Should I feel guilty?

Whenever I am out of school for a day there is always a nagging sense of guilt that I am not there to perform my usual role. Should I feel guilty each time I am not in? Over the last two weeks I have been out of School a few times for a variety of different reasons attending conferences and meetings. I am very aware that there will be some who feel strongly that a Head should always be in their school and that being away is not a good thing. However, whilst I agree that one’s own school should always be the prime focus there are definite reasons as to why it is good to leave one’s School from time-to-time. Furthermore, I believe that the School also benefits.
Meetings – I have attended three cluster meetings. These are when groups of Heads from various independent schools get together, thus I have been to one of the Large Independent Day Schools in London, one of schools in the Eastern Region and one of a more local group. At each of these meetings the focus is on discussing issues of common interest, at each of them I put items on the agenda of direct interest to our school to find out more about what other schools are doing on the particular issue and whether they have encountered any issues along the way. It is important for any school to have the opportunity to learn from others. Indeed, my own involvement in Twitter and blogging also serves this same purpose with an even more diverse range of professionals working in all types of school. Such discussions help to develop me as a school leader but are also a fantastic source of advice, tips and inspiration on a wide ranging set of topics. I always return invigorated by the experience, reassured too as often we have already been considering the idea or have indeed had it in place for some time but this sharing of good practice lies at the heart of educational leadership in my view.
Conferences – I have addressed two national conferences over the past fortnight as well. Again I will have my detractors for doing this and some will see it as a rather self-centred way of raising my own profile. Again this is far from how I see it. Being honest, it is flattering to be asked to undertake such a task but there is a great deal more to it than this. Firstly, it is a sign that one’s own school is seen to be a beacon in a particular area. I spoke on both occasions about school marketing and how we use such things as my blog and twitter as part of a wider strategy to embed good marketing principles into all that we do as a school. We are thus seen in the wider world to be innovative and I have received some excellent feedback on both talks which shows that people have taken back some useful ideas to their own schools. Part of the reason for doing it is that I personally have gained so much from various conference speeches over the years and in education I do fundamentally believe that you improve by listening to others, this is also why I spend time on Twitter, a fantastic resource for new ideas. It is though also the case that on both of the days listening to my fellow speakers I have again picked up some excellent ideas and these will help to inform my future planning.
Old Boys events – last week I was again away, this time at an Old Boys reception. Such events are a crucial part of our development of a community for life. I find these events uplifting because they give me a real chance to let everyone know about all the exciting things which are going on in school and it is very apparent how interested our Old boys are in what is happening in school at present. I spoke to them about our efforts to link the current and future generations of pupils with those who went before. All heads have to look outwards to the wider community as well as to their internal audience and the sense of community with our ex-pupils is an important strategic direction for our school.
I am very aware that any absence places a greater burden on those that remain behind in school. I never underestimate this and am very grateful to those who pick up this burden. However, it is also the case that I maximise the use of my travelling time. Every train journey is undertaken with the laptop powered up and indeed usually by the end of the journey home the inbox is clear. Any other tasks are done the weekend following such trips and thus in the end very little real time is lost.
It is easy in schools to get bogged down in the day to day tasks and thus, to conclude, I feel that it is important for the Head to have this outside focus, whether through things like Twitter or by attending conferences so that you continue to be inspired by others, you learn from their experience and to help recharge your own batteries. I think it is also really important for any Head to realise that they are not indispensable to their schools and it is always really reassuring to know that you have not really been missed! I also return genuinely pleased to be back, to catch up on the news and to have a chance to re-engage with all the issues of the day, sometimes with a new perspective or having had the chance to mull things over on my travels. Thus, on balance, my view is that I should not feel guilty when I am out for a day but others may think differently – do feel free to leave your comments…

Linking the generations – thoughts on Remembrance Sunday

As I write this on Remembrance Sunday I am reflecting back on a week which has seen both our school remembrance service and the Annual General Meeting of our Old Boys Association. In our remembrance service boys spoke of their reflections on the recent school visit to the Battlefields of World War One. I want to share with you what one boy said:
“What do you think of when you have a minute’s silence? I think that for some it is exactly that – being silent for a minute, trying to shut out other thoughts on homework and lunch – trying not to smile at that earlier joke that comes back at the worst possible time. For others though, it’s bowing your head and trying, somehow, to imagine what life was like. From the sources in our textbooks, films such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and our own imagination, we try to build up a picture of suffering, warfare, death. Mental images are provided by the latest computer game – details are filled in by half-remembered facts: on the first day of the Somme alone around 19,000 British troops were killed – an absolutely horrific and genuinely terrifying death toll.

I suppose it was for that reason that, standing in Tyne Cot cemetery, before hundreds of headstones and thousands of the names of the missing, I was disappointed. Not in their brave struggle, or the sheer number of casualties, but in my reaction. I had come on the trip eager to learn more, but also with expectations. Expectations that I would see life in a new way, that through being distressed and moved I could mourn the dead.

I took a school emblem and a page number from Mr. Williams, under instructions to find Private Johnson amongst the missing, an old boy of the school. I walked past panel after panel, each bearing over one hundred names, reading as I went along. Wilfred Johnson was the son of Ellen and John –a litho printer- from Bramcote Street, Old Radford and served in the Honourable Artillery Company. There was no picture of Johnson but in my mind I thought of what he may have looked like, what friends he had, what his hobbies were – what we may or may not have had in common. As I walked past panels 40, 30, 20, and into the single figures, I eventually came to number 7, and began searching.

When I found the name, I suddenly realised that I had built up this man in my head; obviously I never knew him or even what he looked like, but that’s when the scale of the conflict struck me. I had made the mistake of coming to this cemetery with numbers in my head, with the image of dusty old bones and vast waves of white headstones. But I think that it’s far more important to remember lives lost than deaths – each digit in a textbook represents someone just the same as Private Wilfred Johnson, each weathered carving on a memorial wall was the name of a living, breathing person.”

Our remembrance service made clear links between the current generation and those that went before as another boy said:
“Overall, this trip has given me a unique insight into World War 1, but it has also reminded me about the unity presented by many people of different nationalities, in the midst of battle, and the brave sacrifice many made for our country along with many others, not alone, but, as brother-in-arms.”
Later that same day I went to the AGM of our Old Boys’ Society and I was delighted with the interest that so many of them show in what the School is doing today. The link between past and present was again very evident and as a School we are very keen to build this ‘Community for Life’.
At the unveiling of our school war memorial in 1922 the Duke of Portland said:
“This memorial should serve to remind many coming generations of pupils of this school that at the time of the severest struggle in which this country has ever been engaged, their predecessors in this place obeyed the call of duty and sacrificed themselves in the common cause of humanity. Not only should this memorial stir feelings of pride in, and gratitude to the dead, but it should be a source of inspiration to the living for all time. The young men here commemorated were absolutely unselfish. They thought of themselves as part and parcel of one great enterprise. It is to them and to all those who were animated by the same high purpose that we owe our independence as a nation and our freedom as individuals. Henceforward one of the traditions of this school will be the tradition created by its sons who took so noble, so honourable, and so self-sacrificing a part at the time of the Great War.”
We are proud to link the generations in this way and hope that such links will be a feature of school life for many years. We want to continue to welcome back those who were pupils at the School and to take pride in their achievements but also to let them know about how these traditions are being built on today. The greatest contribution of all though for all of us was made by those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom and it is right on Remembrance Sunday that our thoughts are with them.

The benefits of all-through schools

There is a good deal of discussion both locally and nationally on state academies following the example of many independent schools in becoming all-through Schools. One of the local academies in Nottingham is currently undertaking a public consultation on its plans. 

Such schools are common-place in the Independent sector. My school, Nottingham High made this move fully two years ago with the opening of our new infant section Lovell House.  For the first time this meant that pupils can attend the School from reception age to Year 13.  The School also has its own Junior School (Years 3-6) on the same site. The Junior School recently celebrated its centenary.

The three parts of the school very much share the same ethos.  This is one of the key benefits of this model.  Thus, in the case of Nottingham High School all three parts are academically-selective, boys-only,  place a significant emphasis on superb pastoral care and believe strongly in the role of extra-curricular activities to broaden the programme. This shared ethos makes it easier for parents to decide whether this is a suitable environment for their child.

Choosing a school is one of the most difficult choices parents have to make.  The all-through school model means that having selected the school you are not having to go through all the stress of continuing to do this every couple of years. This, I understand, would also be the case in the state model. However, in our case, over 50% of our Year 7 entry still come in from other schools, the majority of them state primary schools. This too is important to freshen things up and to ensure that everyone does not become too insular.

There is no doubt that the transition from each stage of schooling is made much easier by this way of doing things.  The move to secondary school can be daunting but pupils from our Junior School know their way around, understand the way that the School works and can also then play their part in helping those who join the School at this stage from elsewhere to settle in.

The benefit to the infant and Junior sections of the School from being on the same site as the Senior School are enormous.  They have access to all of the Senior School facilities.  Thus, they can use the sports’ hall, swimming pool, theatre etc.  Few stand-alone primary schools can offer the range of facilities that a senior school has to offer.

Parents very much like the convenience of having just the one drop-off for all of their children.  It can also mean that older children can travel on public transport looking after their younger siblings.

There is no doubt that having pupils of all ages on the site helps to improve relationships.  Here the older boys routinely look after the younger boys on the school buses and also older boys go into the Junior and infant schools at times to help out in the classroom or with activities.  This too helps to build bonds between boys of all ages.  Our Language ambassadors scheme means that senior school boys help teach languages in our infant and junior schools, these positive role models have a huge impact.

There are, of course, advantages to the School of the economies of scale brought about by having the three sections of the school on one site.  Such things as the catering, caretaking etc are organised centrally and this provides cost savings. 

Some would worry that having the three sections of the school on one site would be problematical.  Our model means that each part of the school has a separate building and separate playgrounds and thus one gets all the benefits without the younger boys competing in the playground for space with the older ones.  It is also the case that our Junior School only provides about half of the entrants into the Senior School.  This means that a further 60 or so boys join the Senior School from a range of other primary and independent schools.  It would be unwise for the Junior School to grow any bigger than this as small class sizes should certainly be a feature of Junior and Infant school provision as they are here.

Clearly this is a controversial move for schools in the state sector but politics should surely not get in the way of something which works so well and is of real advantage to pupils and parents alike.

What makes for a ‘happy school’?

What makes for a happy School?

Last Thursday night we held our School’s annual prizegiving ceremony and we were very honoured to be joined by Sir Michael Parkinson, the eminent broadcaster. He gave us a fantastic address which was humorous but also left us with plenty to think about when he relayed the story of his interview with a lady dying from AIDS, his most difficult interview ever.
In his closing comments, he said a number of lovely things about the School and our pupils. The one though I was most proud of was when he described us as a “happy school.” This got me thinking and inspired this post. Just what does make for a “happy school?”
I believe at the heart of this lies the strength of relationships between the pupils and the staff. We have good discipline at the heart of our school but this comes about through mutual respect between boys and staff and this comfortable, genuine working atmosphere allows pupils to enjoy their learning. These relationships are developed further through a wide range of extra-curricular activities from which the boys gain so much. This view of education in the round with both academic success and extra-curricular involvement means that we get the best out of individuals and this too makes for a ‘happy school’. Our games programme plays a big part in this. We all know that people feel better if they are fully active and take regular exercise. I believe too that boys thrive on elements of competition both in the classroom and on the games field and this too promotes happiness.
A further factor which I believe promotes happiness in the School is that we try to do things with a smile on our faces. Even on a formal occasion like Speech Day there is room for some humour and indeed some banter. This is not to say that we disrespect the tradition of such events but we do need to enjoy the events as well. So, when a corny phrase drew some ironic comment from the audience it was again a sign of a ‘happy school’. Similarly the pleasure that was palpable when boys in the Big Band performed so brilliantly was infectious and was another sign of a ‘happy school’.
Thus, at the heart of all this is the spirit which is evident in a ‘happy school’. It is this spirit which inspires individuals to excel and which lies behind why so many staff are prepared to give freely of their time to take trips, organise sports fixtures and put on plays and concerts. We like to encourage all to share in the success of each other and this is a common feature in our assemblies. Our vertical tutor system means that boys mix with others of all ages and this too helps boys not only to develop in confidence but it helps pupils to support each other.
It was very heart-warming that all this was apparent to our eminent visitor last week and long may we remain a ‘happy school.’

Diary of a Headmaster’s Summer Holiday

What does a Headmaster do over the duration of the summer holiday? Now, this is not going to be a kiss-and-tell diary entry but it will perhaps give an indication of the sorts of things which are done which are important both on a personal and on a school level.

1. Holiday – This is probably the most important part. After a long school year and all of the pressures it brings it is vital to get away. I prefer to do this almost immediately the term ends so that there is a clear end to the School year just past and also a chance for a rest before tackling the various work that needs to be done for the next school year. Whilst I do have my smartphone with me, I do try to switch off completely, I do not answer emails and would only deal with urgent and serious school matters that arose. Fortunately this year I was able to have a fantastic fortnight in Rhodes and was able to leave the High School behind!
2. Family time – Inevitably the workload of my role impacts on the family. During the summer I try to ensure that we have some quality time together. This is so important in recharging my batteries and giving me a proper work/life balance. The time to be able to say yes to the numerous requests to play football or to do a domestic task is one that I value at this time of the year. I guess that I need to do more to protect such time at other times of the year too. We also use this time to catch up with friends and return some of the meals that we have enjoyed at other times in the year.
3. Rest – Those readers who are not teachers will see the long holiday that we get as excessive. I do though very much value the opportunity to just switch off and take a rest. The last few weeks of term with all of the many school functions, the reports etc mean many seven day weeks spent ensuring that all is completed on time. Thus, the chance for a few lie-ins, some time just doing nothing and the chance to switch off is very valuable. It is the only time of the year when I can do justice to the weekend newspapers.
4. Reading – Over the past year the High School has had a Year of Reading. I have tried hard to read more but during the summer I have more opportunity to do so. At this point half way through my holiday I have read six books and hope to fit in at least a couple more before we return. Next on the list is “Suite Francaise” by Irene Nemirovsky which my wife has just finished and has highly recommended. I also try to catch up on a good deal of educational reading, various articles and magazines which tend to stack up during the year but can be read when less busy and these are often the source of some good ideas or spark innovative ideas for the future. It is also a chance to read the many articles that I come across through my network on Twitter – such a rich resource for new ideas and sharing good practice.
5. Getting organised – I am a compulsive list maker! Thus, I spend time using the Task List in Microsoft Outlook to record all of the various tasks that need doing when I return to School. I do not like having to carry around in my head a mental list of things to do and thus always try to record everything into the task list so that I can be sure that I won’t forget to get something done. I also use the summer to clear my inbox. Currently there are no emails at all in there, despite the fact that since we broke up for the holiday I have still received over 600 emails! Each half-term I try to clear it down to zero so that the new term starts in an organised fashion. Those that need action when we return in September I put onto the task list. So there are currently 200 tasks to be done but at least I know what they all are and can now spend some time reducing this number. I also like to ensure that I have a clear idea of the major reports/speeches I have to write in the year ahead so that I can diarise time to complete them.
6. Work – Inevitably I spend time working during the holiday. Speech Day is the second day of term so I have to prepare my Speech for that. This tends to be done towards the end of the holiday once the exam results are in. This summer I also need to update our inspection self-evaluation in the light of the exam results, update the development plan and produce an action plan for the coming year from this plan. There is the staff meeting in September to prepare for, various letters to respond to, and I try to make a start on my report to the Governors of the previous academic year. I estimate the net total of this work to be about four weeks work.
7. Visits to School – I try to keep these to a minimum. At the time of writing this post I have been in just once. This was primarily to take over the emergency phone which one member of the Management team mans whenever a school trip is away. Currently we have boys in Bala, North Wales and the rugby teams are touring South America. So far, no calls to field and I hope that this continues given that I would only be called in an emergency. I find it easier to work from home during holiday time as this way there are less distractions.
8. Exam results time – I do though return to school for much of the week leading up to the A Level and GCSE results. In this way I can catch up on any correspondence which has come in during the holiday but also we prepare for giving the results out. There are various analyses to be done on the results themselves and I like to go through with the Head of Careers just how boys have done in relation to their university offers. The results days themselves are the highlight of this period being able to share in the joy of so many boys who through their own efforts, the support of their parents and the hard work of the staff have secured excellent results. There are some media things to do too to promote the School but above all it is a chance to congratulate the boys on their achievements. I also use this time to catch up on progress made on the summer holiday maintenance work in school. Clearly just because the teachers are away does not mean that those left in school are not incredibly busy and it is good to catch up with what has been happening.
So, in conclusion, the holiday is very much a chance to catch up. Firstly, on revitalising myself but then on getting ready for the new term. I guess though that the Confucius saying “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”, applies here. I genuinely enjoy the preparations for the new school year and look forward to welcoming everyone back in September. That I can do so having spent some quality time with the family though is equally important as it is they that sustain me through the stresses that this role inevitably brings.