Stop The Ride! I Don’t Wanna Get Off!!

Posted on December 24, 2014

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And so my first term as a Headteacher has come screeching to a stop. On the first day proper of my holidays (weekends never count) I’m knees deep in my third cold of the term and nuzzled in the bosom of my North East home. It’s a good time to stop and reflect on what has been the proverbial rollercoaster of a term: endlessly twisting, G forces cranked up to the max, a whole host of surprises to complement the things I could see coming and an altogether wonderfully exhilarating experience.

That said, I’m not yet champing at the bit to go round again immediately. Instead I’m metaphorically (always metaphorically) stood at the post-ride photo booth staring at my own grinning/gurning face and those of the colleagues who have been locked into the ride with me for the past fifteen weeks. In the spirit of the year’s end, I’m mulling over the things I’ve loved about this ride and (just as importantly) the things I want to make sure I’ll do second time around.

2014 – Ratcheting Up

The part of the rollercoaster I always have the most issues with is the very start. That gradual ratcheting up of tension as the cart clack-clacks its way up the first slope, building up the potential energy for that first drop. I’ve blogged about this before, and how being in post as a Deputy whilst preparing for Headship is a curious thing. Full of anticipation for the ride to come and yet simultaneously wanting it to be over and for the real ride to begin.

My main aim in that period was to ensure that everyone was in the right cart and safely strapped in. I restructured the leadership team significantly in this period (if you’re going to make anyone a little uncomfortable in your first months of Headship – although that wasn’t the intention – it ought to be those closest to you and those paid the most to handle the discomfort). Having piloted the creation of a sub team of SLT as a Deputy Head, and having greatly enjoyed the autonomy of leading that team, I was keen to establish that as a core principle of the SLT at Canons.

Now we have three teams, the Students & Achievement Team, the Curriculum & Pedagogy Team and the Partnerships & Professionalism Team. Each is led by a Deputy (with the P&P team co-led by the Business Manager) and – this is the scary bit for a new Headteacher – each utterly independent of me. I don’t attend any of their meetings, and I don’t contribute anything directly to their agendas. It is up to the teams themselves to decide their operational priorities within the overarching framework of a one-page school improvement plan with just six core priorities for the school.

Of course, I have my say in the work of these teams in three different ways: my line management of each team leader, the weekly meeting I have with all four of them to ensure the areas of overlap and underlap between teams are covered, and in the weekly SLT meetings where each team has control of half an hour of the agenda to put forward items for scoping, discussion, information, decision or evaluation. But I never, ever tell these teams what to do or lay down the law once they have done something and overturn their work. It’s a leap of faith, but I am convinced that my role is to establish (collectively wherever possible, independently if absolutely necessary) a vision for the school and the work of these teams that gives them the confidence to know where any boundaries lie without limiting their own vision and ability to push beyond those boundaries when and where they believe it is in the school’s best interests to do so.

2015 – Shaping the Ride

It’s all well and good riding someone else’s rollercoaster, but in 2015 my main ambition is to work with staff, students, families and governors to put together the blueprint for a new and better one. Our school’s previous strategic plan finished in 2013 and all of its aims have been met, with the school’s results rising year on year, progress in the top 3% nationally (1045.7 in this year’s RAISEonline), Teaching School status achieved and the school now (and for the first time) being full and oversubscribed on first choices.

My job this year is to lead the creation of a new Vision for 2020, that sees beyond the things we HAVE to DO in the next three years with regard to curriculum and assessment changes and the like, to what we WANT to DO with our students and what we WANT to BE for our staff, students, families and communities alike. Ofsted gradings, exam results and bums on seats are hugely helpful to the staff and leadership of a school, but they should never be what we are for. I hope we can construct something that encapsulates what it is we are about as a school community that lifts our eyes above the daily slog. If we can, 2015 could be a massively important year for the school.

2014 – The Drop into the Darkness

Having established the principle of autonomous subteams within my SLT, I wanted to ensure that the teams most closely charged with the responsibility for aligning the operational delivery of the priorities on the School Improvement Plan had representation beyond Deputy Heads and Assistant Heads, a grassroots voice. Actually, more than that: a grassroots voice, but also grassroots hands and legs and hearts.

Two and a half years ago I created the role of Pedagogy Leaders at my school. These were six non-SLT teachers who were given the responsibility for leading in-service training on teaching and learning from needs identification to delivery and evaluation. They were a great team and, in the last academic year, I managed to ensure that one of them was represented on the SLT pilot subteam I led. But this wasn’t enough. Only three of the six made it onto the team, each for only a term and I wanted to go further as Headteacher.

Added to this, I no longer felt that we needed to invest quite so much time on teaching and learning at the expense of other school development needs. I am also hugely concerned at the lack of opportunities for support staff in our school, and wanted to ensure that a grassroots approach wasn’t just for teaching staff, but for all staff. Thus, the Grassroots Leaders were born.

Each of the three SLT subteams has two GLs: the Achievement Leaders, the Pedagogy Leaders and the Partnership Leaders. Two of the six are from a support staff background. All of them attend fortnightly meetings of their subteams and all are fully involved in the whole school improvement work for which their teams are responsible.

As plunges into the unknown go, this wasn’t the biggest risk I have ever taken. We had ridden the ride of opening up whole school leadership roles sometime ago, but the inclusion of support staff was one that (I think it’s fair to say) raised a few eyebrows, including their own. The only regret I have is that more of them didn’t apply for this first set of posts: I received a number of emails from some of them telling me they were keen on the roles but didn’t feel ready for them first time around. The two we have appointed are amazing and are, like the Ped Leaders before them, giving and gaining through the experience in full and equal measure.

2015 – All the Riders

I have made no secret of my ambition to lead a school where the glass ceiling of support staff ambition is smashed to smithereens and the institutional barriers between support staff and teaching staff are torn to pieces. There’s no point enjoying the ride from the front when you know that nearly half of your colleagues are left in the rearmost carts at best, or left standing in the slow-moving queue whilst others exercise their never-ending fast-pass to ride it again and again and again.

The opening up of Grassroots Leaders posts beyond teachers was a small start, but I’m terribly impatient on this one. This year my intention is to advertise an Associate SLT post for support staff alongside the one we have offered in the past three years for teachers. But even this is just a start and one of the SLTS subteams is working on both the glass ceiling (by ensuring each member of staff starting on the bottom rung can see a clear pathway to the topmost rung) and the barriers (by dovetailing performance management and in-service training processes so that we talk of staff, not teacher, effectiveness). It’s a mighty agenda, but it’s perhaps the most important thing we need to do and, hopefully, 2015 will see it begin to come to fruition.

2014 – The Twist and Turns

Being a Head is a bit like sitting in the front seats of the front cart of a rollercoaster. You get to see and experience all of the changes of direction ahead of all of the other riders. It is often unanticipatable, frequently unexpected, sometimes unnerving and always unstoppable. From never-ceasing funding cuts and the ever-evolving national educational policy agenda to the nitty-gritty of local school and LA politics and the comings and goings of adults and children who are part of the school community, I’m almost always the one who gets to know first, placing a huge burden in terms of what to do about the people who I know are about to experience the same G-forces, and who may feel more threatened by them than those of us with a clearer view ahead.

So far this term I have defaulted to an ‘honesty is the best policy’ approach, as opposed to a ‘what they don’t know can’t harm them’ one. When faced with a significant early threat (one that thankfully proved unfounded) in my first two weeks in the role, I ignored external advice to limit the information I had to members of SLT only, and when making a decision to appoint someone following a highly successful temporary spell in a role, rather than put it out for a second application and interview process. In both cases I shared my rationale with staff honestly and frankly at a full briefing. I have also established a monthly ‘staff forum’, opened up my calendar to anyone who wants to see it and make an appointment with me and have still managed to maintain the literal and metaphorical ‘open door policy’ that my PA sometimes pleads with me to ease off on (fearing that I’m giving myself more work in the evenings – which I guess kind of proves that I’m still a teacher of sorts).

Is it the right way? I genuinely don’t know and I guess that time will tell, but I think that this is the only way I can work, for two distinct reasons. The first is that I believe fundamentally in the professionalism of those I work with, and in their consequent ability to handle the truth (at least as I see it, and I understand that there is an inherent contradiction in this) that underpins the choices and actions I have to take as a Headteacher. My second reason is that I love school leadership and I want to encourage as many of my colleagues as possible to take up a leadership role, as best suits their own ambitions. By making my Headship logic public, including by writing these blogposts, I hope that those who like the way I do things and, more importantly, those who don’t, can see what the role of a Headteacher is really like and can put themselves in the hotseat at a conceptual level to try it for size. And then, when their time comes to be in the front seat of the front cart of their own rollercoaster, perhaps they’ll know a little better what to expect from the ride ahead.

2015 – Back Seat Rider

If 2014 was all about getting the Headship and securing Teaching School status, then 2015 is going to be all about creating the capacity for many others, in my school and elsewhere, to take the reins and commandeer the front cart as often as they want. In January the alliance website and our partnership package will go live, and everyone who has been a part of it so far is excited about the differences this alliance will have to any and every other (we hope). Low cost and high buy-in are the watchwords, encapsulated by our slogan “Doing it well. Doing it right. Ensuring it lasts.”

We aspire to utilise research very effectively and build high levels of trust amongst all partners so that there isn’t the faintest whiff of ‘done to’ about the programmes we run and the mutual support offer we will coordinate. Crucial to the success of this is the involvement of our SLEs, Research Advocates and leaders from all parts of the school, including the classrooms and offices where so much system leadership potential is left untapped. 2015 will be the ‘walk the talk’ year where grand ambitions need to be matched on the ground. I can’t wait.

2014 – Enjoying the View

Perhaps the least appreciated aspect of an rollercoaster ride is the way in which a truly great one lifts us above our everyday ground-level perspective and allows us to enjoy a birds’ eye view of the world around us: the way it literally expands our horizons for us and encourages us to see things in the round. Headship has certainly done that for me, and one of my proudest achievements this term has been to scan the territory and map the terrain of parts of the school with which I was almost entirely unfamiliar before taking on this role.

Two examples will, I hope, illustrate this best: the Achievement Review Meetings I have inaugurated and the placing of the arts at the centre of my first term on the rollercoaster. The Achievement Reviews were a series of hour-long meetings I had with each Head of Department, alongside their SLT line manager and a Governor, to discuss their work over the previous academic year, their exam results and other achievements, and their plans for the year ahead. We had never had them before and I was determined to imbue in them the spirit of ‘autopsy without blame’ at the very least and, given the wonderful successes of so many of our departments, a celebration of success at best.

In these reviews I got to find out so much more than achievement data alone could tell me, including the amazing peer observation processes that the Maths department were putting into place (now shared with other HoDs and forming the backdrop to a better bottom-up model of teacher effectiveness evaluation) and the wonderful ways in which the Science department are backing up tremendous academic success at GCSE with a coherent and concerted approach to ensuring even more effective transition to A-Levels and a balancing up of post-16 physicists with chemists. I could reel off dozens of other approaches being taken across our school to enhance opportunities for our students that were news to me. Most importantly though, these Achievement Reviews were warmly welcomed by the HoDs because of, not in spite of, their challenging nature. It turns out that if name, blame and shame ain’t your game then these kind of conversations are good things! Who’d have thunk?

The placing of the arts at the centre was a conscious decision. Like most schools, there has been a strong push at Canons on ensuring performance is strong in Maths and English in recent years which has been necessary in many ways but was not without its unintended consequences. Added to that, we have a community that prioritises Maths and the Sciences, sometimes to the detriment of the Humanities but more often to the detriment of the Arts. To counterbalance this I commissioned our GCSE and Enrichment Photography students to contribute to a competition called ‘The Spirit of Canons’. All entries were used on our Open Evening in place of the expensively commissioned, technically excellent but spirit-shallow official photographs, and the ten best entries (chosen by a panel of staff) have been enlarged and adorn my office. We will have them blown up further and placed around the school, will use them on our website and next year’s brochure. The kids are chuffed, and the teachers are convinced that the profile of their subject has been raised significantly in the process.

Since then, things have gone from strength to strength for the arts subjects at Canons and, at the end of the term, I introduced our to-be-termly Celebration Assembly in which awards for 100% attendance, highest levels of effort and progress, and for service to the Canons Community were interspersed with some lovely performances: the choir (who made it through to the finals of a national competition), the cast of Bugsy Malone (our school production), our new gymnastics team (gold and silver medal winners at their first competition) and our Y7 Diwali Dancers (who had had such a small audience to see such elegance).

The arts have never been more under threat in education (as in society), being seen by some as frippery and ornamentation in a world where literacy and numeracy (KS1,2 and 3), the EBacc (KS4) and ‘facilitating subjects’ (KS5) are king, queen and court. But I’m an ardent Republican and although fully respectful of the core and near-core subjects (I am, after all a graduate in Literature and History) I can see and feel how much the arts mean to many students, both as a refuge from the dominant academic discourses and as a potential (and in some cases, likely) way of life for our students.

2015 – Entitlement, Enrichment and Expectation

Canons hasn’t done badly at all in ensuring that students do well in their entitlement curriculum, nor in the fact that they have massive opportunities for enrichment (our three year KS4 model allows all students to take as many non-examined enrichment modules as are sensible, ranging from Sports to Business to Computing to Drama). Where we want to do even better in 2015 is in constructing an ‘Expectation Curriculum’ in which community service plays a significant role.

We know that a CV full of A* and A grades is a wonderful thing to have, as is the ability to tell future universities and employers about other opportunities you have had. But we also believe that students who leave Canons need to be fluent in talking about what they have given, as well as what they have taken, from their time with us. In doing so they will cement the reputation of the school within our local community and so we will be looking, in this coming year, to create a series of Canons Pledges (one for each Key Stage) that reflect how well students have responded to what they are entitled to, how their curricular studies have been enriched by extra-curricular opportunities and how far they have gone the extra mile to do something for others within and beyond the school.

2014 – The Headrush and Hurtling Heartbeat

Perhaps the one thing that has struck me most about a term of Headship is how much I have enjoyed the ride along the way. It took about six working days until the unstoppable momentum kicked in, and when looking back at my calendar for early September I can’t quite believe that I had so much time under my own control. Since then I have had to turn my diary over to the wonderful control of my bloody brilliant PA (Jackie), and now I’m just along for the ride on a daily basis. And yet I have learnt, throughout my nearly twenty year career in teaching, to be a complete control freak (mostly on the grounds that it doesn’t come naturally to me in my real life, so has been something I’ve made myself work at) and to be out of control has been a real shock to the system.

But sometimes shocks to the system are a good thing, and this is one of them. I told Jackie very early on that I wanted to be able, as in those trust games, to fall back knowing she would catch me, and she has done so whenever I have needed it. Without her I’d be a shambles. With her, I’m able to smile and smile and smile my way through everything. She ensures I get to the staffroom for breaks whenever it is possible to do so. She chips in with a bit of banter whenever I’m holed up with work. She puts the people who are coming to see me in a positive frame of mind. She blocks out an hour for ‘me time’ about once a fortnight, or more often if she can see that I need it. Most importantly though, she listens when I can’t tell anybody else, she counsels with anadorned wisdom, she pricks the bubble of my pomposity whenever she sees it growing (she’d make me delete all this for a start) and she tells me when she thinks I’ve got things right. I couldn’t ask for more.

All of which leaves me free to love this job, and show the world (not least of all, the staff and students of Canons) that I love this job. Not just in retrospect, with a pacified pulse and a becalmed brain. I love the tumult and torment and tempest-tossed traits of it. I love it’s unceasing and unflinching and undisputedly unnerving unctuousness.

Most of all, I love it because it’s a real ‘people’ post. On a daily basis, because I represent the school as its Headteacher, people come to me about all manner of things: their professional dreams and desires, their personal trials and tribulations, and their concerns and cares where the professional and the personal overlap. Equally wonderful, and a tad surprising, are the times when people come to see me not to offload, but to say nice things about how things are going with me in my new role. It would be impossible for me to articulate how much they keep me going, and keep me smiling whilst I do so.

2015 – Nemesis, Oblivion or Smiler

I’m fully aware that the rollercoaster I have been riding on and enjoying so much as a Head is partly (significantly?) a rollercoaster of my own design, direction and destination. And I’m equally aware that it is a rollercoaster that my colleagues are riding on with me and that, like the three marquee rides at Alton Towers, this one could be a Nemesis, an Oblivion or a Smiler for some, most or all of them. My job, in the coming year and the years to come, is to ensure that it is the latter as far as it is humanly possible to do so, given the external pressures on this profession of ours. There will be times when we might need to collectively grimace through the gyrations ahead, but the most important things any rider needs to know about the rollercoaster they ride is that the harnesses will hold them securely in their seats, that the wheels will hold their cart securely to the track and that they will arrive unscathed at their destination. If we, as school leaders, do that well then maybe, just maybe, those who we care about and for will scream that they wanna go faster.

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