OFSTED Experiences: Part of her story is mine too

The tragic death of a much beloved headteacher, Ruth Perry, brought it all back. I did not expect to be so triggered by the news of her experience and had thought that I was doing fine after the devastation of my own school’s Ofsted inspection. Little did I know that the trauma buried deep inside came hurtling back, leaving me feeling broken, upset, angry and hugely resentful. As human leaders, we bury our deep emotions as we place the well-being of others over ourselves. However, I cannot be silent through the tears that keep on coming – the dam has been broken, there is no going back. This is my story of how the inspection affected me, and still does today.

My school was inspected the day after October half-term 2021. I remember when half term arrived, I thanked an exhausted and emotional staff force in the staff room for their hard work and commitment to children and colleagues as this was the most difficult term yet, post-lockdown. The magnitude of what we had to do, what we were doing, the high absence rates amongst pupils and staff had placed considerable pressure on a one form entry primary school. And yet, through the seven weeks ofthe first half term of the new academic year, we somehow managed to survive, teach well, and carry on with curriculum development which was halted over the period of lockdown and disruptions. My mantra had always been, we do what is best for the children, never for Ofsted! During this period of pressure and turmoil, I supported several teachers and staff facing huge personal issues and upheavals in their lives, These circumstances are important to note as it gives context to a school trying its best to serve our community.

When I received the call, I remember telling the staff, ‘We’ve got this. Ofsted will see the hard work we have done, and the efforts we have placed to put our children first and foremost in what we do’. There was considerable anxiety and I remember telling staff to go home, there is nothing more to be done. Just teach as you teach every day.

I was naïve. I recall now that trusted members of my leadership team were suspicious of the HMI and the additional inspector as the way they were questioned, led them to believe that we have already been judged – the inspectors were looking for evidence to back the case for the ultimate label.

It is only when I read Caversham Primary’s Ofsted report that I knew our school had been judged through a similar lens. Safeguarding was judged ineffective, and I am unable to say more on this to protect the children I still serve. I will say that the ‘lack of’ evidence is contentious, as these ‘issues’ were rectified immediately. As I repeatedly said to the inspectors, nothing we do as a school was to deliberately make any child unsafe. In fact, it has always been the opposite, and Ofsted confirmed this in its own report – “This means that pupils are potentially at risk ormay not get the help and support they need.” In feedback sessions with me, and members of the governing board, the inspectors confirmed that all children were safe. They confirmed that we had taken the right steps in safeguarding children, it is the paperwork that was not obvious, and the inexperience of some governors in helping to create an effective culture of safeguarding. I wish at this point to ask readers to remember the context and remember the timing of this inspection.

Our school was judged inadequate in early November of 2021 because safeguarding was judged ineffective; the report was not published until February of 2022. There was nothing I could say or do to change this. If you read our initial inspection report, there were many, many things we were doing well as we were judged Good in Behaviour and Attitude, and also Personal Development. These matter, but also did not matter. The great Ofsted conundrum! Prioritising pupil, staff and family mental health did not seem to matter. High absence rates due to Covid or the effect of Covid did not seem to matter. Covid was not taken into consideration at all even though it was less than a year after lockdown was lifted. I could tell you about how our 3 weakest readers were so anxious reading in front of the inspector and could not ‘perform’ so guess what that did to how Reading was judged?

Do not get me wrong. If you used the Ofsted framework, in that inspection, our school was not Outstanding, maybe not even Good. However, we are not, and we never were, inadequate.

I remember breaking down in front of both female inspectors. I remember how devastated and emotional I was. I challenged them to help me understand how I can carry on with leadership, and yes, I do take it personally, being judged inadequate. I asked them to understand how a humane organisation could treat people and communities this way. I asked them to reflect how they would feel, and act, as both inspectors were former headteachers, and had ‘sat’ in my chair. I asked them to help me understand how, when my heart and soul had been given to this role, when I sleep, breathe, and live this job at the expense of my family, and well-being, I could carry on. I remember that although I thought they heard, they did not listen. Both said that ‘I now had the mandate to turn the school around’. It is only now that I can see that I do not require their mandate at all – I have always served my school community, I have always had the best interest of staff and pupils at heart, I have always pursued academic excellence but not at the expense of well-being. Our school priorities are timely and well planned, ensuring that staff are supported to teach, and lead subjects well.

I had to be silent on our outcome for seven weeks, through Christmas and New Year. I had to reassure a staff team who knew something was up, and yet I could not speak of what had happened. I had to reassure parents that all was ok, and that the report would be communicated to them when published. I had to speak to potential parents who wanted to know if we had been inspected recently.

When I read Ruth’s story, it brought it all crashing back. The sleepless nights, the crying endlessly at home with my husband picking me up each time I said I cannot do this anymore. My children trying their best to support an unhappy mother who looked lost. The feeling of being a failure and, of failing. The over thinking of the impact of this outcome – what would our parents say and do? How are we ever going to come out of this as a small school dependent on pupil numbers to survive?

I remember Bonfire Night 2021, a school event attended by hundreds of parents, children, and members of the community where I had to make a speech, knowing the judgement, but unable to say anything. I remember feeling devastated and proud at the same time as I peered at a lit-up playground at what we had truly achieved during, and after the pandemic. Our school kept a community safe, cared for, and alive. Our ethos of inclusion, courage, service, and collaboration saw us through a time like no other. I have been told that my words that night were inspirational and hopeful. This is the one thing I do not remember. I just remember feeling totally exhausted, drained and broken and thinking, there is no way back. I felt alone.

Of course, writing this today means that I did ok. I am still here, just! Six working months later, Ofsted came back and turned a monitoring inspection into a full inspection. Oh, we are now an RI school don’t you know? I suppose I should be grateful, and yet I am actually resentful. Nothing much has changed since the last, devastating grading. I had to work harder to ensure the staff were supported mentally, emotionally, and physically. I had to work harder at pre-empting difficult conversations with parents and consider carefully how we can increase pupil numbers after the inspection. I had to work harder when some parents use the judgement to unfairly (in my opinion) criticise the school for any perceived errors or complain about things.

What has changed is how cynical I have become. My heart has been broken, and I am unsure how to mend it. I have had thoughts of leaving headship, in fact, leaving the sector as I observe injustice in the way education serves all our children, and our staff who work tirelessly every single day. There is too much politics, division, and unhealthy competition, with inspections being part of the battleground. I have battled and argued and reached out to people in rather high places to be listened to. Some listened, some helped in ways they will never know, and to these people, who are still here for me today, my deep gratitude for their ongoing support. I do not have to imagine Ruth’s experience of Ofsted as I believe it was also mine. However, I can only imagine what the impact of the inspection did to her, on top of all the other pressures that life, the job, and work can bring.

Part of her story is mine too. This cannot be the legacy we leave behind. The way schools are inspected and ‘labelled’ must change immediately. If Ofsted is about improving schools, then truly help leaders improve their schools by highlighting to the school, the results of their audit, and allowing schools to rapidly improve. Do not leave broken leaders behind when you leave on the second day, without turning back. Do not deny us a voice to raise our concerns appropriately. Be the humane organisation that education requires, so that schools, leaders, and communities can continually improve together, rather than leaving a trail of devastation without ever looking back. There must never be another tragedy like the life and death of RuthPerry, and countless others. Be the tool for successful school leadership, and not the sword that maims, injure, or worse, destroys.

OFSTED Experiences: Impact upon SLT can’t be underestimated

Ofsted, an acronym that will strike fear into even the most hardened of staff. We knew the call was coming, like so many other schools, it had been coming for over two years and casting our eyes towards the impending visit was the focus of many, many SLT discussions. We gathered as much information as we could about what the visit would look like and what would happen over the two days. We prepared and then prepared some more. Then one of our schools within our small trust received the call within the first few weeks of the Autumn term. We listened and reflected upon their experience and threw in a touch more preparation for good measure. The visit crept ever closer. A month or so later and another school in our trust received the call. Closer still it came. Then, at the beginning of November, it was our turn. This is our experience.

I count myself very lucky to be the deputy headteacher of a large, two form entry primary school in the North-West of England. Our school is a diverse community school with provision from 3-11. We serve a disadvantaged area and have 50% pupil premium. Our EAL numbers are similar, with over 30 languages spoken by our school population. I have been at the school for 4 years and was successfully promoted to DHT from AHT in February 2021. It had been a while since I experienced an Ofsted inspection and I had certainly never taken in part in one as a member of SLT. Unchartered territory indeed.

When the initial call came, our HT was not on site. Completely normal, as he works across two schools but afterwards, I was told the colour completely drained out of my face when the call was put through! Nerves kicked in but so did all the preparation we had done. I knew what this call would entail as well as the following one. I wrote down everything we needed to know and arranged the time for the longer call. An hour or so later the call from the inspector came and we had composed ourselves as an SLT to begin the process of painting the picture of our school. The phone call, which we were worried about, turned out to not be the experience we expected. The Ofsted inspector gave us snippets of information about himself and we were quick to identify that he had garnered a lot of information about us already from the website. We were very happy that the recent hard work we had put into the school website had paid off! Heallowed us to select the subjects we wanted deep dives into and allowed the conversation to move in the way we wanted it to. We were able to begin showcasing all the things that make our school the amazing place that it is but also acknowledge that we knew exactly where we were heading and what we continued to work on.

The rest of that grey Monday passed uneventfully as we rallied round our staff, tidied up, perfected the Ofsted folderand of course got the fancy biscuits out! The school displays were refined by our committed staff, planning was polished off and at 8pm we exited the school building nerves janglingbut the shared determination to make the most of our moment ran through our veins. The morning of the first day staff were in school early but the importance of supporting everyone was high on my agenda. Conversations to check in, guide and reassure took place and at 8am we were ready.

The experience over the two days was a positive one. There were, of course, moments where the nerves surfaced. Our history lead, being new to the role, was nervous about the deep dive into their subject. Our curriculum lead AHT successfully supported them through it and they came out of the afternoon positive and fired up for where they would take their subject next. Our Maths lead was much the same, new to role and nervous about the deep dive. However, once again, it was a positive and successful experience which showcased all their hard work with our Maths curriculum.

Our notoriously hard to engage parents reflected us positively (well, mostly positively!) on the parent view survey and we were overjoyed to hear that all staff had reported back that they were proud to be members of our school community. Our children shone throughout the two days, with honesty, enthusiasm, and positivity for our school. They acknowledged that bullying does happen as our school but also that staff deal with it well. They talked about their love of reading and happily shared books with the inspector. In every sense of the word, they were wonderful.

The inspection was a hard two days, but it was also hugely positive. The check ins with the HT reassured us we were on a strong path but the nagging doubt never really left us until we received the final feedback. Leaders at all levels were identified as outward facing with a focus on learning from evidence and research. Our hard work to celebrate the diversity and individuality of our school was recognised and our staff training and development offer was praised. It is important to note that the inspector gave us time to showcase the areas we wanted to and it was clear he had taken time to read the documents we had left out for him to look through. It very much felt like a very fair process- he listened to everything we had to say.

The impact upon our SLT cannot be underestimated. To have our hard work on, what had been key areas for us,acknowledged was hugely gratifying and a sense of success was most definitely felt. We were very honest with the inspector and made it clear from the very beginning what our strengths and weaknesses were. We acknowledged that we knew our curriculum was not embedded completely and when this was our area for improvement, it was no shock. In fact, we were keen to take his feedback and run with it. When the final report came through and the success shared with the school community it was clear that the nerves had been worth it.

Our Ofsted our experience was not the fearsome event that others have endured. Understandably, this does raise concerns over the consistency of inspections, but I also do not want to play down the challenge of the two days. They were hard and upon reflection our collective SLT synopsis is that we are glad we won’t have another visit on our hands anytime soon! They were long, very busy days with a certain level of worry regarding the outcome hanging over our heads. Our school was well prepared for the inspection but so was our mindset. We were open to the experience, open to feedback and open to the inspector coming into our school to judge us. This helped the experience to be a success. The culture of our school is one of openness and community. We work together to drive our school forward, for the better, for every staff member inour school and ultimately the children we serve.



Debbie Christiansen


OFSTED Experiences: Approachable but thorough

I am writing this to support any other headteachers who may be waiting for the OFSTED call!

I have been headteacher at my school for 7 years and joined initially as acting head. We had our first inspection a couple of months after joining and were put into Requires Improvement. We worked hard, and 2 years later were OFSTEDed again and regained our Good judgement. That was 5 years ago and we were expecting OFSTED anytime from last April, so had a long wait! Obviously lockdown slowed down their progress in catching up with inspections.

We had been expecting “The Call” in Summer term, but they didn’t call until September. I had Covid and was in my last 2 days of isolation when the call came. I asked if they could call me at home, which they did. I tried to defer until I was back in school, but they said that a headteacher being ill was not a reason for deferral, as the school is open, so they were coming in. I therefore called my leadership team and let them know that OFSTED were coming in. We then did a Teams meeting call with the lead inspector, myself and my assistant heads. The lead inspector was sympathetic that I would not be there and was flexible to allow me to join meetings from home. We agreed a timetable for the first day, with times for online meetings and also what they were going to be doing in school. We talked about deep dives and agreed on reading, maths, geography and history. These would all take place on day one with the format being meeting with curriculum leader, seeing the subject in class being taught, looking in books and speaking with the children. These all needed to tie together -  what the subject leader said, relating to how this was taught in class, speaking with the classteacher about their subject knowledge, then seeing outcomes in books and then speaking to the children about what they could remember about the subject, what they had done before and what they liked/disliked.

The inspector had a brief outline and we then made sure that the timetable was more detailed – including where each of the inspectors would be, where they were based, who they were seeing, with timings. This meant that we knew where they would all be at any time. They were pleased to have this on their arrival on the first day as it was clear. They offered to introduce themselves to the staff first thing, which they did, and the staff were very welcoming and smiley! This made a good first impression.

The inspectors kept asking about staff well-being during the inspection and each meeting they had with a member of the senior team, they asked again. They were approachable but also very thorough!

It soon became clear that our Year 3 children and reading were a focus for them and phonics. The children coming into Year 3 had missed a large amount of their phonics due to lockdowns and we did not have a synthetic phonics programme in place. We agreed that this was something that we needed to improve on and so they decided to do some more deep dives in the curriculum – PE, art, science and ICT were then looked into. As the curriculum was all sound and my staff could all speak about their subjects with enthusiasm – intent of their curriculum, how it was implemented across the school and also what impact they had – this was all key!

SEN was another focus and this was a strength here, with my SENCo completing a learning walk around schoo and being able to discuss children and their needs and show how children were being supported within class.

I carried out Teams meetings regarding safeguarding, the curriculum, single central register, SIP, SEF and PP strategy. We also discussed attendance and what we were doing to ensure good attendance at school. We met about behaviour and well-being.

The second day, I came into school and I was able to go round school with them, be on the playground etc.. They talked to parents before and after school and also children to discuss SMSC, behaviour, well-being…

The governors were invited in and could also discuss leadership of the school, how we had developed the curriculum, how they questioned me and asked about school improvement. They spoke with a representative from the local authority.

They continued to ask probing questions throughout the second day to ensure they had evidence for all of the hand book. We then sat down and went through the handbook and they discussed each point and whether they had evidence to say we were a good school for each point.

At the end of the second day, we invited governors in for feedback and I was allowed to have the leadership team there too. The feedback was all positive apart from phonics, but we got a good judgement. We were not allowed to tell staff anything until the report was published.

After 2 days of inspection the report that came out was a summary and very short, which upset some members of staff who felt that their hard work was not reported on.

That was our experience, hope it helps someone else!

Case Study: Was it something I didn’t say?

Was it something I didn’t say?

As an experienced Head with two schools under my belt, one of which I took from special measures to Good in a relatively short period of time, I was ready for a change. I was approaching 50 and reassessing my working future and felt I either had to stay where I was until I was ready to be put outto pasture or have one more move. So, I took the plunge and applied for a new position. The school I applied for was inner city with all the challenges that come with that. The previous inspection report led me to believe that there was a good team in place and despite the rock bottom outcomes for children, it looked like it just needed some fresh eyes and some tweaking to improve. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview process and honestly felt for the first time in my career that I genuinely had the answers, no blagging, no flannel. Leaving my previous position wasn’t easy, I had built up a great team and a good reputation, but I was excited by the challenge ahead and keen to bring what I had learned to a new post.

Within days in my new role, I knew that the challenge ahead was considerably more than just a tweak. With little infrastructure in place, few policies, a crumbling building and a staff who really didn’t want a new Head, it was always going to be tough. The results from the summer were the worst in the authority and by October, we had a letter from the RSC telling us we were a ‘Coasting School’ and I needed to tell them why we were and what we were going to do about it. This came as a massive shock to the senior leaders and Governors -  the inspection just 18 months before had told them they were a good school with outstanding leadership. The evidence was that the school was far from this judgement. With little to no admin support, a senior leadership team in shock and a staff that didn’t want any change, I set about trying to win hearts and minds, after all, we all wanted the same thing, the very best for the children in our care.

It was in this context that I was then faced with trying to build a leadership team who had the confidence to tackle underperformance. I joined forces with other local schools inan alliance where we agreed to be each other’s critical friend. It was good to have feedback from another very experienced local Head who said that she could see the big changes and improvements that we/I had made. However, the report from afull Teaching and Learning Review with the senior school improvement advisor and an Inspector stated that we had a long way to go to ensure the school was no longer deemed to be ‘at risk’.

Tragically, at the beginning of the summer term, a parent was murdered and subsequently two other parents were arrested and then convicted of the murder. Dealing with the fallout of this tragic event was all consuming from managing the grief of the children, staff and community to protecting the school from the media to safeguarding the children in the families of the victim and the perpetrator. Looking back, I now see that I underestimated the impact this had on me. I made sure staff had access to the crisis team and got emotional support, but I didn’t access any myself. Even when I then had to go through a domestic homicide review, I didn’t access the support, I was too busy making sure everyone else did.

Throughout this time, I had several periods of significant illness, enough to end up in hospital twice that year. This should have been a warning. My family certainly took it as one, but I just felt that giving the job my all was what had to be done to get the school where I hoped and prayed it could be.

Over the next year, we took on some interesting projects. What followed was what felt like a good year, one of team building in my own school and learning from another school.

We started the next academic year with some new staff and some changes in approach and it was at this point that we reached what would be described by Tuckman in the phases of team development as the ‘Storming stage’. I wouldn’t expect anything else in the stages of managing change, other than it had taken a bit longer for us to get to this point than I would have expected.

However, I began to feel weighed down by the increasing pressure of the many day to day occurrences; parental complaints to Ofsted, staff complaints about each other, staff complaints about decisions made by the senior team, and a small group of very challenging pupils who were having a big impact on the day to day running of the school. The building was crumbling around us, the roof was leaking in many places (including my office) and the hall regularly flooded. Not forgetting that we had to demonstrate significant improvements in outcomes for children.

I knew at this point that I really needed help. The HR team that I had been working with were really supportive but there were so many issues that I started to feel utterly swamped. It was like a relentless wave of daily challenges, on top of the day job of running a fairly large organisation.

I did start talking to people. I was very open and honest with my new school improvement advisor (who had been appointed for a term). I was very honest with my SLT. And their response was that I was doing a good job. I responded to an email abut booking a free session with a coach for Head Teachers but missed the appointment because I was dealing with something.

And then we were inspected. A new framework was about to be implemented and we seemed to be being inspected with a hybrid of the old and new. One of the inspectors even said to me, “what a shame, we’ve come a year too early”. I had been the Head for two years and two terms. I was experienced enough to know that the school still had a lot to do but there were green shoots of improvement – which the inspectors agreed that they could see. But apparently it wasn’t enough and not quickly enough. This was the point that I reflected on many times after the judgement. Was there something I didn’t say that I should have? Would it have made any difference?

What followed were the hardest few months of my professional life. I had support from my MP and entered into correspondence with the Minister of State at the DfE. I prepared pages and pages of information for Governors, parents, staff and the local authority. This was cold comfort when the judgement remained the same. It was soul destroying to repeatedly have to acknowledge that the report said my leadership was inadequate. The stress of this is immense. I ended up physically ill again, shingles, heart palpitations and severe anxiety.

By the end of October, I knew the fight was pretty much over. An academy order had been issued and the RSC were discussing what was going to happen next.

One lunchtime, I went into my school business managers office, and she made a kind remark about what a good personI was to work for and I started crying and didn’t stop for many hours. Such was the level of my distress, I frightened myself and my family.

This is when my timeline gets a bit muddled. I now know I was weeks, if not days away from total burn out and break down. I was fortunate to have amazing support from my GPand I was signed off the next few months. I researched schools who had been in similar situations to see what action they had taken and then stumbled upon James Pope and the HeadsUp organisation. There were so many parts of his narrative that resonated with me. I wish I had contacted him then, but I didn’t.

I went back to work far too early, but I really wanted to be in school for the due diligence meetings with the incoming academy group.

And then there was Covid. I spent the next two terms managing the crisis that unfolded with staff bubbles, school open for the vulnerable children throughout the holidays and days and days of delivering food to our families in need of support.

As we started to get children back into school, involvement from outside started to increase. I found myself feeling like I was taking part in a very long interview. Every meeting I went to, every document I prepared, I felt I was being assessed as to how well I could perform. I have read other people’s accounts of how it feels to be gaslighted and I recognise those feelings. The daily questioning of yourself and in response to suggestions and instructions for school improvement, I just wanted to say, “Don’t you think I’ve tried that” or “Don’t’ you think I’m doing that”.

The next part of my journey can’t be shared other than to say, by the beginning of the next academic year, I was no longer the Head.

It was then that I contacted James through the form on the website. I had a rapid response offering me a confidential conversation. I poured my heart out to him, and between sobbing and trying to put words together that made sense, I had the opportunity to share my story and for him to share his… there is always someone else who’s had it worse!Through his empathy and coaching I began to see that there was nothing I could have done or said differently at the timethat would have changed what happened. It was a set of circumstances that came together that led to a result over which I had no control. He also helped me to realise that it wasn’t my personal failings or ‘inadequacy’ that led to the judgement. Sadly, it also appears that my story is not uncommon. All of this helped me to get on the road to recovery.

I often wonder what would have happened if I had been able to access support from people like James and the HeadsUpteam when things first started to unravel. On reflection, it might not have changed the series of events but I am in no doubt it would have helped me to respond to the situations differently and also help to prevent me from becoming so personally scarred.

There is a happy ending to all this. Despite the immense sadness of making the decision not to return to being a Head, I’m glad to say that again, through coaching, I haverecognised that there are many transferable skills that lead to a life after Headship, but perhaps more about that another time.

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.

Case Study: It’s easy to ask a question but hard to actively listen; leaders genuinely listen to the response.

I have always been ambitious and always saw myself becoming a headteacher. I don't know where I got this drive from, but it had always been there and, at the start, I was totally up for the challenge when I took on my first headship role as acting head at the age of 30. I had been at the school for a year prior to this step up, as deputy head – my first experience of senior leadership. Within six months, the school was deemed to requirespecial measures by Ofsted. Six months later, I was the acting head after the substantive head was signed off.

Despite my lack of experience and lack of a senior leadership team, I set out all guns blazing and was up for the challenge, eagerly awaiting to learn from experienced colleagues who would surely be allocated to support the school by the local authority or diocese. But the help never came. Instead I found myself being set with unrealistic accountability targets, deficit budgets, the governing body resigning, forced academisation… and minimal support. However, I still had reserves of enthusiasm and tackled the barriers whilst managing to steer the school on the right trajectory to improve… and my enthusiasm quickly turned into poor work-life balance and my job becoming my identity.

I now know that this was the first signs of poor mental health. I convinced myself that the school needed me to work 16-hour days, that the extra work over the weekend would leads to huge gains and that the ‘sacrifice’ of missing out on family time or socialising with friends would be worth it in the end. I’m now ashamed to say that work became so all-consuming that I was checking emails on my phone as I held my eldest daughter within hours of her arriving in the world via emergency c-section, as my wife recovered in the bed next to me.

The excessive hours continued and my mental health deteriorated. I was at home so little, I struggled to form a relationship with my daughter and the first real signs of depression hit. But things were going from strength to strength at school and, when this is where the majority of your self-worth comes from, I convinced myself things were going well – and I was doing it on my own!

We academised and I was really excited to now learn from the experienced colleagues within the multi-academy trust. But in truth, the support was sporadic at best and I slowly spiralled into a deeper depression as I struggled to process being diagnosed with an eating disorder and high-functioning anxiety. Surely this was the time to seek support and let someone, anyone, know what I was feeling? No. I embraced the stereotypical male mindsetand buried my issues, putting on a brave face to the world around me. No-one knew what I was going through and to everyone else I portrayed calmness and control personified. Andthis was when things started going really wrong.

With the extra accountability and pressures that came with the MAT, I began to crumble. I became disorganised, unreliable, inconsistent, erratic in my mood and isolated myself to my office. More deficits to sort, the school being sued by a parent, permanent exclusions rescinded through not fault of my own and complaints to Ofsted ate away at my low levels of resilience and the inevitable happened – I was signed off after suffering chest pains at work.

The six week spell away from school helped me to accept I needed help and returned to work enthusiastic and ready to open up to the MAT about my troubles. I opened up and I could feel the clouds that had consumed me clearing. Occupational health was sought and it helped and weekly check-ins kept me talking. But I knew that I needed a change. The role had taken its toll on me and I was excited to see a new role had opened up within the trust. I saw it as a fresh start and a chance to regain some confidence. I still remember that conversation with a member of the MAT central team. “You must be joking! You’re needed here!” was what I heard when I honestly shared that I felt I needed a change and I couldn’ttake the school further. My honesty fell on deaf ears and within months I’d been signed off again – but this time I never returned.

The final straw? Yet more deficits to address and having to make a teacher redundant. I knew the process like the back of my hand by now and was confident I had done the calculations properly. But I didn’t have a selection panel and asked for help from the Trust. It never came and we missed the deadline, meaning the poor colleague who was maderedundant would have to start the next academic year knowing they were surplus to requirements. I’m still scarred with having to deliver that message, on my own before school on a Friday, having not slept for 2/3 days prior. I stayed professional and apologised to my colleagues, went to my office, sat under my desk and cried for a long time.

I don’t really remember what happened next but my career had fallen off a cliff face and even worse, my physical and mental health had deteriorated to the point I didn’t recognise myself. I was signed off for an initial 4 weeks which became 6 months, prescribed meds and referred to therapy. In the months that followed, I went to some really dark places as I recovered from the trauma of what happened. The job had become my identify and that was gone. At my lowest, I thought the world would be better off if I wasn’t here.

It has only been recently that I’ve processed the whole situation and have moved on. I now know that I was, most likely, suffering from depression and anxiety for nearly three years the day I finally burned out.

But I can’t help but wonder:

What if someone had really listened?

What if someone recognised the signs of my poor mental health?

What if someone, anyone, would have stepped in and supported right at the start?

I’ve learned that support is out there and no headteacher should ever feel like they’re on their own. Support networks are now all over the place and if you’re not getting the support from the authority/CEO then there are wonderful communities out there than can give you what you need.

I’ve also learned that I am strong, resilient and am so much more than a headteacher. I’ma dad, a husband, a son, a brother, a friend and I happen to work in education.

I truly believe that managers and leaders at all levels need to have an awareness of the symptoms associated with mental health conditions. Leadership in education is such a stressful job it is going to take a toll on anyone.

It’s easy to ask a question but hard to actively listen. Leaders need to check on the welfare of their staff and genuinely listen to the response. Just because someone says they are ok, does not mean they are ok. If someone’s performance has dipped, don’t threaten with capability – offer genuine, tangible support.  

After a short period of time out of leadership, I’ve recently taken on my second headship in another special measures school. It’s challenging, but the experience I’ve shared has made me so much stronger and, importantly, I have the network of support I need to thrive in the role.