Heads Up #2: Life in the Crow’s Nest

Posted on September 13, 2014

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In my first blogpost as Headteacher I pondered on the nature of my new role, suggesting that there is a figurehead element to it and/or a masthead element to it. This week has certainly been a ‘masthead’ kinda week, to the extent that I’m beginning to question the phrase ‘learning curve’: my learning is happening vertically, and I can’t wait to see the curve!!

In that last post, I jokingly made reference to the historical naval tradition of sending sailors to the masthead as punishment, but exploring the metaphor further I see an interesting alignment with the role of Head as I have experienced it thus far. Good old Wikipedia says the following about the masthead of a ship:

Its purposes include carrying sail, spars, and derricks, and giving necessary height to a navigation light, look-out position, signal yard, control position, radio aerial or signal lamp.

Primarily, then, the purpose of a masthead is outward-facing (forgive the leadership jargon, or sue me) for the benefit of the ship’s inhabitants. This week has been largely about that part of the role, so I thought I’d share what I’m learning about working with people beyond the staff and students of the school.

Families

Of all the people that exist outside the school, families are the ones who consistently have the most influence on events within it. This week I have begun the process of communicating with them as a group, writing a welcome message for the school website and my first contribution as Head to the weekly bulletin. In doing so I have sought to align the messages given to staff on INSET day and students in last week’s assemblies: that we will pose tough challenges to students on all fronts because we have caring expectations of them. A few members of staff have already thanked me for establishing that clarity of message, telling me that it makes their job easier in dealing with students at the proverbial chalk face.

I have also held my first meetings with individual parents. As is to be expected at this early stage, these have included meetings with parents whose children have not yet behaved in the manner which we, as a school community, have set out for them. The pastoral teams that we have at Canons are wonderful professionals, and this has meant that the bulk of what is said at those meetings has been led by them. My position has been simple and unequivocal in these meetings: that students cannot abrogate their responsibilities to others, blaming adults within school or at home for their actions, and that they will be the ones whose accounts will be in debit or credit as a result of their actions.

In the coming weeks I will be holding ‘surgeries’ (I need to find a better word for these) for families, as well as staff, and I am keen to hear the voices of those who perhaps never come to the attention of the school (for all the right reasons).

Local Headteachers

This week also included my first High School Heads meeting, and I must confess that the ‘imposter complex’ that I still have (and hopefully will never lose) meant that I was a little worried about what to expect from it.

Of course there were areas covered on which I am still an absolute novice, but the message I mostly took away from that meeting is that this is a group of people who know a lot about the things I am facing or am likely to face in the coming years, but also that this is a group of people who are (just like me) finding their own way within the eternally revolutionary education sector. New accountability measures, the new SEN code of practice and the new volatility of examination results pose new challenges for us all, and I came out of the meeting feeling much less of an imposter, whose voice was as welcome as any of the others around that table.

Most importantly of all, I felt supported by a new team. I can see that sometimes it will be quite lonely at the masthead, but that via semaphore or morse code I will be able to communicate with others in similar positions.

The Local Authority

Despite the fact that our school is one of a number that opted to become an academy in recent years, this week has reminded me of how significant the role of the local authority is to the lives of our students and their families. I received a call from a former SIP (School Improvement Partner – remember them?) of the school to welcome me and ask me if there were any questions I might have after my first week in the job. Later in the week, I met with the Director of Children’s Services and the Community Cohesion lead (remember that?) as part of our school’s ongoing responsibility to contribute to the safety and wellbeing of our students over and above their academic studies.

Next week I have a meeting with the Court Officer, who is working with all schools to establish agreed common practice with regard to the management of children’s absence from school. Beyond that, who knows how many different LA types I will meet. All I know for now is that it is good to know that academisation has not severed the links between the school and the authority. I’m not foolish enough to think that it hasn’t affected them at all, and this is very much a time of realignment for us all, but already I have learned that the will is there on all sides to make the most of these changed circumstances.

Governors

At the risk of sounding like I am bemoaning a long-old week (I’m not, and the really tough job of a teacher with one free period in three school days bears no comparison), this week also saw my first Full Governing Body Meeting as Headteacher. And what a great meeting it was, with a prolonged debate on their effectiveness (using The Key’s 20 questions) leading into discussion of a range of ideas that might further enhance their ability to provide strategic direction for, financial oversight of, and informed, critical friendship to the school. I can’t wait to see what they come up with. Or, rather (given that I am now officially a governor myself), I can’t wait to see what we come up with.

I was also reminded, at that meeting, of the time I became a Deputy Head at Canons. Having previously been internally promoted from Second in English to Acting DHT, I was surprised at how nervous my new colleagues were of me when I started to job. It was a challenging time for me, almost certainly because it was a challenging time for them. I’d started with two other newly appointed DHTs under a relatively recently appointed Head and it was hard to reassure them that we weren’t about to abandon all that they loved about the school in order to tackle the things nobody loved about it. Now, as an internal appointment, I am in the fortunate position of having full backing from my colleagues for a “change through continuity and continuity through change” agenda. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if governors, on the other hand, will be hearing the “change” part of that phrase ahead of the “continuity” part, accustomed as they have become to the many successes of my predecessor in the role.

But I’ll be doing my level best, in the course of the coming year, to show them that there is nobody more committed to the strengthening of governance: from helping align committees better with the leadership structures within the school, to involving them in departmental evaluations (utterly supportive in nature), to recruiting new governors whose skills dovetail with those we already have. There is too much at threat for school leaders (particularly those who lead academies) who prioritise acquiescence in governance ahead of uncomfortable challenge.

Local Business

Perhaps the most intriguing meeting I had this week was with the business manager of a local football club. Ostensibly for the purpose of a simple matter of a letting (and, if I’m totally honest, to allow me to have a nose around their facilities), we began discussing other ways to deepen our relationship in mutually beneficial ways. It was very much a ‘blue skies’ kind of conversation, and one in which we were soon joined by the chairman of the club. And if I thought being the Head of a school was going to be a challenge, I soon realised (with the Ping of the dozens of text messages he received in the space of forty five minutes) that his job is – pardon the pun – a completely different ball game.

Who knows where it will lead in the long term, but in the short term at least I’ll be putting aside my red and white stripes for a different livery. I’m no fair-weather fan (despite the decades of misery heaped upon my by the Black Cats, once they’d crossed my path), but if this club can work with us in any way that helps our staff and students, then I’ll swap shirts with them in a heartbeat.

Conclusions

This week has been one that has proven that education, like football, is “a funny old game”. What I have learned most of all from it, in terms of being a Headteacher, is that we who work in schools are far from being alone. Families, other Heads, the local authority, governors and football clubs are only a handful of the innumerable groups out there who also care about how children in our schools get on, what they learn, how highly they achieve, how rounded they become as adults and what gifts they have (or might have) to offer their communities and society at large.

Newly ensconced in the crow’s nest at my school (although it feels like I’ve been here for such a long time already), I’m beginning to enjoy the view, and even the blustery conditions. The only downside this week (and one that I intend to put right next week) is that I haven’t been swabbing the decks as much as I’d like. After all, the view from there is just as good, and the company even better.

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