Shortage of Headteachers – why be a Head?

There has been much in the press recently about a national shortage of head teachers. Apparently many posts are going unfilled and there is a significant shortage of people seeking to make the move from deputy head to Head.
In many respects this is understandable. Being a Head is not for everyone just as many teachers do not want to make the move from being a classroom teacher into senior management. Each teacher has to make their own decisions about their own career path.
However, I thought that it would make for an interesting post if I could try to explain what I love about my role. I recently spoke at a Friday forum with our sixth formers and they asked whether I loved having ‘all that power’. This is certainly not what motivates me so what do I find about the job that makes it so rewarding?
Above all else I love the variety of what I do. Each and every day is very different and it is the challenge of dealing with such a wide range of issues which makes the role so very interesting. Much of what I have to do is very positive, whether this be meeting boys with distinctions or having lunch with groups of sixth formers, there is plenty which is positive.
Of course, I do have less positive things to deal with as well but I have always enjoyed problem-solving and the challenges that these present and the ability to resolve a difficulty also make the role interesting. I enjoy the challenge of having to make a decision – there is no one else for me to pass a decision on to and thus in the end I have to come down one way or another. Such decisions will not always be popular but this is not a central part of the job. All I can do is to make a well-informed, rational decision and clearly communicate the reasons for it.
A big part of the role of the Head is communication and this is why I blog, tweet and spend time on developing our communications strategy. I do believe that communication is important for any organisation and being open and approachable is a key part of the role. This is not about me promoting my own self-importance but merely using every opportunity I can to engage with all those in the school community to communicate shared goals and plans. I sense that schools have moved away from wanting heads to promote themselves, modern schools are much more collaborative in their approach to management but I believe firmly that I should be approachable to all and that a central part of leadership and communication is listening.
There are, of course, many challenging parts to the role. For me the biggest challenge is time. The role does take up a huge amount of my time and I am lucky in that I have a very understanding family. However, there is a sense of satisfaction to be had in juggling so much at any one time and one learns to prioritise. It is important that you look after yourself if you are to manage others successfully – key to this for me is my weekly run, some very important time for myself. So too though is the opportunity to switch off – hence the time I spend watching my son’s football team or watching Arsenal is every bit as important as the time I spend behind my computer working on school matters. It is important too to take time off during school holidays which is why it is always so frustrating that organisations like the school inspectors send out requests to update information right at the end of term!
To me the best part of the role is to take a project from idea to completion. There are a number of things that I have worked on in recent years which started out just as a good idea but we are now doing as a School and which have been well-received. There is a great deal of satisfaction in this whole process and this is very rewarding.
Finally but most importantly as a Head you have a fantastic opportunity to work with such an impressive group of people. Whether these be your staff or the students or indeed the parents you are surrounded by impressive minds and people who are seeking to achieve great things. As Head you can merely try to harness this enthusiasm and to encourage it. Schools are vibrant places and the chance to do your best to serve the needs of your students is a special one and one in my view to be enjoyed.
I know that the responsibility is large and that the accountability could be daunting but in the end the chance to work with others to create the best possible opportunities and outcomes for our students is a real privilege and long may I continue to enjoy it!

Arrogant or Depressed.

In a recent article I wrote for Independent Schools’ Magazine I was asked to reflect on something written by Mark – the former BBC India veteran reporter. Tully maintains that “success at school is too often ascribed solely to one’s own efforts, and take little account of gifts given at birth or circumstances of family life…if we exaggerate the role of free will in our lives we become either arrogant, attributing all our achievements to our own efforts and abilities, or depressed, attributing all apparent failures to our weaknesses”.

This was my response:

In my view Mark Tully’s viewpoint is a little simplistic. Both Matthew Syed in his recent book Bounce and Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers make reference to the ten thousand hour rule in which they contend to become world-class at anything one has to practise the skills required for 10,000 hours. However, to say that if we attribute such success to our own efforts then we are arrogant is unfair on all those who strive for success and work hard to achieve it. Seeing the fruits of your labours does not make you arrogant. Both of these writers also look at the role of being in the right place at the right time in order to be successful and there is no doubt that luck and circumstance are other important factors.
Schools though play an important part in all this. Schools need to provide the range of opportunities so that each individual student can find those areas in which they can succeed or equally important those areas in which they can find real enjoyment. Yes, students in independent schools are fortunate to have such a range of opportunities but through such activities students learn how to deal with both success and failure and the lessons learnt are very much part of how we develop their characters over the years. Not everyone can be in the First XV or main orchestra but I would contend that those important life skills are taught just as much for those in the 3rd XV, a house team or a training band and so whilst we cannot guarantee success for every student we can ensure that all develop through a variety of different experiences to ensure that they leave us neither arrogant nor depressed. We aim to turn out well-rounded, quietly confident students who are academically strong but also equipped with the life skills to thrive beyond school, you can’t achieve this just by wanting it, nor by being born with these skills but through the care of those who teach them and the range of opportunities on offer we are able to ensure that their inner potential is developed and that they leave us both happy and successful.

Challenging stereotypes of Independent Schools

This post is inspired by a letter I read in this week’s Times Educational Supplement written by an ex-Deputy Head at Nottingham High School for Girls, Jill Berry. In her letter she bemoaned the fact that whenever newspapers talk of independent schools they include images like the one here top left which merely serve to confirm people’s stereotypes of Independent Schools. The reality is often very different and the other image here taken in our own school playground is much closer to reality.

There are many myths about schools such as my own. The first is that many people believe that independent schools are full of rich people, people who can easily afford the high fees. It is true that at the High School we do have some wealthy parents but this is no different to one of the state schools in the wealthier parts of the city. The reality is that many of our parents are making huge sacrifices to pay the school fees, having to live in smaller homes or give up holidays or work exceedingly long hours in order to afford the fees. In addition to this we have nearly 100 boys in the school (about 13% of our total numbers) who receive fee assistance in the form of bursaries. Many of these are supported for over 75% of the fees and there are a number of boys whose parents pay no fees at all as a result of their household income qualifying them for a free place. Thus, to portray a school such as ours as a bastion of privilege is somewhat unfair. We enable genuine social mobility for many of our students who go on to be the first one from their family to attend university. We work hard to promote these bursaries in all areas of the city and welcome all applications irrespective of ability to pay. Yes, these funds are limited and in an ideal world we would have even more bursaries but the end result of this is that we are much more socially diverse than people give us credit for. The majority of our parents are first-time buyers of independent education.
Another myth about indpendent schools like the High School is that we are just academic exam factories, hell-bent on pushing our students through examinations. Again this is far from the truth. It is true that we have a selective entry – in our case on average we have approaching 200 boys applying for 120 places but people tend then to look at our final exam results and jump to one of two conclusions -either that every boy who enters the School is a genius or that we push them too hard. Neither of these is true – we take in boys from a range of abilities, they will generally be achieving at Level 4 in Key Stage Two Sats and in many cases will be pushing towards Level 5. However, there is a range and people should not be deterrred from applying fearing that the standard is so high that it is unachievable for their son. When boys are with us we work with them over the seven years that they attend the School and it is the quality of our teaching and the quality of our support which helps them to achieve such high grades in the end. Yes, our smaller class sizes help too as does the range of opportunities we provide but it is far from an exam factory. We gain fantastic value-added scores when looking at the progression between ability levels on entering the School and later public examination results but this is the result of hard work by staff, pupils and parents alike.
There are those who believe too that the grand buildings and high walls of our schools have behind them a harsh, uncaring environment. Again this is a myth. Our pastoral care system is seen by parents who we survey regularly to be one of the strongest aspects of our provision. Each boy is assigned an individual tutor upon arrival at the School who looks after their welfare until they leave some seven years later. In that time strong relations are built with both student and parents and thus there is a really caring, soft side at the heart of the School. As each tutor set has boys from all years of the School there are good relations between year groups and this means that younger boys have strong role models from the very beginning. Schools like ours are also culturally and racially mixed and reflect the community of the city we are based in. We work hard to contribute to the wider community in all sorts of ways, not because of the public benefit test imposed by government, but because we believe in being part of the city we work in. Thus, boys from the High School have taken students from a local school on a weekend residential for more than 30 years – well before any public benefit tests. We also work with local primary schools in such ventures as our cricket in the community scheme. We are a long way removed from isolation and segregation here.
Many believe that independent schools turn out arrogant snobs at the end. Again this is far from the reality. One of our marketing messages as a school is ‘Ordinary boys achieving extraordinary things’. In this context by ordinary I mean down-t0-earth, grounded lads who do develop a quiet confidence in their time at the School but who are rarely arrogant and indeed their peers would not let them be. We aim to turn out boys who are comfortable in an interview situation but who are also nice people with a good sense of humour and an ability to be great team players in any situation.
Of course, there are many political reasons why people do not like independent schools but when Lord Adonis, a Labour Minister, spoke of the whole education system needing some of the DNA of independent schools I would say that this is characterised in these sorts of terms.: Parents who care deeply about education, lads who are prepared to work hard but who enjoy their work and their many activities, fantastic pastoral care, selection on entry to ensure that there is a pace to the teaching that suits all and schools which are culturally diverse and whisper it quietly even socially diverse. Our parents are not wealthy hedge-fund managers or the landed gentry, indeed they are rather more likely in our case to be the sons of taxi drivers, office staff, nurses, policemen or doctors. They come from all over the city including some of the areas which suffer real deprivation – a bursary in this situation makes a life-changing experience possible. Thus, perhaps when newspapers do next want a photo of typical independent school students they will consider giving us a call and getting one which is rather more representative of the reality of independent education in the 21st century.

Communication Let Me Down

The older of my blog readers will recognise this as a song title from Spandau Ballet. During the course of the summer I have the chance to catch up on all those domestic tasks which I should have done earlier in the year but never quite got round to. This often involves me having to ring places like the bank, the garage, the dentist, a shop or two etc. I often find this a frustrating task with it being so difficult at times to talk to someone. My bank is the worst at this, in one recent call I spent nearly twenty minutes being passed from one automatic option to another and at no stage was it possible to speak to another human being.
This got me thinking about communications with schools. I feel that my own school is pretty good at communicating and in our last parental survey we got a very positive rating in this respect. However, I do feel that schools should make this area a priority. Unlike many other organisations we are only open Monday to Friday during office hours so the majority of people trying to contact us are doing so in their work time and thus inevitably they can find it so frustrating if they are unable to get the answer they want.
A couple of years ago I went to a seminar by a marketing expert who was explaining to schools’ marketing people his own experience of independent schools. He gave a powerful exposition of the frustrations he faced in getting in touch with his child’s school. He said that this was the biggest weakness he had found in education. He explained that all schools talk of the importance of the triangle between parents, child and school yet it was almost impossible in his case to contact the School.
I do believe that our school is better than most in this respect. On looking at a number of school websites I could find very few that do as we do and publish all the email addresses of every member of staff so that people can contact us. Many schools just have the one incoming email address and it can take ages to reach the person they want to contact, some make it impossible to contact individual staff altogether. Of course, there need to be protocols. Teachers are often teaching every period during the course of the day and so staff cannot respond to an email by return. I do sometimes have to remind parents of this and suggest to them that they would prefer the teachers to be concentrating on the class in front of them rather than responding to the email sent twenty minutes earlier.
I am sure that social media can play an important part in our communicating as a school. We now have an ever-increasing number of staff using Twitter to communicate. Thus, if a fixture is cancelled now we will be able to tweet news of this out quickly rather than asking every parent to ring the one answerphone message. I hope that in the future we can explore text-messaging as well via our new database. Similarly we have used a Posterious blog to relate what is happening on a school trip. Our Junior School provided video reports on each days’ activities on a residential trip. Photos of activities can be easily sent ‘as live’ by Twitter. The possibilities are endless. Another part of our strategy in this area is to use blogs to communicate more informally and to try to give the thinking behind what we are doing in some areas or to stimulate discussion and debate.
Clearly there are times when we get it wrong. As headmaster I am the natural point of call for anyone wanting to complain when things have gone wrong. At times we just have to apologise and learn the lesson but I try to set an example myself and respond to all my incoming mail within the same working day whenever possible. I am sure that we can improve even further in these respects and will be looking at our customer service in this respect during the course of this year.
In conclusion, I believe that effective communication should lie at the heart of our relationships with parents and welcome any comments on this post particularly if they contain good ideas for the future!

Learning Something New

A couple of weeks ago I attended my first ever Teachmeet. This is where groups of teachers get together one evening and present short talks of either 2 minutes or 7 minutes about some aspect of good practice which they want to share. At the Nottingham Teachmeet there were over 100 teachers there, including a few from my own school. This was a very inspiring event. What made it so? Firstly, it was its timing, a Friday night. I am sure that most people value their Friday nights at home at the end of a long week. However, all these people had voluntarily come to listen to others speak with a real passion on educational topics and all who were there had open minds. There is no charge for attending a teachmeet, no one is forced to go by their schools so to get so many there on a Friday night was inspiring in itself.
Another inspirational aspect of the evening was that so many were prepared to share their good ideas. This generosity of intellectual capital was fantastic and I picked up many good ideas and was also inspired by the format, short 2 or 7 minute talks encourage people to concentrate on a few big ideas but by providing links via the web you are able to explore in greater depth later.
I was also inspired by meeting so many of those who I follow on Twitter. This network is again very generous with sharing ideas but it was good to meet some of the people I follow and talk about their passions and areas of interest. There is a real danger when you become a head that you stop attending training courses, that you get out of touch with exceptional classroom practice and that you are removed from the craft of teaching. Contact through such means as Twitter and Teachmeets help to give you fresh ideas, help you to refashion your vision for your school and help you to stay fresh.
I have made a conscious decision this year to pursue opportunities such as these. I have been headmaster of the school now for four years so both on a personal and professional level it is a good chance to reflect. I was very fortunate to be given a sabbatical term before I took up my post and that was a superb opportunity to reflect but finding the time to do this is much more difficult now in post.
I have tried to follow this them of ‘learning something new’ in my personal life too. One new hobby I have embarked on this year is geocaching. For this I bought a great iphone App and largely it uses the phones GPS system to guide you to hidden locations where a log and small items of ‘treasure’ can be found. In other words, it uses the world around you for a large game of hide and seek. This has proved to be a great family activity, it gives new purpose to walks old and new and has meant that I have seen the countryside around our house more as well as ensuring that I get out with the family for some healthy exercise.
Another initiative I have been pleased to support is our week of languages which we are to embark on soon. For this staff across all subject disciplines and all parts of the school have been encouraged to sign up to speak to boys in a foreign language during one post-exam week. Again I have been impressed to see colleagues freely giving of their time to brush up on their O Level language skills with this purpose in mind.
‘Learning something new’ has proved to be both very inspiring and refreshing in recent months and I look forward to continuing to find new challenges. I will certainly attend further teachmeets, the positivity of being surrounded by so many passionate practioners is very uplifting. My geocaching too will continue and I have also taken some golf lessons for the first time in ages to help with the work/life balance. Thus, I end this half-term looking forward to new challenges ahead and safe in the knowledge that four years into my headship there are still plenty of things for me to learn, develop and be inspired by.