I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about what I did as a Headteacher when our GCSE results were in decline.
As Headteacher the buck stops with you. Chris Bridge, my boss when I was a Deputy, identified the gulf between being a Deputy and a Head; he said to me that, as a Deputy, I could always go home and sleep at night because, ultimately, the buck didn’t stop with me.
Nothing really prepares you for Headship, even five years as Chris’ Deputy. Late August 2003, in my new school, and someone said to me, We haven’t got a Psychology teacher for September. My instinctive response was, Why are you telling me? and then I realised that, as the new Headteacher, people expected me to solve everything.
Sion Humphreys from the National Association of Head Teachers had it right when he said this week, “For headteachers…you’re only as good as your last set of exam results. For the vast majority of teachers and school leaders the motivating factor is to make a difference. It’s a cliché, but it is what gets people out of bed in the morning. But, increasingly at the back of their mind is also, I have a family, I have a mortgage, I have a career, I have aspirations.”
When things go awry, try to hold your nerve. When I inherited Huntington in 2007, with its reputation as a high-performing school, it had just attained its best set of GCSE results with students attaining 59% 5 A*-C grades including English and mathematics. This is what has happened since:


I wrote this in a post a year ago about what happened in 2010, three years into my Headship, when the results dipped to 55% 5 A*-C grades including English and mathematics:
In 2010 we had the most intensive Year 11 Raising Attainment Plans for English and Maths ever; no strategy was left unemployed! Our Leading Edge consultant thought our Raising Attainment Plans (RAPs) highly impressive when she visited in the June. In late August a young Leading Edge researcher e-mailed me wanting to feature our RAPs in his Leading Edge Next Practice Showcase publication, having read the consultant’s rosy-sounding report. I told him not to bother because they hadn’t b****y well worked! For all the frantic effort, our results had fallen 5%!
What I didn’t write in that post was how, 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 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, but like Sion Humphreys says, I have a mortgage.

Raining on a car

As a school we held our nerve back in 2010. I’ve noted below a few of the things I did which I think have made a difference and helped us recover. It’s not a Top Ten Tips or a prescription for success, just some core actions I took, on a personal level as a Headteacher, once I had emerged from my Slough of Despond.
Above all else – the most important thing I have done over the past three years – I trusted the Huntington staff to respond to the challenge and they have done, brilliantly. Like I have said before, Headteachers need to trust their colleagues more than ever. Seneca said, “The first step towards making people trustworthy is to trust them.” In the climate of fear which this government has so brilliantly cultivated it is too easy to threaten staff in response to being threatened oneself. Headteachers have to do the opposite. At our school we deliver over 2,000 lessons each week; I cannot teach them all, so what I have to do is develop my colleagues in a safe school environment which allows them to thrive professionally and personally. It’s the only way to a decent OFSTED inspection. It’s the only way I will keep my job.
I never stopped believing we could turn it around. I know I am often characterised as an old punk rocker, an image I have never tried to uncultivate, but there’s a track by The Jam called Ghosts, which I play on repeat to inspire me to fight twice as hard as normal when I’m really struggling:
[wpvideo jdpu47RI]
Why are you frightened – can’t you see that it’s you?
That ain’t no ghost – it’s a reflection of you
Why do you turn away – an’ keep it out of sight?
Oh – don’t live up to your given roles
There’s more inside you that you won’t show
But you keep it hidden just like everyone
You’re scared to show you care – it’ll make you vulnerable
So you wear that ghost around you for disguise
But there’s no need just ‘cos it’s all we’ve known
There’s more inside you that you haven’t shown
So keep on moving, moving, moving your feet
Keep on shuf-shuf-shuffling to this ghost dance beat
Just keep on walking down never ending streets
One day you’ll walk right out of this life
And then you’ll wonder why you didn’t try
To spread some loving all around
Old fashioned causes like that still stand
Gotta rid this prejudice that ties you down
How do you feel at the end of the day
Just like you’ve walked over your own grave?
So why are you frightened – can’t you see that it’s you?
At the moment there’s nothing – so there’s nothing to lose
Lift up your lonely heart and walk right on through
At that moment in the car in August 2010 it felt like there was nothing; but the last thing Paul Weller ever wrote as a member of The Jam was, BELIEF IS ALL!
I stopped most of our interventions. In January 2010 we mentored all the Year 11 students we’d identified as underachieving. One of them said, We’re looking forward to all the extra revision lessons you’re going to put on and you making us go to them. It was at that point that we realised we were doing nothing but developing learned helplessness in our students. We stopped doing many of our interventions and began pouring our resources into a couple of things that our evaluations said had worked.
I gave up all external responsibilities; for instance, I was the Yorkshire and Humberside National Strategies Consultant Headteacher, which saw me spend days on the train to Reading  – that went. If I do extra stuff it is done in the corners of the weekend. I have focused my energies on being in school as much as I possibly can. Even this last year’s Headteachers’ Roundtable work has not been allowed to affect my day job.
I removed the disengaged Key Stage 4 students from their English classes; I co-taught the Year 11s with the Deputy Headteacher, and I taught the Year 10s on my own. This helped all the other teachers and got me back at the heart of teaching again.
I put teaching first. We changed the structure of the school day so that every other Monday we have two hours CPD, as well as our five training days. We invested in CPD; you can’t just wish people to be better teachers.
We are where we are now because of my wonderful colleagues. Like I said, these are a few things I decided to do; ultimately, the day-in, day-out dedication of our teachers and support staff is at the root of our improvement since 2010.


The pressure of Headship is relentless. I have already started worrying about 2014’s results. Remember – you’re only as good as your last set of exam results.
Never take pleasure in your school’s students performing better than another school’s students; you would be taking pleasure in the other school’s students doing relatively badly, and as an educator that is somehow philosophically corrupt. And now, more than ever, you would be finding pleasure in one of your Headteacher colleague’s deep distress at the implications for her/him of her/his school’s relatively poor performance.
I have Headteacher friends who feel wretched right now. The rain is metaphorically pummelling down on their car roof; but the sun will shine again. This post is for them.

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This post has 46 Comments

  1. Although this post is designed for other Head Teachers I just wanted to say thank you for writing it. I have been considering what to do since the results came out on Thursday. I am a HoD for English and have always had success but this year the English results have dropped by 9%. Many of our students are C/D borderline and the raising of the pass mark by 8 marks had meant the difference between the best results the school would have seen and the worst for a number of years. I feel like I have let the students I taught down and the school because of the impact it will have coupled with the same drop in the Maths department. Although I know that the pressure I will face in the next term will be immense at least I now know that others have gone through worse and come out the other end the better for it.
    Thank you once again.

    1. This means a lot to me too. We have also had a disappointing dip in our English results – for the 2nd year running (despite many intervention strategies in place) due to raised boundaries for that all important C grade. I am grateful though, to my head teacher, who, instead of blaming and berating me, said that we must pick ourselves up and look to the future. I am hoping that 2014 will be our year and all our students will exceed their potential. Thanks again for the positive words.

  2. Hi John
    Thanks so much for this.
    We feel wretched. Our results fell to 38% when we were expecting to continue our upward trajectory and bank around 45%. We’re now bracing ourselves to go through the sub-floor standard machinery, whatever that may be.
    There’s been some serious soul searching in the last week and your blog has really helped me consider our position. Like you in 2010 we left no stone un-turned this year – the interventions were immense. I was already starting to feel that less might be more for 2014, so I’m interested to hear you scaled this bank in 2011.
    I really thought-provoking read, as always.
    Matt Hall Vice Principal The City Academy, Bristol
    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Great sentiments John which I agree with. However-just to be analytical-and perhaps a little a nosey, what were the KS2 av points for each GCSE outcome year? Would give greater context to the journey.

  4. Hi John
    I’m not sure if this will actually reach you or not, but just in case!
    I have just finished the first year of my second headship having moved from a very challenging school to a high performing school. The jobs are miles apart in some ways but so similar in others. Your written pieces are incredibly useful, thought provoking and reassuring at the same time. Thank you for taking the time to write these posts – I for one find them extremely valuable.
    I hope you have had a good summer with your family and that your results survived the national dampening down. Take care,
    Kieran McGrane Headteacher Ponteland High School Callerton Lane Ponteland Newcastle upon Tyne NE20 9EY
    Tel: 01661 824711 http://www.ponthigh.org.uk

  5. Thank you for speaking values of trust and decency into what can be a very fraught time in many schools. Your points about learned helplessness are essential reading for everyone under the threat of breaching “floor standards”. Activity does not equal productivity. All the best for the new year.

  6. Thanks John. I have just finished the second year of my first headship and I wonder now if there will be a full third year having seen our results drop 12% to well below floor. We have all worked so hard and it is so demoralising to see what appears to be polítics impacting on student chances and teacher morale. Don’t know where I go from here.

  7. You articulate so clearly and candidly the emotional investment Headteachers make every day in to their schools. When the investment does not seem to ‘pay off’, it can feel like a dark place indeed. It is exactly this investment though that keeps driving us on….
    We had seen an improvement in our achievement an attainment last year and secured a ‘good’ Ofsted inspection too. We had nailed our data, tracked everything to within an inch of its life, supported inanimate and animate objects in a drive to continue the upward trajctory and spent thousands of pounds in doing so.
    We had confidently predicted 45% so when the results came through and we saw the impact of the maths marking, we could not believe it. Your blog gave me hope at a time when we had invested everything in to initiatives but still went down 7% on predicted outcomes, taking us below floor target.
    My Vice Principal, Matt, sent me a link to the blog on Sunday morning, when I was feeling quite low. I now have a greater resolve and will live to fight another day.
    To be a Headteacher/Principal is still the best job in the world- a real privilege.
    Thanks for your solidarity.
    All the best
    Gill Kelly
    City Academy

  8. John
    Even though I am not a head teacher I certainly aspire to become one in the coming years and am currently an assistant head. We are in a similar situation. We have dropped to 37% from 42% despite all predictions saying our results rise should have continued. This is a massively realistic and inspiring post and very reassuring for me to hear that the steps you took were, in my humble opinion, steps we need to take as an institution in response to our own fall.
    Thank you
    Andy Fogg

  9. Hi John,
    I read your post with a mixture of excitement, trepidation and full blown fear! Such a journey ahead of me, who knows where the roller coaster will take me, but I’m ready for the challenge. Thank you for sharing how you moved forward in such difficult times. I do hope we can get together in the new term so I can learn more from you.

  10. John – Did I meet you at interview in ’98? (I was Head of Humanities from Hull and you I think had come from Brighton?). Anyway, thanks for a great post – sums up exactly how it feels; here, our decline of 1% was described as a ‘slump’ on the front page of the local paper and contrasted with another academy for good measure. Thanks for having the honesty to tell it how it is.

    1. Yes. I remember. Hope you’re well. It’s hard to explain why what should be the most wonderful thing in the world – to teach young people – can be made to be so miserable at times.

  11. Thanks for sharing your ideas John-we find them really helpful and practical-colleagues will actually read them and I recommend schools who we work with to dip in too. We found ourselves propping up our LA league tables with 22%A*-Cs a few years ago and surrounded by schools with a much higher % of high attaining students and a local press who could only comprehend raw scores. We celebrated every little success [total A-Gs, A-Cs, FFT B,C,D…etc.] tried 1001 RATL ideas and interventions and assumed the Alex Ferguson mentality of everyone being against us! My gut feelings are that we began to turn when, like you, we emphasised learning and not teaching-involving the students in their own learning and when we began to formalise opportunities to collaborate, observe each other and share. CVA/VA began to let our community see that our teaching was making a massive difference to our students and we actually flipped the LA table upside down when progress came into-champions at last! We chased down 30, then 40, then 50, then 60 [ignoring anyone else’s percentages-and concentrating on our students and their needs]-anything is possible if you can get the whole community to adopt a growth mind-set. Things can change and I hope that colleagues who are down at the moment are given time and hope from your blog and other messages of support-good luck and best wishes to all schools over the next year.

  12. Thanks for this. I am a school governor, and your post has given me a great insight into the pressures faced by head teachers and reminded me of my duty of support for our head. Am determined to support more! Fiona

  13. This is just as good a read for a regular classroom teacher as for heads and would-be heads.
    What stands out for me is your willingness to consider counter-intuitive measures, which is something needed far more widely in all those command-and-control schools out there. They need to listen to people at the sharp end – learned helplessness is a familiar concept – except, it seems, to those who think you solve problems by pulling levers. Real human beings are a lot more complex than that.

  14. Wonderful read. Although I can’t claim to be a member of leadership, for some reason I felt like I was sat in the car with you. What I really love is how, at least for your school, it was the removal of the ‘traditional’ interventions that was the catalyst to getting your Yr 11’s to achieve. I recognise the expectations of those students that come to revision classes expecting to be taught a year’s worth of content in two or three sessions. It’s another aspect of this learned helplessness you mention. Unfortunately the motivation for these ‘interventions’ seems to be a preparation of a defence for SLT as opposed to something that will have an impact on these students lives. You hinted at resources that your evaluations said were effective; were these solely CPD and teaching oriented. I’m curious as everyone is when someone finds success in schools.

    1. They were. Invested in over-staffing English and maths; really sharp 1:1 support staffed by experts in English and maths; Lesson progress Maps; better set lists so the data was really helpful on each student. Stuff like that, which improves day-to-day teaching.

  15. We are not in a good place at the moment and this was timely in its reminder that the good times will come again if we support each other to get it right and hold our nerve. The scary bit is throwing away the comfort blanket that has gone before; because it did not work, and stepping into the challenge zone. Thank you.

  16. How much money, time and effort is spent trying to find ways of ‘improving’ teaching? How much actually yields benefit in good proportion to the head and heartache which is invested? I’m not saying there’s no such thing as improvement, but in my opinion, the whole thing is becoming over-complicated and over technical. There are three things a good teacher needs – good subject knowledge, a quick mind and the ability to relate to children. You could add a fourth – experience. The rest is technocratic froth. I wish we could stop giving ourselves such a hard time over something that is basically straightforward. The only reason the ‘n’th degree of so-called ‘progress’ matters is for government targets, not the effective education ofr children. It will kill the profession, and most likely some of us with it.
    I would like to commend three books that fundamentally changed my outlook on the whole thing: Affluenza by Oliver James (the whole education system itself is now riddled with it); Obliquity by John Kay and Drive by Daniel Pink. The second in particular questions the whole nature of causality upon which this educational Tower of Babel is being built. The third accurately identifies the things that really motivate people (students and teachers alike) to strive. In all three cases, the conclusions are far away from conventional wisdom. The answer is to accept uncertainty, capitalise on good luck, and give people as much thinking time as you can.

  17. A few years back had a very similar experience ( based on sats not gcse being a primary head). Had previously been seen as a wonder kid, then when bad sats happened was dropped like a stone by a very hostile LA. Couldn’t face going home after school- just needed to be alone. As soon as I was a safe distance from school I parked in a side road by a local park and cried for a long while. I toyed a bit ( not terribly seriously) with drowning myself in the pond in the park, before reflecting that as the water would probably only come up to my knees and would only seek to reinforce that that I was just as useless as killing myself as I was at being a Headteacher. At this point, common sense kicked in. Even if I really was the worst ht in the world, was killing myself really the appropriate response? Was my worth as a person solely based on how well I did my job? Having decided that I deserved to live, I then considered resigning there and then. But was there a long queue of replacements eagerly battering down the door? Er no. Putting ego aside, if I left,would the kids get a better or worse deal? Definitely a worse deal. So I stayed, endured the humiliations of being sent on ‘helpful’ courses and carried onwards and upwards. Last year we were in the ‘top 1000’ primary schools list. The coming yr6 are a challenging lot though so results will plummet in 2015. Our cohorts are small and two pupils having a bad day can mean the difference between outstanding and a category!
    What did die that day though was my ego. Before, if course I was in it ‘for the kids’ but also in truth in order to be seen as the saviour of the downtrodden. Now, I am much less driven by the need for others to think well of me. As long as I am doing the best I can for the kids and there isn’t someone who could do it much better at hand then here I stay. Being open to being replaced by someone better helped- it took away the fear. Say I really couldn’t pay the mortgage? Well, it wouldn’t be easy or nice but it really wouldn’t be the end of the world. Worse things happen to the families in our school all the time. I’m not trying to teach in Gaza.
    You know that bit in ‘If’ about success and failure and treating those two imposters just the same. Well I wasn’t the worst Headteacher in the world when we got 54% level 4 and I wasn’t the best when we got 100%. And it isn’t a bloody competition anyway.
    Courage colleagues. Once more unto the breach etc etc. Good luck.

    1. All we can do is do our best. I like this quotation from Philip Gould to Andrew Marr a few weeks before he died: 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.

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