Case Study: The Impact of HeadsUp4HTs; Without the network, I would not be where I am today.

Back in 2019, I suffered what could only be described as a breakdown. Seventeen years of teaching, 8 of which had been at senior level, I left my job, I left the profession I loved.

As I began to heal from my experience, I considered my options and decided that I would work on a supply basis in a school out of area. The anxiety around me stepping back in to a school was intense and this took several more months before I would pluck up the courage to do this.

I was introduced to the HeadsUp4HTs network a few months into my new role supporting a leadership team. Those that know about Imposter Syndrome will understand the levels of doubt I faced and lack of self-belief. I haven’t spoken of my breakdown here, and I choose at this point not to, however, I would like to get across that without the HeadsUp4HTs network, I would not be where I am today.

I started by attended weekly coffee mornings on a Saturday; this quickly became part of my weekend ritual as I drew comfort and strength from the genuine, caring people who too, had suffered for a profession they loved. Imagine that! People suffering! Meeting James, Kate and others I cannot mention, helped me to realise that values-led leaders are ones who ‘suffer’ the most. We are the leaders that care beyond the school gates, the ones that see children and staff as human, we see beyond outcomes and strive to truly transform the lives of children for a brighter, better future.

As the network grew, the need to support as many leaders as possible was something that all members were keen to support and so Saturday morning coffee increased to Wednesday evening drinks night.

At Headsup4HTS has created a truly wonderful, unique network for headteachers and school leaders. I have been a member since March 2020 and am now proud to be part of the advisory panel. The impact? I am now back in the saddle, a senior leader, now striving for headship. I know that with this circle of people around me, and with the support of the HeadsUp4HTS network, I will be successful in the next few years. I have learned from the experiences of others, have played a supportive role for others and will continue to use this network for guidance, strength and advice. They say headship is a lonely profession. It doesn’t have to be and HeadsUp4HTs has shown that by providing the right space for our leaders, many will stay in the profession and considering the staggering rates of Headteachers leaving, we cannot afford for this to happen. Our children deserve this. Our leaders deserve this too.

Case Study: The Impact of HeadsUp4HTs; I attended the support programme through my LA

Being in such a small school – I am the Leadership Team!  I do not have an SLT around me to make the big decisions or to bounce ideas around with.  I have a fantastic Finance Officer who I share ideas with, however, I am unable to delegate jobs to her regarding the everyday running of the school.  This can be a lonely place to work, even through I have an incredible team around me in school. Teachers and TAs are all amazing!

Because we are a small school, I have to wear many hats throughout the day meaning the bigger jobs that Heads have to do get put on the back burner until after the school day has ended.  It’s not only about the running of the school, everyone want a bit of you….someone once described to me that there is always a wood pecker at your door…you just sit down to do something and someone else comes along with a problem.  There is only one of me, but many members of staff who bring their own concerns/problems/even happy things to share with you as a Head.  I feel very privileged to be in the role as Headteacher at my school and I thrive on supporting everyone from children, staff, governors and parents – however this can be emotionally exhausting at times.

I joined HeadsUp4HTs because I liked the thought of giving myself time to reflect about my role as a Headteacher.  I felt I had lost my way a little with COVID and all the changes that have been made recently and felt I needed to really focus on what I want from being a Headteacher.  I thought it would be nice to meet other Heads who are going through similar things and find out what others are thinking as well as challenging my own thoughts in what I do next.

I participated in the HeadsUp support programme via my Local Authority. Each week after the HeadsUp meetings I felt ready to go again.  Reflected on the week and the weekly questions which refocused me and reminded me why I became a Headteacher.  Reminded myself why I do this job and how rewarding it is – support from the group through the challenges and the realisation you are not the only one going through tricky times.

HeadsUp has helped me to evaluate and refocus on the important parts of this role and given me the time to reflect on my practise and the drive to make changes to move the school forward.  From the groups meetings I have met some wonderful people who I continue to meet with as a facilitator of a Thursday night HeadsUp group.  From this I have met a few Headteachers who are also working in small schools and we have made links to support each other outside of the HeadsUp meetings.

Everyone should take time to reflect daily/weekly to ensure you remain positive and focused on the tasks ahead.  Allow others to challenge your thinking and ideas to support your journey as a Headteacher to be the best you can be.

Case Study: The impact of HeadsUp; ‘HeadsUp4HTs has given me confidence to lead in challenging circumstances.’

Since becoming a HT 4 years ago, the challenges have been immense, from staffing, to buildings, contractors. The operational side of running a school has also dominated my life at times and taken over, at times giving me no time to focus on why I am there, for the children. It is actually very difficult to sum up in a few words the challenges I have had-there are so many, but one of the main ones for me personally has been leading on my own without a strong SLT at times.

I am very lucky that my school has funds to pay for my coaching and supervision-but what about schools in a financial crisis who have a deficit budget? HTs need to know there are places they can go/contact without worrying about how much it will cost.

I felt I was in a serious crisis-I had no idea what to do, who to turn to when I was the only member of the SLT leading the school during the pandemic. I felt very alone and isolated and believed that I was the worst HT in the world doing a rubbish job and I had no idea how to get myself out of the hole I was in.I cried a lot, on my own, in my office and when I got home.

Headsup is amazing! I had a crisis call with James, and I have also had a call with Kate when I was at a low point. I have led a school without a DHT through the pandemic which has challenged me-Headsup has given me confidence to lead in challenging circumstances. I attend the Saturday morning meetings and now believe I have an amazing network of people who will support me if needed. I don’t feel as alone. I have a HT “buddy” who I speak to regularly and we support each other and celebrate each others achievements.

I have somewhere to go if needed. There is always someone to listen, talk, understand. It has made me realise that I am doing a great job, I do know what I am doing, I am an authentic leader, I lead with confidence and compassion and that all I do is for the benefit of the children. I also feel I have supported others in Headsup too, making me realise that I do know my stuff! I know it is OK to cry too and to say if I’m not having a good week.

Headship is lonely. Headship is hard. It drains you, consumes you and at times makes you feel like there must be something else that I can do. BUT, it is the best job in the world-however if HTs don’t get the support they need then they will go under. There will be a shortage in leaders moving forward due to the immense pressures and external accountability that HTs face on a daily basis. HTs need support and it should be available for all HTs.

The last year has made me reflect a lot-no Y6 SATS, no EYFS baseline tests, no phonic screening, no KS1 SATS, no multiplication checks- great! I have had time to think about what matters and run a school successfully through a global pandemic. I am proud of my role and would love another year of zero accountability-who wants to test a 4 year old in September?

Because of HeadsUp4HTs, I have the strength to try things a bit differently, to go with what I feel is right for my school, children and community as we move forward.

Case Study: The impact of HeadsUp4HTs; I am supported and challenged, but never judged.

I am currently the Acting Headteacher of a one form entry village school that serves 180+ pupils in Buckinghamshire, on the edge of Slough and Maidenhead. This primary school is now part of a Multi Academy Trust (2017) as it was placed in special measures in 2016. I joined the school in 2018 as part of the senior leadership team. It is awaiting its first Ofsted inspection as a new entity. The school has had changes in leadership in the last four years which has affected the stability this primary school requires.

I started my current leadership position in September, at the start of a new academic year already affected by the pandemic and lockdown. Although the Trustees offered some support, it was a difficult landscape to meander, let alone lead. Every single member of the school community had been impacted by Covid, and it was my role to ascertain what was required to support every pupil, family, and staff. The amount of and the lack of guidance from the DfE were both challenging as I had to make decisions, not just based on limited guidance, but in the best interest of the community I served.

The lack of support from the DfE for Headteachers such as myself during the pandemic has been astonishing. The opposite seemed to be true – Schools and Headteachers were threatened with the Ofsted card if parents felt their children have not been supported through remote learning. The lack of understanding of what and how schools were operating and the hardships many communities were facing was disappointing. The last-minute guidance and closures of schools, the lack of devices for our pupils, usually the most disadvantaged ones, the hardships faced by many families from ill health, unemployment and isolation were all issues that schools had to deal with. School leaders, such as I, offer our aid willingly, but when we feel we are not being consulted, listened to and supported well from central government, the effect is damaging not only for the job that we do, but also for our wellbeing. This ultimately may negatively impact on the well being of our staff and pupils.

There is also the narrative of a standardised curriculum and provision recommended for all schools irrespective of demographic and context – a one size fits all, traditional model of, and for education which seems at odds with a modern world that demands curiosity and creativity. I find this unsettling, and this has become a major challenge for many Headteachers and leaders who know that this is not the best model for their school or community they serve. Igrapple with this challenge.

Many Headteachers feel that they operate in silos or in isolation. There are not enough hours in the day to dedicate time for reflection and personal nourishment. The pandemic has certainly not helped as Headteachers are on guard all day every day, thinking about the next burst bubble, or children who have faced even more trauma due to the impact of Covid. There is little respite and what we require are safe spaces to explore our personal and collective experiences. We also require autonomy to make choices and decisions that benefit our community. We need to know that we are trusted and supported in our decision making. I know of no Headteacher who does not feel accountable for the safety, and progress of their community. I also know that there must be a better way of holding schools and leaders to account for the public trust that they hold. I think the condition is right for the DfE to consider better ways to support all Headteachers, no matter how experienced they are.

I wanted to listen and learn from leaders and Headteachers across the country. I wanted to understand what the landscape of education is and what it might be if we had a better national vision for education.

The knowledge that I am not alone. I am supported and challenged, but never judged. It is being in the same room with leaders who hold the belief that our roles empower lives beyond the walls of our school. The events are inspiring and the space is a safe space to air your views and debate with respect. It is a place where you can remove your leadership mask for a while and share the emotional journey that is leadership. Leaders hioold the stories of their communities and some of those stories are peppered with trauma and sadness – HeadsUp is a place you can share these surrounded with other leaders that understand.

It has enabled me to be a stronger leader, one who is more reflective, who now knows she will always have a listening ear, and support from other committed and dedicated leaders. I like the predictability of knowing they will always be there. There is no judgment, only care, nurture and support.

Headteachers carry the ‘tomorrows’ in their hands every day. They nurture pupils, staff, and families to enable them to succeed. Who nurtures the Headteachers and show them compassion? Surely it is in the best interest of this system to support all Headteachers in the role that they play. This will require dedicated time, training, and funding. There are many routes to headship but not many ways to sustain it when you get that Headship. It cannot be down to individual schools, Trusts, and Local authorities for this sustenance as this will be inconsistent.

It is in all our best interest to do the right thing in education. One of the rare, positive outcomes of the pandemic, is the networking that has happened. Headteachers and leaders have had to source out organisations such as HeadsUp for support and the connection has been empowering. There is a belief that together, we can build a better future for all our children. However, we cannot do this is silos, without autonomy and transparency, and without the proper support. I really believe this is possible because it is already happening without the system. It would be so much better if this could also happen within the system.

Case Study: The Impact of HeadsUp4HTs; I have been inspired!

As a former headteacher who is still bereft at leaving a position that was not just a job, but a huge part of who I was, and still am, I cannot speak highly enough of Headsup4HTs. If I had met them earlier and been able to access their range of services, my story would have been different, but they have been instrumental in ensuring I am still working in the education sector at all.

I left my role as a headteacher in a MAT as a result of a political and financial situation that arose, whereby it was not possible for me to continue as a leader in my school. The circumstances by which I was encouraged to leave a school I had led successfully within and LA, stand -alone and a MAT system in excess of five years were distressing. This led to personal illness and professional crisis and my leaving a profession that I was deeply committed to and had been highly successful at, not just in my own school but as a speaker, coach and facilitator and in supporting other schools.

If Headsup’s objective wellbeing support and coaching, as well as external, safe peer support systems had been available to me at the time, I can only reflect on and speculate the possibility I may have felt well-supported to seek another headship or school leadership position in line with my values and vision before I reached this point, retained my self-esteem and been able to work within the system I care so much about. As it is, I found James and Headsup through a mutual friend at a point in my life where I had lost hope, confidence in the system, trust in leadership and where I couldn't even find a reason to keep going as a human. Headsup 4 Hts enabled me to seek robust advice, establish a sense of identity and start to see the possibility of a future where I could still make a difference to children's education and in supporting educators.

I accessed crisis support and coaching support before I could gain the confidence to join bi-weekly group support sessions. The networks that have ensued as a result of this, and the inspirational stories, support and encouragement have been personally instrumental in my survival, as well as enabling developments in a professional capacity. In addition to this, the Hopes 4 Ed sessions have really enabled me to enter into meaningful dialogue and work, as well as empowering me to develop my own programmes and initiatives. I have been inspired to undertake further training and to explore wider possibilities for using my expertise across much wider networks that I would not otherwise have anticipated.

Currently, with the diversity of structures for school leadership and the differences in governance structures, I see a problematic means of successfully supporting and nurturing leaders within environments that can range from high stakes accountability to looser structures where heads may feel alone in their journey. Wherever they work, the need for constructive and supportive peer support free from judgement or competition is vital.

In addition to this, a safe and accessible route to considering and discussing vulnerabilities and sharing confidential issues with experienced coaches and mentors, free from fear of accountably is also crucial.

Often the limitations of budget, or the freedom to seek support outside of a Trust may be problematic, or even just finding space and tune may pose a challenge. In some scenarios, leaders may be discouraged from networking wider than their immediate circle, or have limited CPD offers under financial or system controls.

I can see the opportunities for Headsup4HTs in developing a fair and equitable access to robust support, informed and relevant coaching and mentoring, values-lead leadership development irrespective of Headteachers’ own situations. Within the UK system, we currently have Headteachers leading in a range of management systems: privately funded schools, it maintained, diocesan or religious control, academies, federations trusts. There is no synthesised, cohesive and objective personalised support for their wellbeing.

Currently it is largely left to choice, chance, or expected that a school leader is invincible, or should conform to limited centrally provided sessions within a MAT or LA HR system, or support from a line. support manager where a Head may feel unable to admit vulnerabilities, for fear of accountability measures, or fear of explosure to competitors.

From my own personal experience, I understand how a head may feel unable to share vulnerabilities to someone within their own accountability framework, or being unable to afford private coaching. Heads up 4Hts provides a safe environment irrespective of context.

I can see a relevance to developing this service across all areas of Headship., but also for wider leadership wellbeing support across school roles. There is a potential to create levels of support and professional development to empower and develop leaders at all levels beyond constraints of specific governance systems, truly embedding ethical leadership at all levels.

Is compliance a disadvantage in leadership?

Is compliance a disadvantage in leadership?


After some years of being a teacher I had concluded that compliance was a learning disability. One size does not fit all and yet if we accept without question what we are told to learn, to a standard we are directed to achieve and accept the way we are instructed to learn then we are going to be limited in our achievements. This can become a critical situation if the approach we are subjected to does not suit our learning needs. By being compliant we will be expected to conform,and in many situations, we will be subject to regulation if we don’t.

In June 2016 I had the opportunity to ask Sir Ken Robinson at the Festival of Education if compliance was a learning disability. To which he replied ‘No, but it is certainly a disadvantage’. Sir Ken is known for championing creativity in education and in understanding the need to set learning in a much wider context than just reaching a target or building subject knowledge. Creativity is very much about doing things differently, about solving problems, about making mistakes, and learning from them. Being creative is important, perhaps even critical to learning and therefore to teaching.

Can we be creative if we are compliant, will we ever challenge what we are told, will we ever offer an alternative view or strategy, will we ever change anything if we adopt a compliant approach or will we just give others authority over us?

This is a contentious question but what has it got to do with teaching and leadership, Ofsted, the role of a headteacher? First all teachers are learners, and in my view if we stop being learners then we give up the right to be teachers. Second all teachers are leaders, they lead the learning of their pupils and they lead their classes, and they can lead schools. I would go further and say teachers also have a part to play in leading their wider community for they should understand and reflect the needs of the community through what they do in schools.

Where does the true challenge for leadership in our schools lieand should leaders be less compliant?

In HeadsUp4HT’s #8 James Pope said  ‘We have to seize our profession back, it’s ours’. This is a sentiment many teachers and headteachers feel and reflects a situation where we have given authority for what we do to others. Whether this was due to being too compliant or not is debatable, I certainly think it is. It is certainly due to not being creative enough in how we have responded to the challenges we face as a profession. Within this article I will show you the mechanism you can adopt for seizing back our profession but first the challenges.

I have a theory about those who become teachers, and it may make you think.

We are motivated to find environments in which we feel safe or comfortable, Maslow recognised this as a basic need. Those that are successful in school are often the compliant learners, we can recognise these easily at report time for it is easy to come up with some suitable comment about continuing to work hard and offer praise for the effort they make. Successful learners tend to continue to study higher level qualifications, and many are guided towards university. In seeking out a career we will tend to find our safe environment once again and for some this is back into the education environment as teachers. The outcome of this process is that many compliant learners become compliant teachers. Not all teachers are compliant and not all successful learners are compliant, but I hope you get the idea behind this theory. The theory predicts that leaders in schools are therefore likely to be compliant by nature and so when instructed rather than evaluating the instruction against a need, capacity, or calculating the value they will tend to execute the instruction.

What happens to those who desire autonomy, the freedom to be creative and be a little less compliant? Well, if teacher recruitment and retention is anything to go by they leave the profession.

Compliance works best as a tool to manage or lead people when there are high risk stakes for not complying and any member of a school leadership team will tell you what those stakes are. In school leadership if you want to maintain a career it is better to be risk averse.  Being risk averse often means limiting how creative we are in circumnavigating those things we do not want to do, we weigh one thing up against the other, the risk versus the benefits. The best way to take control of any situation is to be a little less compliant, not obstreperous or belligerent but in a passive and creative manner.

Interestingly mavericks, those that do their own thing are often touted as ideal leaders but the caveat by those in control is so long as they do not step too far out of line. So what can be done about it, how can we take back our profession? The answer is to get creative!

As a design and technology teacher it is not surprising that I see learning as a problem-solving activity and as I also see teachers as both learners and leaders that I view leadership in the same way. A design approach to leadership gives us far more options when it comes to doing the right thing for our pupils, it allows us to get creative.

A simple design model (Figure 1) is not linear and includes several starting or dropping off points making it ideal for monitoring, improving, or changing what we do in schools and for providing evidence, allocating resources and assessing success. Importantly such a model encourages reflection and communication allowing us to learn from both the strategies we adopt and the outcomes we achieve.


Figure 1


My central tenet as a leader is ‘Do no harm’ and putting this at the heart of what we do informs the primary function of a design model approach to leadership. If what we are being asked builds effective learning relationships then do it, if not then get creative is my advice! In my definition of the learning relationship the pupil and teacher are equally important and happy teachers means happy pupils. You can explore more about learning relationships and pupil teacher responsibility in ‘If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them, Building effective learning relationships’, from which the both the figures 1 & 2 used here are taken.


So, in leadership terms what does being creative look like?

Figure 2

Combining the model in figure 2 with a design approach it is easier to actively assess capacity for development or changeas resource analysis is part of the leadership filtering process. Anyone who has been in education for the last 30 years willknow how much change there has been and continues to be and the impact that has on the capacity of their staff to take on anything new. Without the capacity for change, when under stress, we will revert back to learnt and familiar practices as they require less effort to sustain. This makes change difficult if not impossible to embed in an organisation, especially one that is already stressed.

Figure 2 describes my preferred model of a leadership role in schools, placing it between outside influences and the learning relationship providing the ideal opportunities to provide a creative response. This model was developed to show the important role of leadership in schools and confront compliant leadership behaviour in a constructive and creative manner.  After exploring any directed policy or new initiative through a design-based approach one of five leadership actions can be determined in response, effectively filtering out those that will not support or benefit the learning relationship. David Hughes has written an excellent book on school culture and creative capacity and is well worth a read.

I do not underestimate the responsibility of these actions or the risks they impose. I have found that any reasoned response with accompanying evidence is a good basis for taking action and difficult to argue against. It also forms an asset when communicating the ‘why’ to those you lead helping in building trust, a key component of leadership.

I have been prompted to share this approach after listening to HeadsUp4HT’s number 8 as it deals with many of the issues and concerns raised in that episode and provides a framework for responding to the challenge James set at the start, that of seizing back our profession. Remember by being compliant we give others authority over us, by challenging what we are asked to do in schools we are establishing a feedback system that can bring about the changes we want to see by providing evidence. Evidence in the form of better pupil/teacher relationships, a more harmonious school environment, and ultimately what we all desire a better education system fit for purpose.

I’ll leave you with some takeaways from session eight and from other discussions and events I have been involved in recently.


Schools are the agents for overcoming inequalities and this requires teachers who focus on learning relationships.
The mission of the leadership of schools is to protect and nurture learning relationships between pupils and teachers above all else.
Compliance is a disadvantage in achieving change
Cooperation results in compromise
Collaboration produces change
Competition leads to castles
Creativity can overcome everything.


References and further reading:

Hewitson, K (2021) If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them. Building effective learning relationships.  St Albans: Critical Publishing.

Hughes, D (2019) Future proof your school steering culture, driving school improvement, developing excellence. St Albans: Critical Publishing.

Kell, E (2018) How to Survive in Teaching without Imploding, Exploding or Walking Away. London:Bloomsbury.


Kevin Hewitson

What happens to those who unexpectedly come out of their jobs? Is there life beyond Headship?

What happens to those who unexpectedly come out of their jobs? Is there life beyond headship? If so, how to find it? Former headteacher Alex Atherton of Heads Up seeks the answers.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that careers do not always work out as planned. On occasion, this can result in a headteacher moving on from their post. There is a perception that once someone has left a headship in difficult circumstances there is no way back. On the evidence of the many conversations I have had in recent months, the truth is very different. The good news is that in nearly every case there is a positive outcome. This narrative needs to be articulated more often.

Heads Up @HeadsUp4HTs is a free support service set up by former headteacher James Pope. It is led by headteachers for the benefit of their peers. Initially the remit was to support those in crisis, particularly colleagues either in the process of leaving or had recently moved on with no idea of what might come next. Over time this has extended to those who can see the end coming in the near future, are wrestling with their conscience about whether to stay or go or just need someone to listen. After engaging with Heads Up some of those headteachers went on to leave their posts, but usually of their own volition and feeling they had made a positive choice. As one Head who made contact put it, “if you want to leave it will be for a reason; listen to yourself.” Others stayed in post with a clearer sense of what they really wanted and turned a corner.

There is an overwhelming consensus amongst those who have experienced difficult circumstances that it is wise to take some time out if at all possible. For some it was a couple of months, for others a year. Few stuck to their original plan and found their instincts guiding them. Almost all realised that their final months in post had taken more out of them than they thought. During this time one person realised that he had ‘done too much bargaining’ with himself in his previous post and ‘compromised’ on things he shouldn’t have. This was not obvious to him at the time.

Some applied for headship posts too soon and without being in the right frame of mind. It was only at interview, the realisation came that they had not invested enough in their recovery. Others found a hybrid position, where the opportunity arose to work on a part-time or interim basis at an equivalent level to their previous post. ‘Dipping a toe back in’ was a theme and commonly led to a surge in confidence. Sometimes this led to a realisation about what they definitely wanted to do, and sometimes the opposite, but all valued the experience.

For everyone came an opportunity to reassess their lives and their health and see what they really wanted for the years ahead. After years of working with multi-agency teams, plenty found it second nature to organise a team around themselves of family, friends and specialists such as coaches, counsellors and mentors. As another put it ‘bouncing back requires resources’, particularly if what was described by many as a ‘burning sense of injustice’ could still flicker from time to time. One commented that, ‘you aren’t the best person to comment on your own well-being.’ The most difficult moments were often not those anticipated in advance. For some it can ‘take longer to process the nature of the departure more than leaving itself’, particularly ‘when everyone else goes back for the next term and you don’t.’

Some concluded that they wanted to get back into headship, and others opted for a change of tack. For the former group the much feared reputational damage was not the issue they had imagined (people know less about your story than you think), even when a simple internet search showed the details. There are those who found themselves waiting for a job longer than they might have expected and others, to their surprise, got a job they really wanted at their first attempt. The kudos of having once been chosen to run a school, despite other circumstances, outweighed more recent events, particularly, when they could describe their positive impact and ‘own their truth.’ Those who held out against ‘downgrading yourself in terms of your own expectations’, including an inaccurate assumption that they would have to take a step backwards to move forward, reaped the rewards in the end.

For those who wanted to look elsewhere the possibilities turned out to be broader than anticipated. The modern educational landscape offers more in terms of career opportunities than was the case ten years ago. Networks and contacts came through as vital time and again, emphasising the importance of building them on the way up. Some gained permanent work as a result, others a growing range of assignments. Those whose career had all been in one organisation found it could be more difficult to get going, but never impossible in the end. Some found their ‘capacity to work and absorb pressure’ was a significant asset in other settings. A high proportion of their knowledge and skills was also transferable beyond a headteacher’s desk.

Heads Up’s services are now growing to a broader agenda that is now pro-active as well as reactive. They provide nation and local authority intentional support which is vital to those both in and coming out of, and going into headship. It is an established network that enables heads to sustain each other in the job for longer, and where coaching and professional development are on offer. It also encourages heads to be ‘positive disrupters’ in the education system and think beyond how they lead and look beyond a narrow range of accountability measures. Having peers to talk to beyond sector, local authority or MAT boundaries can make all the difference.

Written by Alex Atherton @alexatherton100 a former Headteacher and HeadsUp Advisory Member who has interviewed a number Headteachers for this piece.

James Pope (@popejames) leads Heads Up alongside Kate Smith @MrsKatieSmith. Both are former headteachers. 

‘ I was impressed by how honest and vulnerable people were – that can only come from a place of deep trust.’ Reflections on #Hopes4Ed No. 8

I joined Twitter in December 2019 and the sole purpose of me joining was to see what sort of opportunities and experienceswere available for primary school children – like all schools, we want our children to have the most rounded, interesting education possible and a large part of my leadership role is to make that happen. Safe to say, that isn’t how my Twitter planworked out.

Before I start, please permit me a bit of self-indulgent talk about me so you have some background of where I am coming from.

I did my GTP year at my school, then I did my NQT year at the same school and have since taught in this same school for almost 20 years now. In that time, the school has changed name once, joined a MAT and I’ve personally changed buildings twice. I’ve seen four heads and am about to see in a fifth after Easter. The school has grown from 420 N-o-R to almost 1000. Everything at school changes constantly and it never feels old or stale yet the place offers a strange sense of security and stability. Staff tend to come and stay. Some of us old-timers (partially) joke that we are now too‘institutionalised’ to leave. For all the great things and forward thinking that happens in my school, I am aware that there are some negative effects of staying put in the same school for so long and perhaps the biggest one is my exposure to other settings has been curtailed. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has sprung to mind on the odd occasion over the years.

I admire people who have ambition and a long-term plan for career development but I am not one of them. I am ambitious for our children but my own sense of life contentment and satisfaction has meant that I don’t tend to have much of a long term plan. That is both a blessing and a curse.

I have never been one to chase formal power or prestige or ‘the next step’. That said, I do enjoy having influence and seem to attract both naturally. I have always felt like I wasmaking a meaningful and purposeful difference so when people talk about their ‘next chapter’, I nod politely but don’t really have any deep understanding of what they mean. The question ‘where do you see your self in 3/ 5/ 10-years time?’ has always left me cold.

The idea of headship never really occurred to me, although for many years different people have said words to the effect of ‘you’d make a great head’. I recognised it on an intellectual and rational level but not an emotional level. There has always seemed to be an imperceptible, impenetrable side to headship, an ‘otherness’ that I couldn’t articulate and that I didn’t recognise in myself – I am not saying it is rational, but it is how I felt and still feel to an extent. I think a large part of that is that, as much as I respected and admired all the heads I have worked under, I didn’t recognise myself in them. The two heads that I have worked for (for a significant period of time) were both consummate diplomats and both seemed to have an ‘inner steel core’ that eluded me. Ergo, I wasn’t head material. Not that that bothered me – I didn’t have aspirationsto be a head any way. Recently, I have become more aware that this is largely all perception and I know that people who don’t know me well tend to find me ‘intimidating and scary’ at first. I have no idea why – it is an aspect of my self-obliviousness that I have never understood. But if others think it about me and I think it about others, perhaps it is all a load of smoke and mirrors.

Another thing that made me (possibly, errantly) think I was not headship material is that I have never been able to get overly excited about data. Due to a personal hobby and using it in school, I am fully conversant in how to interpret data and use it for a variety of purposes but I don’t think weighing theprobverbial pig regularly actually helps to fatten it. If I believed that the people with the highest exam results achieved the most success in life, I would be happy to roll in data. However, whilst being able to read, write and do maths is of the highest importance, I have never been able to convince myself that once a certain functional standard is achieved, it doesn’t serve much purpose other than for people who want it for specific purposes eg a particular career. Maths is actually my favourite subject to teach but, at primary level, I do think a good liberal arts education forms the structure on which to hang academic learning particularly when making connections between different topics and disciplines. I have chosen to work in an inner-city school and I believe once those ‘wider opportunities’ are in place, the rest will come in due course.

It is my belief that Ofsted and SATs, in particular, disadvantage children already suffering from disadvantage even more. The reason for this is that in order to keep Ofsted happy, one’s SATs results must be good. In order to do that, schools are put under enormous pressure to narrow the curriculum for those who would most benefit from the widest curriculum. If Ofsted has to happen, it would be enlighteningto have Ofsted inspections without the inspectors having access to the data at first – this would stop the perceptions of the inspectors being anchored to the data. I realise this can’t happen as school data is currently ubiquitous.

I think one of the things that bothers me most is the notion that disadvantage gaps can be closed solely through good teaching. If that were the case, why do those parents who value education spend so much time talking and reading to their children, taking them to places and paying for music/ sport/ arts/ foreign language tuition? And why do children and young people who are from low socio and economic backgrounds who do get good grades tend not to progress through the ranks of their chosen paths? There is getting your foot in the door and there is staying put and getting ahead.Whilst getting great grades is undoubtedly a good start, it is by no means the whole story when tackling disadvantage.


Then there are SATs: with all the research on brain development and gender differences, why does the educationsystem persist in forcing square pegs into round holes by making all children at the age of ten or eleven pass an exam that most adults would struggle with. If it comes across that I am anti-academia, let me make it clear that I am most certainly not. I do, however believe that learning takes place went the student is ready, not when the teacher decides it. I agree with children having high academic standards but I have never been able to understand the rush to get all children past the post at an arbitrary age. The high-stakes nature of SATs isn’t aligned with doing the right thing for children. Schools are disincentivised to do the right thing by their children. The nature of the current education system forces the schools with the most socio-economic issues to resolve to turn to short-term and/ or limiting solutions. Everyone knows the story about if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will never know its true ability. But the system makes schools do it anyway. Stanley Milgram’s infamous electric shock experiments spring to mind.

I have been lucky that my MAT and current head harbour some of these thoughts although they are constrained by the degree to which they can freely express it. My head has also allowed me to devote a large part of my leadership role to ‘evening up the playing field’ as best we can. It doesn’t necessarily translate straight into end of KS2 SATs results but it is our belief that it is the right thing for our children and will gush dividends for them in the long term.

Anyway, since March 2020, things have changed for me in a way I didn’t expect. I suddenly find myself thinking that if I don’t apply for headship, I am not doing only myself a disservice. I have seen the impact of our work during the pandemic and suddenly I have this new and strange feeling that I want more and to do more and to be more. I don’t necessarily want to be a head but I do want to make a difference at a wider, more strategic level and as far as I can see, the vehicle for that is headship. I am also a huge wimp and frankly quite scared to step out of my comfort zone. What am I afraid of? I don’t actually know – I think it is my own mind and my incredible imagination!


Since last March, I have found myself lurking in the world of Edutwitter and contributing the odd comment here and there. I’ve also found that I am attending more and more online workshops on areas of interest: social justice, Pupil Premium and the odd leadership course. Most of them are large gatherings or livestreams where one can watch on quietly. Sowhen the HeadsUp4HT #8 edition flashed up on my screen, I thought that I would sign up. I recognised Christalla Jamil’s name and the focus sounded interesting. It’d be my chance to find out what proper heads thought about the future of education and Ofsted without having to be diplomatic and ‘toeing the party line’.

My school uses MS Teams and for some reason, Zoom meetings are blocked on my work laptop so I log onto Zoommeetings on my phone. Like I said earlier, most of the gatherings I go to are either large affairs or there is the option to type your name into the Zoom box so the host can decide whether to let you into the meeting or not. Because of this, I don’t think it is noticeable if my phone falls over or I haven’t put a bra on and consequently, I haven’t even got around to changing my Zoom name from the default, which is the model of my phone.

So you can imagine my surprise when I slipped into the meeting earlier this week and noticed it was a very intimate gathering. Not only that but I (and my Honor Lite phone) were personally acknowledged by the host, Kate. There was nothing more that Kate or her co-host, James, could have done to be more welcoming and included everyone. Through my school, I am associated with @NottinghamCitz and they have a saying, “If you aren’t at the table, you are probably on the menu.” This was one of the few meetings that I have seen that people were genuinely listening to understand.

Another thing: many of the heads thought along the same lines as me. I found my self nodding along for pretty much the entire 90-minute session and was also impressed by how the talk was solution-focussed and psychologically safe. I was impressed by how honest and vulnerable people were – that can only come from a place of deep trust. I found myself thinking that perhaps there is a place in headship for people like me after all. When Kate, in particular, spoke – I felt like she crystallised all my deeply held beliefs. And she is a head, so…….

My partner says that making a stand on one’s own is like giving a finger – it can be snapped off easily. When like-minded people band together, a fist is formed and that is an altogether more powerful agent for change. For legal reasons, I must state that this is not a call for violence but a call for collective action!

Will I be going to another event? You bet! Perhaps, just maybe, there is a place in headship for people like me after all.