further with any more of the backstory but in the eight years that have followed I have become progressively more determined to make the biggest leap of all and take on a Headship. Now, with six years of Deputy Headship behind me, I’m beginning to seriously think about the role and, quite frankly, I have a lot of fears that I wanted to talk about here. The post is ‘inspired’ by two things I have recently read: John Tomsett’s beautifully vulnerable post about being Head when the results went badly and this story about the Head of Wellington Academy this morning. But it is also a post borne out of other things I have read, heard or seen down the years.

So here they are. My fears about applying for, interviewing for, securing and taking up a Headship post.

Will the right job ever come up?
To my mind, schools need to find the right Head and Heads need to find the right school. I can’t, in all conscience, be the Head of a religious school, a single sex school, an academy chain or a selective school. Nor do I want to be the Head of a school that has gained massive renown for good or bad reasons: Mossbourne and Quinton Kynaston are two Headships that have come up recently which have the “not with a bargepole” sign upon them for a first-time Headship. As a result very few Headships have come up recently within a geographical area I would be happy with. What if they never do?

Will a real Headship ever come up which isn’t aimed at second-time Heads?
As more and more schools go down the Executive Headship model it seems that fewer schools are advertising for ‘real’ Headships, by which I mean a Head who has full autonomy and full accountability for the inputs and outputs of a school. Many of these real Headships are clearly looking (and pricing themselves) for those who have already been successful Heads, particularly those in London where I currently teach.

What if my application doesn’t persuade governors?
Headships are the only teaching posts in schools where the decisions about who to appoint aren’t automatically made by teachers. How honest can you be about the needs you can see from the various sources of information you have about a school advertising a Headship? I’m not one for flattery when I see gaping holes and I’m not one to hold my tongue when I see the need to speak my mind. But governors may have been reassured unnecessarily by outgoing Heads or be more keen on someone who will tinker than someone who will overhaul, even if an overhaul is needed. Is it better to promise less and deliver more? I’m not sure that I can do that. These issues have been accentuated by the decline of local authority involvement in Headship appointment and the subsequent increase in the use of recruitment consultants in the process.

How do I know if the finances at a school contain ticking timebombs?
We have certainly entered what may well be a prolonged period of relatively (if not actually) declining budgets in school funding. At the same time we have, through academisation and the cutting of budgetary red tape, entered a period of less transparency in terms of how budgets have been run in schools. Without demanding the opening up of ‘books’ to a personal accountant, how can a Headship applicant be certain that there aren’t major budgetary constraints hidden away somewhere in the fine print that will shackle their ability to bring about school improvement? It feels like a leap in the dark and yet, on a two day interview with a real focus on being interviewed and upon teaching and learning, I would want to be secure that the school was secure. Heaven forbid that I, or any other Headship applicant, gets this one wrong.

What is the quality of the current staffing, including the leadership team?
In some ways this is the least of my worries, but it is still there. I have always been a great believer that a truly effective leader (or manager if you will) can get the best out of people, even when those people have not had a history of showing their best. But getting the best out of people, rather than just chucking them off the bus and onto the scrapheap, necessarily takes time and especially so for Heads recruited externally. If a school needs to move forward quickly to avoid special measures or to move above floor targets this is a circle that needs to be squared without the luxury of time but with the necessity (for me anyway) of humanity.

What about those accountability measures?
Ofsted seem to be recognising that new Heads need time to run their school rather than be looking over their shoulders to an imminent inspection. That is welcome and I hope it comes to pass that schools with new Heads get the same exemption from inspection as Free Schools currently receive. That leaves exam results to worry about (and let’s face it, any Ofsted exemption can be overturned in the face of poor exam results). Whilst accepting that exam results, and the consequent league tables, are part and parcel of being a Head, the floor targets (currently at 40% 5A*-C including English and Maths but soon to rise to 50% despite the possible changes to accountability mechanisms undergoing consultation) are the floor targets. They have a massive impact on school reputation and therefore upon student numbers and therefore upon school budget. New Heads mustn’t shun struggling schools but there is a perverse incentive to avoid schools with high proportions of low ability students on entry, because keeping your head above water (no pun intended) is hard when faced with the blunt indices of fixed thresholds. And even though Ofsted suggest that progress is as important a measure as floor targets, try telling that to anyone who reads a newspaper on the day the league tables are published.

What if what has worked for me in one context doesn’t work in another?
I genuinely try not to worry about this and with some success. Having worked as a Deputy Head in two very different schools in very different contexts I’ve already learnt this lesson the hard way. I hope that I have learnt it well enough to ensure that I don’t even try and transfer what works at my current school into a new Headship. Of course there will be features borne out of philosophical commitment that I would like to see if I can take with me, but I’m happy enough to start anew if that is what is required. Finding the pulse of a new school should be enough to get the heart of any school leader racing: heart transplant is definitely not the answer.

What if I’m no good at it?
I suppose that this, above all other worries, is the one that concerns me most. I have been very lucky ever since I entered this wonderful profession and no more so than as a school leader. I have worked as SLT in two schools, both of which have found themselves on an upward spiral of increasing results, improving esteem (self and other) and with a commitment to doing things right, with teaching and learning at the heart of their improvements. It’s very easy, in these circumstances, to ascribe this success to the leadership of a school generally and to one’s own role in that leadership particularly. But it’s a nonsense. Quite often in these last eight years the best results have been achieved by listening, not talking, or by turning back, not ploughing on. Most notably, and a key theme running through all of my posts I hope, the transformational successes I have witnessed have come about when the teams I have worked in have drawn real leadership out of support staff, classroom teachers, middle leaders and even students themselves.

And what if empowerment of others isn’t the answer after all?
So maybe I shouldn’t worry if I am good enough. Maybe instead I should be worrying about whether I am confident enough and brave enough to continue to let go of the tight reins of control and instead invest complete trust in others. There is so much at stake for Heads that it must be very hard to trust one’s instincts. I confess that I do fear the implications of getting this one wrong. A long time ago I was in a panel deciding whether to interview candidates for an English post and one applicant had been a Head of a school that was judged inadequate: we decided not to interview that person. Although it was for all the right reasons a part of me still feels a chill when I consider myself in their shoes. Maybe if that unthinkable comes to pass I could turn my hand to journalism again, even though that once cherished dream job has long since been supplanted by the dream job I currently have.

Despite all of these fears (and with apologies to John Tomsett) this much I know…
…I still want to be a Headteacher. Finding a school, impressing enough to be appointed, handling finances, supporting staff, facing accountability, locating the pulse of a new place, being good enough in myself and being good enough to bring the best out of others are all legitimate concerns. But they are also aspects of becoming a Head of which I am legitimately hopeful, and hope is by far my favourite quality in humans and one that has served me well enough so far. In truth I am hopeful of becoming a Headteacher, and a good one at that, because of these fears and not in spite of them. I take pride in being a school leader (despite my occasional rants against the less desirable elements of leadership I see and have sometimes mistakenly shown) and I hope that by the time I retire I can take pride in achieving and serving well that one remaining leadership role that I aspire to. After all, Headship is a far more important contribution to building a better future than writing tomorrow’s chip wrappers. Isn’t it?

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