I have been a Headteacher for nine years now and at the age of 47, this much I know…
I hardly remember a single lesson from my own school days. In third year French I fell off my seat backwards and Mr P. made me lie on the floor for the rest of the lesson. Anyone who says teaching is getting worse has a short memory – the profession in the 70s was shocking!
You need to know your core purpose, what it is that gets you out of bed each day to come to work. Ours is “to inspire confident learners who will thrive in a changing world” and that guides every difficult decision we make. It certainly helps me if I need to challenge inadequate teaching. And what you must do is restructure your school to accommodate your core purpose, not contort your core purpose around the existing structures.
Education is about relationships. Michael Fullan is great on this: you have to develop the culture of the school and every interaction you have as a leader with students and staff helps set the tone of the place. That’s why the values system of your school matters so much.
Our values are respect, honesty and kindness. When I came to Huntington one sixth former said to me, “You don’t enjoy main school, you just get through it – and if you cause trouble they nail you.” Through four and a half years of relentlessly demonstrating behaviours which reflect our values, the school is now a pleasant place and the results have never been better.
I understand what Wilshaw and Gove are on about when they say context is irrelevant, but, whilst the fact that some of my students will have heard several thousand fewer words by the age of three than my son did at that age is not an excuse for my students’ limited literacy, it does help explain why they find it more difficult to read and write.
The Coalition’s educational emphasis is encapsulated in the fact that they equate the BTEC First Diploma in Construction, where students learn the basics of brick-laying, painting and decorating, plumbing, electrical wiring and plastering, with Grade 6 in the Flute.
Without being idealistically naïve, stick to what you believe in rather than be a feather for each educational wind that blows – there are some things in education which are eternal verities.
I have to create the conditions for students and staff to thrive; if I can do that, then we will all grow – students, staff, parents and Governors.
Target your resources on what matters most and just make do with everything else. Teaching is the thing that makes most difference to children’s academic performance so invest in high quality CPD; train people to be good teachers. Find a way to do catering and cleaning as cheaply as possible and then invest in your staff.
When I admitted I couldn’t be a perfect Headteacher, I became better at my job. It was in my fourth year as a Head and I have just prioritised ruthlessly ever since. Some things can slip through my fingers now and then, but I still sort out the important stuff.
Keep things simple: if I ever write a book about Headship, I’ll call it “The Power of Simplicity”.
To some extent, I missed my eldest son growing up. Joe is 15 years old now and a young man. When I cuddle him I can’t believe the width of his shoulders and he squirms away as quick as he can. He thinks I’m an idiot! Read “Death of a Salesman” if you want to know why you should spend more time with the people you love. I taught it last year and now, whenever my sons ask me to do something, I do it, irrespective of my work.

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This post has 23 Comments

  1. Very interesting old boy. Your son has thought you were an idiot for about 15 years though

  2. I’m not a headteacher, and never will be, but I thought this was a great post. And I loved your point about ‘Death of a Salesman’. I taught it to a class of boys a couple of years back and it was a corker for making them pretend not to feel emotional.

  3. Coming to the end of my second year of headship. It’s great but I have no work life balance. I do have a son. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. So glad I found this. I don’t know if Fullan said it, but someone of his ilk cautioned that “culture eats structure for breakfast.” I’ve been in education for a long time and have learned that culture trumps everything, so leaders must pay attention to it. In the 70s I was attending Antrim Grammar School, so I know whereof you speak 🙂
    Anyway, I thought you would appreciate the letter I found from a former student:

  5. I couldn’t agree more.
    I’ve continously enjoyed 15 years of headship and would only add “continue to enjoy teaching” and “use every opportunity, such as assemblies, to model the types of thinking and learning that you want teachers to encourage children to take part in” as contributions to your list of THIS MUCH I KNOW(s).

  6. I agree with most of your comments wholeheartedly. BUT you are wrong about cleaning and catering. Cleaners are part of the team too. In our subject areas we rely on these relationships because they help create the environment we work in. Out sourced cleaners are in a hurry and have no loyalty. Therefore my forgotten phone or laptop or petty cash becomes vulnerable.

    1. I’m sorry that’s how you’ve interpreted it. I agree completely – every single person matters. What I was saying was that as Headteacher you need to target what limited resources you have on teaching and learning. Last year I had to cut £340,000 from the budget and this year I’ve cut £240,000 as a result of Osborne’s cuts. If we can save £70,000 on our £240,000 annual cleaning bill by outsourcing cleaning then I have to do it because the students get a better deal. I work hard at relationships at all levels, and respecting the role of every single member of staff is crucial. It’s like the NASA cleaner sweeping the floor in 1969 – when asked what he was doing, he replied, “Helping put people on the moon.”

  7. Really enjoyed this post, very rare that you read anything that you can agree with almost completely.

  8. I’m taking my retirement at 60 after 39 years teaching and 28 years as a Headteacher. Just 25 days to go! I will do some work, returning to my roots of teaching and being an independent primary school adviser. It will be my choice of what I do and when! Love the thinking amidst your article! Keep it simple!

  9. “Find a way to do catering and cleaning as cheaply as possible..” and IT!
    Stop wasting taxpayers money on proprietary systems. Upskill your staff and students by moving to open source http://opensourceschools.org.uk/. Really do not know why more schools avoid this route. Are schools really that susceptible to corporate blah, blah?

      1. Got a bit carried away – should have written ‘really do not know why so many schools avoid this route’ or similar. Do you ‘open source’ at your school?

          1. As ex Head of Science, I fully understand implications of changes in working practice in schools. There are many ways to address these issues. You could set up a pilot IT suite, for example, giving time for training and adjustment.The company I work for, RISE Computers, has been setting up Linux IT suites in community settings for several years. We have encountered all the culture barriers! Contact RISE for advice on switching to open source. Linux provides so much more than freedom from license fees. Good Luck.

  10. Really enjoyed reading this and totally agree with the principles. Glad to be working with you

  11. I loved this, John – thanks. I know headship can seem a complex and overwhelming job at times, so I absolutely agree with the idea of holding on to some simple, key principles – especially in the toughest times.

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