This much I know about…three funding facts which illustrate why school budgets are a General Election issue for all parties

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about three funding facts which illustrate why school budgets are a General Election issue for all parties.

  1. In 2007 we had 1,526 students at Huntington School and a curriculum taught by 97 full-time equivalent teachers; in 2019 we have 1,539 students and a curriculum taught by 86 full-time equivalent teachers.
  2. In 2010 we had an annual capital budget of £160,000; in 2011 that was cut to £28,000 p.a. and it is £29,000 p.a. this year.
  3. According to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, if our total budget had merely kept up with inflation since 2010, we would have nearly £1,000,000 more in our annual budget in 2019.
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This much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: coping with the loneliness

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: coping with the loneliness.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to meet them. This final post explores, coping with the loneliness.

 

Coping with the loneliness

I had been exercised, early in my first headship, by a lad from the town who was known to dabble in drugs. He would loiter at the stile at the end of the school day, mixing with some of our most vulnerable students. One darkening November afternoon in my first term, I confronted him boldly, accusing him of being a drug dealer and directing him, in no uncertain terms, to stay away from my students. He stood his ground. He wasn’t, by a matter of inches, on school property. And he had an audience of some of my most challenging charges.

As I walked away, back down the path into school, the sense of loneliness was palpable. He stood there, victorious. I could hear the laughter and the jeers. Things got worse when his parents complained to the governing body. I literally sunk to the floor in my office when that news came through, in complete despair. I had mucked up. A week later I faced his mum and dad in my office where I had to apologise to them for making unsubstantiated accusations about their son. I felt humiliated.

Kevin, our older, hugely experienced, burly assistant head teacher, reassured me. He frequented the local pubs. He knew the town. He was sure nothing would really come of it. In a week’s time it would be old news. And, of course, he was right.

Later that first year I made a terrifically difficult decision about an internal appointment. Two strong candidates for a senior post and I decided to appoint neither. That was tough. For what seemed an eternity, every time I walked into the staff room colleagues stopped talking. I thought about that issue day and night and all weekend. I went fishing with my mate Nick and it was all I could contemplate. Even when I caught a pike, I was wondering about how to sort the mess out at school. Nick knew something was wrong. He chatted it through with me. He was wise about it all. Of course, it would resolve itself. I just had to be patient. Like Kevin before him, he was spot on.

The loneliest moment of my career came in 2010, when our results dipped badly. On that damp August results Wednesday, I sat in my car as the rain pummelled down on the roof and wept and wept; I felt like the loneliest man on the entire planet. I finally rang my wife Louise who said to me, John, come home. We all love you. You can pack it in. It’s really not worth it. Her words were the balm I needed just at that moment. I was very close to quitting. Thanks to Louise, I didn’t.

The loneliness of the job comes, in the end, from a mixture of forces: the fact that the buck stops with you; having to have difficult conversations with other adults; the confidentiality of so much of what you have to deal with; the range and number of different people and organisations to whom you are accountable; the sheer vulnerability of the position and how you are more sackable than any other person in your school.

So, if you are new to headship and you are sitting in front of a screen this Sunday morning feeling distant from your family and worried about next week – if  you are feeling just  plain lonely – here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for coping with the loneliness:

1. Find someone you can talk to. The thread through my loneliness examples above is clear. All head teachers need someone they trust with whom they can share their insecurities. In January 2016 the BBC screened a programme entitled The Age of Loneliness. In a poignant documentary, which is affecting yet never mawkish, Sue Bourne interviews a range of people who talk about living in relative solitude. Loneliness, according to Bourne, is ‘the silent epidemic’. Bourne’s fundamental conclusion is that, ‘People of all ages missed someone to do nothing with. To chat idly. To sit next to.’ And that’s it, isn’t it? We all need, to a greater or lesser extent, someone with whom to share our lives. And why should head teachers be any different? If there is no-one at home to talk to, a good employer will provide you with an experienced leadership coach. Bottling up stuff will only increase the sense of loneliness.

2. Choose to be a stoic and control how you react to things. Shakespeare’s “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”, is rooted in Stoic philosophy. Accept that you can control how you react to life’s vagaries. You can choose how you think, and knowing this has helped keep me sane. It is worth reflecting upon the fact that here, now, as you read this and take a moment to look back on your life, all the things that have traumatised you, all the disasters which have befallen you, you have survived. Nothing has been as bad as it might have been. Nothing is ever that bad. As Karen Pierce, the UK’s Ambassador to the UN, pointed out in a recent interview, “It will be alright in the end and if it isn’t alright, you haven’t reached the end yet”. We can surely choose how we react to life’s vagaries. All events are neutral; how we interpret them determines whether they are good or bad and how we allow them to affect us. Imagine this…impossible as it might seem, everything that happens to you could be good if you chose to think that way.

3. Learn to compartmentalise. I have always argued that the work-life balance is a false dichotomy. I enjoy my job, I am proud to be a head teacher, my work is a central part of my life. For a long time I have preferred the work-home balance, which, combined, constitute my life. But now, much nearer the end of my career than the beginning, I am not sure that I wholly subscribe to my nuanced definition. I heard Cat Scutt speak at researchED Durham yesterday and some research she pointed to, made me think. A paper by Klusmann et al, on teacher wellbeing found that some of the most effective teachers maintained a ‘healthy detachment’ about their job and ‘conserved their personal resources’. What Cat said resonated with me and reminded me of Philip Gould. In his final interview before he died at the age of 61, Gould, Tony Blair’s close adviser, said this to Andrew Marr and I have had it pinned on my office wall ever since: ‘What would have been better for me would have been to have said, “I’ll do what I can do, which I do quite well” and then just push it back a little bit’. Gould’s insight came too late for him, but it isn’t too late for me or any early career head teacher. It. Is. Only. A. Job.

4. Expand your own mental health jam-jar (you need to read this post to understand this completely). I have a list of things I do which grow my capacity to cope with whatever life throws at me:

5. My most important tip for coping with the loneliness is an eternal truth. As Francis Bacon knew so well, the best antidote to loneliness is love. It is the only thing that really matters.

“But little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth. For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.”

Francis Bacon

 

 

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This much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: understanding change management

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: understanding change management.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to meet them. This post explores, understanding change management.

 

Understanding change management

I had little idea about how to conduct change when I began my first headship. I made a cataclysm of errors (my choice of collective noun) in the first few years of leading a school. Some of my mistakes related to change management have already been catalogued in previous posts. Certainly, the misguided sense that more is more was at the heart of my naive approach to enacting change.

The thing is, less is more, always. School Leaders invariably feel safe when we have lots of plans to demonstrate the efforts we are making to improve our schools. In the past I have been horribly guilty of thinking more is more!

My first School Development Plan as a head teacher was a beast, only portable by supermarket trolley. When I presented it to the Governing Body the meeting was on the first floor and my PA Rosie and I, with 20 copies of the thing to carry, had to take the lift. It had 38 development initiatives. I wasn’t interested in getting a few essential things right I wanted to get everything right straight away.

That Governing Body meeting where I presented my first plan (of course it was mine – I had to prove myself as a head teacher and there was no way anyone else was going to tell me what to do) lasted until 11.30 pm: not only did I circulate hard copies of my SDE (School Development Encyclopaedia) I had 127 Powerpoint slides (of largely text copied verbatim from the SDE itself) to help me tell Governors what we were going to do over the next year.

It was great. I loved it. I gained some odd satisfaction from the strain and pain of giving birth to the thing, the weekends spent typing the beast up whilst my wife and kids entertained themselves; an absent father in the next room. And I had no idea how I was going to measure whether what I had planned had worked.

Looking back now, it’s embarrassing to think of that first development plan. But the culture of fear breeds backside covering amongst early career head teachers. It’s really easy to implement extensive interventions in an attempt to raise headline results figures just so that you can point to how much you did to improve results when the results turn out to be disappointing in August. I know the results are rubbish, but we worked really hard – look at all the things we did…

And then there is the difficult challenge of realising just a single specific change. What I did not understand is just how difficult it is to enact what seemed to be even the simplest alteration to practice within a school. Teachers and schools are conservative places. Change is rarely greeted with enthusiasm. And if you have 112 teachers and 70 support staff in a school, like we do at Huntington, ensuring that a change to practice is implemented with 100% fidelity is a huge challenge.

So, if you are new to headship and are preparing to implement changes to the school you lead, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for understanding the change process:

1. Know where you are on the Sigmoid curve. Whenever an organisation implements change there is a general pattern of development explained by Sigmoid Curve analysis, shown in this first diagram:

The key issue is when to introduce the next phase of change, explored in the second diagram:

You want to reach point Y on an upward, not downward, trajectory; but when can you tell that it’s time to jump off the first curve? Riding the first curve while cultivating the second is always the best option; clinging to the first and trying to prolong it is a pointless waste of energy. When all is well and you are at the top of your game, then it’s probably the time to plan your next curve.

I have recently asked our SLT where they think Huntington is on its Sigmoid curve. The numbers indicate how many of us think we are at those specific points on the curve.

2. Get a few essential things right. Sir Tim Brighouse’s The jigsaw of a successful school is sharp stuff and required reading for all early career headteachers; it embodies the principle of keeping things coherently simple. In his introduction makes the following observation about change and school improvement:

…whenever I’ve visited a school, which has recovered its sense of direction and pride after falling on hard times…I ask the (usually new) head teacher, “Well, what did you do?” The reply is always the same. Whatever the head teacher’s style, whether understated and calm, cool and determined or outrageously busy, the reply usually contains the phrase: “Well it’s not rocket science. We just concentrated on getting a few essential things right”. [1]

“…getting a few essential things right.” Just let that phrase sink in.

It depends where you are in the development cycle of a school, but wherever you find yourself on the development cycle, pare down your change priorities and do a small number of things really well. Easier to say than do, perhaps, but school improvement is not hard as long as you keep it simple and focused on what matters.

3. Learn about the change process. One book that helped which I read before I began was Leading in a Culture of Change by Michael Fullan. Another publication from the Canadian leadership guru, The Six Secrets of Change, I have found hugely useful. My leadership of change at two schools has taught me many things, most of which Fullan articulates in his book Leading in a Culture of Change.[2] His six secrets are not secrets any more – since he’s published them – and I’m not sure they ever were; I think they are common sense:

  1. The goal is not to innovate the most.
  2. It is not enough to have the best ideas.
  3. Appreciate the implementation dip.
  4. Redefine resistance.
  5. Reculturing is the name of the game.
  6. Never a checklist, always complexity.

So much of what Fullan says here I discovered the hard way, through first-hand experience; perhaps one has to live through professional strife before one can accept that Fullan-style wisdom is true.

4. Look to the commercial world. I have never desired to be a business man, but I do, however, learn from business practices. A few years ago I adopted what’s called Blue Ocean Strategy in order to have a structure for implementing change. We spend more time now thinking about how we implement change than what that change might be. Implementation is woven into our planning, not an afterthought. It works brilliantly and has helped us improve teaching and learning no end. The nub of our Blue Ocean Strategy implementation process is outlined in the slides available below and a Bill Bratton Tipping Point pdf.

5. Keep learning about implementing change. Most recently, Professor Jonathan Sharples authored an EEF guidance report on how to plan the implementation of your interventions entitled, Putting Evidence to Work – A School’s Guide to Implementation. It is essential reading for all school leaders, and I don’t say that lightly. It is a game-changer, as far as I am concerned. It introduced me to the concept of implementation activities; that is, activities which you detail in your planning which help ensure that the enacted change is as faithful as possibly to the change you planned. The idea is outlined here in a series of slides, where we identify the issue – in this case, a curriculum issue – then go to the desired outcome, then detail the change required, then identify the implementation activities in all their prosaic dullness, and then finally envisage the outcomes of the implementation activities. I promise you it works.

 

 

In January 2018 we used this approach to implement seven months of preparatory work on improving the progress of our most vulnerable learners. Eighteen months later, for the first time, our disadvantaged Year 11 students had a positive overall P8 score and their P8 score for Ebacc subjects was +0.22. Still not as good as we wanted, but in a school where 92% of our students are from a white British background, it is a respectable outcome.

And if I was allowed a sixth tip, before you implement, carry out a pre-mortem. I always anticipate what might go wrong. It’s safer that way, and I can only be pleasantly surprised when my pessimistic anticipations do not materialise.

At Huntington we have formalised such pessimistic thinking within the implementation of all important strategic developments we undertake. After we have completed our Blue Ocean Strategy analysis, and identified our implementation activities, we undertake a pre-mortem. Instead of working out what caused a development to fail after it has failed as we would in a post mortem, we assume it has already failed before we have begun and try to predict what would cause such failure. Once we have established what might cause our developments to run aground, we agree a list of actions to prevent such an eventuality.

Our pre-mortem idea derived from an article by psychologist Gary Klein.[3] He cites research by Mitchell, Russo and Pennington which found ‘that prospective hindsight – imagining that an event has already occurred – increases the ability to correctly identify reasons for future outcomes by 30%’.[4] Klein devised his pre-mortem, the distinctive feature of which is the assumption by the team that the development has completely failed.

Psychologically, this assumption of total failure allows members of the team to speak more frankly than if they were merely thinking about why the development in question might not work. This sense of what has happened instead of what could happen helps the team visualise the assumed failure with greater clarity. The team gains a similar lucidity when hypothesising about why the failure happened.

We used the pre-mortem technique when implementing our new Pastoral structure. Our write up of our discussions began, ‘It’s July 2016 and the Pastoral Review has failed to deliver on any of its objectives’. We created a table on one side of A4 which had three headings:

Reason for failure How it could have been avoided Person responsible for prevention

Once established, the pre-mortem becomes a regular agenda item at the team’s implementation meetings.

[1] http://www.rm.com/timbrighouse/

[2] Michael Fullan, Leading in a Culture of Change (San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 2001).

[3] Gary Klein, “Performing a Project Premortem”, The Harvard Business Review, (HBR, September 2007), accessed 29 August 2016. Available at https://hbr.org/2007/09/performing-a-project-premortem

[4] D. J. Mitchell, J. Edward Russo, and N. Pennington, “Back to the future: Temporal perspective in the explanation of events”, in the Journal of Behavioural Decision Making, (Volume 2, Issue 1, January/March 1989), pp. 25–38

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This much I know about…the challenges for early career headteachers: establishing a position on teaching & learning

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: establishing a position on teaching & learning.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to meet them. This post explores, establishing a position on teaching & learning.

 

Establishing a position on teaching & learning

Considering your title as an early career head teacher is head teacher, it is deeply ironic that, in the first few months of being in post, the last thing you’ll have time to think about is the quality of teaching in the school!

Overwhelmed by the buck stopping with you, by the time you have decided on your electricity and gas supplier, how to respond to the proposed change in your catchment area, what to do about the Facebook campaign opposing your change in school uniform, and whether or not you are going to make the call on a wet break, who is teaching what and how in room W17 on a windy Thursday afternoon in November is the last thing on your mind.

But if you are an early career head teacher today, now, in November 2019, when it comes to teaching and learning you have a huge advantage over us old lags. The support out there to help you understand which teaching techniques best help students learn is better than it has ever been since the school system began. Truly.

Recently, I have been doing a talk called 25 years of hurt. Looking back, my PGCE training was poor. Consequently, I taught for a quarter of a century without really knowing what I was doing – I got by on force of character and sheer enthusiasm. Students enjoyed the lessons. They were engaged. Results were OK. But looking back, it could have been so much better. Only in the last six years, since I have learnt so much about teaching and learning, have I begun to employ teaching strategies which have the best chance of helping students learn. And it took me the first ten years of headship before I grasped what I should be doing as a head teacher.

So, when I was first a head teacher, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about teaching and learning. I was a feather for each wind that blows. I was Dylan Wiliam’s magpie, made real – a snapper-up of myriad shiny teaching and learning techniques which one training course after another said would transform examination outcomes overnight.

Some elements of the KS3 Strategy were useful and have stood the test of time. Dylan Wiliam’s Inside the Black Box came out the same week in 1998 that I began as a Deputy at Huntington and I even bothered to ring Dylan up to chat about it with him. I have heard him repeat what he said to me during our ’phone call on that autumn morning in 1998 at conferences for the last twenty-odd years. But when I became responsible for everything in a school on 1 September 2003, I hardly knew anything about teaching and learning.

The thing is, it is easy to make token gestures to help you feel like you are doing something. In my first headship, we bought every teacher a copy of Paul McGinnis’ tremendous book The Teacher Toolkit. It was a big deal. The book is great if you use it judiciously, over several years and work on one or two elements of practice you need to improve. Just throwing books at teachers and thinking that is all you need to do will do diddly squat to improve teaching. Goodness knows how much that initiative cost us and goodness knows where those books are now.

Looking back, I don’t reckon that gesture of largesse had any impact whatsoever on the quality of teaching and learning. But it made me feel a bit better. I could tell governors that we had bought books and had had a whole training session launching the initiative. What I didn’t tell governors was that there was no follow through at all on the Teacher Toolkit initiative, just an after school launch session. The thing is, I didn’t know I was being so rubbish.

If I had my time again, I would have done things very differently. So, if you are appointed to lead a school for the first time and you haven’t had a moment to think about improving teaching and learning, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for establishing a position on teaching & learning:

WARNINGof all the ones in this series of posts, this has been the most difficult set of tips to define and put in order, maybe because establishing a position on teaching and learning is damned hard. And I could have gone on and on…

1. To begin with, read nine essential publications on teaching and learning. There have been more books on teaching and learning published in the last five years than you can possibly find time to read. However, if you feel like you need to get up to speed so you have a position on teaching and learning, this admittedly subjective selection will help enormously:

      • Daniel Willingham’s Why don’t students like school?;
      • Dylan Wiliam’s Leadership for Teacher Learning;
      • Vivian Robinson’s Student Centred Leadership;
      • Graham Nuttall’s The Hidden Lives of Learners;
      • Tom Sherrington’s The Learning Rainforest;
      • Daisy Christodolou’s Making Good Progress?;
      • Mary Myatt’s Gallimaufry to Coherence;
      • Barack Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (or Tom Sherrington’s brilliant explanation of the principles); and
      • Adam Boxer’s Explicit & Direct Instruction.

As a head teacher I think you have to take responsibility for your own professional development, and these nine publications are a great start. You have to know what you are talking about. And to keep you up-to-date there are so many good resources online. People like Tom Sherrington, Harry Fletcher-Wood, Kate Jones, Adam Boxer, Mary Myatt, Mark Enser, David Didau, Ruth Walker, the Education Endowment Foundation, Alex Quigley, Christine Counsell and so many more, are publishing their ideas on a daily basis. And this guide for how to teach teachers the science of learning, overseen by Harry Fletcher-Wood is, as far as I am concerned, an absolute game-changer. And published only this month.
2. If you need to, sort out behaviour before you do anything else in school. Until you have good student behaviour in lessons right across your school, you cannot focus upon developing teaching and learning. You may never get student behaviour perfect in every lesson, every day, but you have to establish consistently good student behaviour before your colleagues can begin the challenging work on improving their teaching. Even at Michaela School – Britain’s strictest school according to press reports – they still advertise for a “detention director”.
3. Watch everyone teaching in your first two terms. Be ruthless. Once behaviour is sorted out, make this a priority. And emphasise that you want to see every day lessons, nothing fancy. No show lessons. Just what we do in our classrooms, day-in, day-out. Feedback swiftly and dialogically. No judgements, just have a discussion about what people think about teaching and why they choose to teach the way they do. Reflect upon what you have learnt and engage in professional conversations and teaching frequently, both formally and informally. But, remember, you can only do that if you know what you are talking about. This process will help you understand what needs to be done to improve the quality of teaching in the school you are leading school, in its context. And show wilful humility, something Jim Collins defines as, “tremendous ambition for your school combined with the stoic will to do whatever it takes, to make the school great. Yet at the same time display a remarkable humility about yourself, ascribing much of your own success to luck, discipline and preparation rather than personal genius”.
4. Prioritise professional development. Tom Bentley said at a NCTL conference in 1996 that once you have found your core purpose, change your school’s existing structures to accommodate your core purpose rather than accommodate your core purpose around your existing structures. The development of teaching and learning is your priority. In essence, find the hours during the school week for your staff to work on their practice. You must not expect them to do it all in their own time. And any logistical barrier can be overcome. Just because half your students come to school on buses does not mean you cannot finish early once a fortnight for training: just sort it out with the bus companies and with your parents. No logistical barrier should stop you in improving the quality of teaching.
5. By the end of your first year, aim for everyone to understand the relationship between curriculum content, pedagogy and assessment. If you accomplished that, it would be an enormous step forward. Once that is clear in everyone’s mind, you can begin to shape a professional training and development programme which is tailored around the needs of each subject area in your school, something that will take you five years to mature. You might need to begin with curriculum content, or it might be that you need to focus on the teaching of domain specific vocabulary, or you may need to reset the assessment regime. Whatever it is, do not overwhelm colleagues. One step at a time. Implementation over years is the key.

 

 

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This much I know about…the challenges for early career headteachers: being patient

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: being patient.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to meet them. This post explores, being patient.

 

Being patient

A new Headteacher usually assumes that s/he has to come into a school and make his/her mark. Schools are notoriously vulnerable in the wake of regime change. A new Headteacher can lead to a significant modification of the values and educational philosophy of a school. And perfectly good systems are suddenly abandoned for the new boss’ favoured alternatives, without a shred of evidence that in this new setting his or her old favourites will work. So, out goes setting, in comes mixed prior attainment; goodbye SIMS, hello BromCom; exit Year Groups, enter Houses. And the rest of the staff just have to suck it up and watch whilst what worked stops working…

The context of each headship is different and each requires a different leadership style. My guess is, however, that if you have been appointed to your first headship, you will have been appointed to a school which is in reasonable shape. If a school is in some turmoil, then the governing body will usually want a seasoned leader who can act decisively; conversely, a school which is bobbing along quite nicely is more likely to appoint a first time leader who can take their time in shaping the school.

The early career headteacher has lots of onlookers tracking their every move.  They have myriad voices trying to influence them, telling them several different versions of the school and how it works. They feel pressured to do something which changes the direction of the school. That pressure builds. As my opening paragraph made clear, they instinctively want to make their mark, which is understandable but misguided.

What many resort to is a change in the school uniform. Such a step requires a significant time investment and achieves little. The first day I stood on the main corridor as a headteacher I called over a girl called Sarah and told her politely that her tailored shirt, with three-quarter sleeves and no top button, would have to be changed. She also looked like she had just ram-raided Ratner’s the jewellers.

Sarah, in turn, politely pointed out that every other girl in the corridor was wearing the same style of shirt and was similarly bejewelled. There then ensued a six month process of uniform-change, during which I managed to upset the whole school community. And I also stopped Year 10 going into town for lunch. That made the front page of the local newspaper.

I felt confused but desperate to appear proactive. I didn’t know which battles to pick. I instigated a move to a Faculty system, solely on the recommendation of a Local Authority adviser. The Faculty system introduced another expensive tier of leadership – we retained subject leader posts within the Faculty structure(!?!) – without improving the quality of teaching at all. But I was doing things. I appeared incredibly busy. By the end of my first year I felt exhausted and isolated. I had upset people without moving the school on at all.

We had a full OFSTED inspection eight days into that first headship; sixteen inspectors for four days. It was a perfectly timed review of the school and gave me a blueprint for improvement. My fruitless activity-for-the-sake-of-it stopped early in my second year when we began focusing upon the quality of teaching, as the OFSTED report had suggested we should do. We also began tracking students’ progress more accurately. We refrained from doing things peripheral to improving what was going on in the classroom.

My four year long first headship saw the school move from 38th out of 47 schools in North Yorkshire for KS2-KS4 progress, to 3rd out of 47 schools. But I learnt the hard way; the whole process wore me thin. When I began my second headship, I was the epitome of patience. We drew up a ten year plan and, whilst we did not follow the plan to the letter, we hit every milestone at the right time; ten years later, OFSTED popped in, almost unannounced, and declared we were Outstanding.

Such long-term planning can seem impossible for the early career headteacher who feels the need to do things immediately. But if they can resist such pressure and be patient, it will turn out best for the school – and for them personally – over time. So, if you are appointed to lead a school for the first time and feel compelled to introduce blazers with gold braiding on the lapels, just to look like you are doing something, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for being patient:

  1. Explain to your Chair of Governors that you intend to be patient and that s/he should not expect significant change any time soon. Explain your timeline for change over the first three years.
  2. Spend your first term getting to know the school. Speak to everyone. Be about the place. Question what everyone says. Analyse performance data. Triangulate. Then over the Christmas holidays, formulate your own version of the truth about the school, based on the most robust evidence. Then take a day with your senior team and go through a process with them to establish their truth about the school compared to yours, so that, by the end of the day, you agree as a whole team the current state of the school and the one or two things that need to be done, when and how, in order to improve the school.
  3. Be careful what you say. When I had been appointed to my first headship, a York headteacher said to me, “Be careful of what you say because people will remember it and quote it back to you months, even years, down the line”. And he was dead right.
  4. It is the best ideas for improvement that count most, not yours. Have the confidence to develop others in your team and give them the chance to accept responsibility and accountability for their improvement initiatives. Leadership is best measured in the leadership you develop in others.
  5. Focus on teaching and learning. You have to build from the bottom up, starting in the classroom. Support your frontline staff. Have conversations about teaching with everyone who teaches in your school. And no matter how busy you might be, you must teach, really well. Be patient; you teaching well matters more than you might ever realise.
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This much I know about…the challenges for early career headteachers: establishing your core purpose

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: establishing your core purpose.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to overcome them. This post explores, establishing your core purpose.

 

Establishing your core purpose

I had no idea where the school was heading when I began my first headship. All I could do was replicate some of the behaviours I had learnt from observing the several headteachers I had served under. I made some awful mistakes in that first term, nearly all in how I interacted with people. I was quite hapless, in so many ways. And it was all short-termism. I just dealt with the next issue confronting me.

As JFK said, Effort and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.

Fortunately, at the end of that first term, Sue Ellis, one of the deputy headteachers, attended a newly developed Investors in People leadership course. She returned insisting that we establish a core purpose for our school. I had completed my NPQH in 2000 and I remembered being told something about Pepsi’s core purpose being “Beat Coke”, but beyond that I was clueless about what a core purpose was and why we might need one. Sue said, pithily, that a core purpose should encapsulate the reason we get up in the morning and come to work.

After some false starts and endless consultations, we came up with the distinctly unpithy core purpose: “To inspire everyone in our school community with a love of learning and, by doing so, maximise their life chances.” About a year after we had splattered this core purpose around the school and over all our literature, Di Fitzgerald, head of Drama, pointed out that it was grammatically incorrect and should have read “…maximise his or her life chances”. Despite our illiterate ways, our core purpose really stuck, and three years later it resonated throughout the school, to the point where, according to one of our students, at the beginning of the “Romeo and Juliet” Lord and Lady Capulet wanted Juliet to marry Paris to maximise her life chances…

Huntington’s core purpose, established as soon as I began my headship there in 2007, is, “To inspire confident learners who will thrive in a changing world”. It has stood the test of time. It influences everything we do.

And every word counts. We all strive, not just to teach, but to inspire our learners; building confidence is essential for all of us to succeed; we are all learners, including the staff; rather than just succeed we would rather thrive which suggests that we are happy both in our career and in our relationships with other people; as technology develops we find ourselves in an ever changing world.

We did have students but replaced it with learners. Many schools have a line about everyone being a learner, but we really mean it. Learning something helps you understand as a teacher what it is like to be a learner and to struggle at learning something. Teacher learning is central to our school’s success and every single member of staff has to accept the professional obligation to try to get better at what they do if they work at Huntington.

We really worked on getting the wording of our core purpose absolutely right. It was pedantic stuff. The students chose the word thrive, where we had used the word succeed. I like the word thrive. Think about it – plants thrive when the conditions for growth are right. And I think the job of Headteacher is to get the conditions for growth right in a school; when the conditions for growth are right, students and staff will thrive.

So, why is a core purpose so important in your day-to-day running of the school? Well, the process of establishing that core purpose was crucial in helping me understand how to lead a school. When I had to make a tough decision, I returned to the core purpose and considered whether taking that tough decision was aligned with our core purpose; if it was, then that gave me the courage to make the decision, no matter how tough it might have been. And now, 17 years on, that still holds true.

Most importantly, however, defining your core purpose allows you to put learning at the heart of everything you do – surely the core business of every school.

Truly great schools will have a core purpose that is timeless and was established way before you begin your headship. That said, there are many schools that are purposeless. Literally. So, if you are appointed to lead a school which has no discernible reason for existing, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for establishing your core purpose:

  1. Avoid developing your core purpose within the four walls of your office, the way Headteacher Stuart Simmonds developed his mission statement, “To seek to ensure that each pupil shall maximise their optimal potentiality”…
  2. Consult everyone who might have the remotest interest in your school doing well. It matters that everyone is involved in shaping your core purpose. That process takes weeks, and, whilst the creative process is messy, it is essential. When developing your core purpose, brief the governors on your intentions and then begin with your staff – every single one of them. Your colleagues need to contribute their understanding of why they work at their school if they are going to unite behind the new core purpose. If you get the process of developing a core purpose right, when the caretakers are putting out yet another 250 chairs for the morning’s assembly they’ll tell you they’re helping the school fulfill its core purpose.
  3. Make your core purpose pithy, memorable and easy to recite.
  4. Strive to articulate a core purpose that belongs precisely to your school. I know it is really hard to avoid developing something clichéd. As I demonstrated above, every word counts.
  5. Every chance you get to publicise your core purpose, publicise it! I know it’s prosaic, but good signage is worth every penny. And your core purpose should be one of the first things anyone sees when they access your website.
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This much I know about…the challenges for early career headteachers: understanding the finances

I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: understanding the finances.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.

I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to overcome them. This post explores understanding the finances.

 

Understanding the finances

Back in the days when he was director-general of the BBC, I heard Greg Dyke say to an assembled audience of senior school leaders: “Don’t leave the money to anyone else, it’s too important.” It was one of the greatest pieces of advice I had ever heard. No matter how idealistic new headteachers might be, how determined they are that improving teaching and learning will always be the priority, if they don’t have a really good understanding of the money, they will come a cropper.

If you want to be a headteacher, ensure you have a great grasp of the budget and someone to manage it for you who knows what they are doing, preferably from a business background.

Things have changed remarkably since I began my first headship. Back in 2003, heads had a great deal of autonomy over school spending. Many modern headteachers have no direct responsibility for spending the school budget. Even if you have to apply to the Trust board to buy a box of paperclips, it is essential, as Dyke said, that you understand the budget and the relationship between decisions of spending the budget and students’ outcomes.

What I didn’t understand when I began as a headteacher was the hugely important relationship between your school budget and the education that you provide for the students who attract that money in the first place.

I soon learned. My first taste of headship came with the rather unsavoury task of balancing a budget. Before I was appointed, the governing body had already done their sums and predicted a £300,000 year-end budget deficit. They had made the irrevocable decision that we had to reduce most year groups by one whole teacher’s-worth of classes. It meant Set 4 and Set 5 being combined in certain subjects in a number of year groups.

It was then that I had my first glimpse of the educational impact of financial cuts: behaviour in those combined groups, especially in Year 9, was predictably shocking. It was absolute chaos.

Seven months later, the financial year end saw a £150,000 surplus. The governors had been £450,000 out in their financial predictions. Those classes hadn’t needed to be combined. Those students suffered because amateurs were in charge of the finances. I pledged not to let that happen again. I made a promise to learn how to run a multi-million-pound budget.

When it comes to understanding the school budget, nothing quite beats hands-on experience. Good headteachers trust their colleagues to manage budgets. I was lucky to work under Chris Bridge, a headteacher who gave me total responsibility (and accountability) for spending the erstwhile Technology College budget, some £150,000 p.a. It helped me understand finances and was the best preparation I could have had for the moment when I was responsible (along with the Governing body) for the whole school budget.

Developing great teachers is your priority. As school budgets tighten across the globe in this age of austerity, you have to resist the urge to squeeze every last hour of teaching out of your teachers; rather, you must give your teachers time and space to work on their practice and target the budget to allow that.

We have to stop guessing about what works. School budgets are getting tighter and tighter; consequently, it is even more important that every penny we have left to spend impacts positively upon improving the quality of teaching and through to student outcomes. So, focus on what the evidence says has the best chance of working.

So, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for understanding the finances:

  1. Find a course which unpicks the relationship between curriculum planning and budget. There are good ones. Sam Ellis, ASCL’s erstwhile expert of all things budgetary, used to run such a programme. He was superb.
  2. Have a funding expert you meet once a week, and brief your trade union reps regularly on budget issues. A Finance manager needs to tell you warts and all what is happening with the budget. I have told mine I cannot tolerate budget surprises. Simple things like adding 3% for inflation, and calculating moves up the pay spine, all see your costs rise by significant sums annually. Ask your Finance manager to explain all these simple nuances to budget management.
  3. Keep in touch with all the DfE’s budget announcements. You have to work hard at this. It is hugely complicated, especially at the moment. Beware of pay increases which are only funded for one year by a special grant, which you might well have to pick up the tab for in the following year. Right now, at Huntington, we estimate that we might just receive an extra £200,000 p.a. if certain promised funding increases come to fruition, but it looks like our costs will increase by £240,000 p.a. when specific pay and pension grants cease. The DfE seems to ignore the fact that school budgets are impacted by rising costs – all we ever hear about are the so-called increases in funding, not how those increases are reduced in real terms by significant increases in costs. Be vigilant, and always budget for the worst case scenario.
  4. Understand the difference between revenue and capital. In revenue, the impact of a budget-related decision multiplies down the years, whether you are spending or cutting. If you cut staffing next year by 1 FTE teacher, that saves you c.£45,000 next year, and three years on it will have reduced your balance by c.£135,000. The reverse is true if you plan to have one extra teacher next year. Capital comprises one-off payments that do not, usually, have an impact beyond the year in which the spending takes place. Unless you are in a PFI contract
  5. In the end, ensure you have enough to pay the wages. The rest you can get by on, but the wages are the thing. Staffing is your biggest spending commitment. The thing is, if high quality teaching is the key to great student outcomes, then spending money on great staff is a good thing. Without great staff in front of students, aided by a great support staff team, you are going to struggle to provide the high quality education your students deserve. I have always appointed the best teacher on the day when recruiting – even if there was an almost as good cheaper one available.

And if I was allowed a sixth tip, it would be…treat your school’s money as preciously as if it were your own!

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