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.

Case Study: when your face doesn’t fit

Never in my career did I ever believe that I would have gone through the experiences I have within Headship, especially the last few months. The last seven years have been a huge rollercoaster and a steep learning curve, not only about resilience and emotional intelligence but also about the failings within the system and how you can suddenly become so dispensable in the eyes of some. Stepping out of my role and my career has felt like a huge wrench but also liberating at the same time. A wise person (at the beginning of my end) said “There IS life after Headship and one you can enjoy” and I now wholly believe this!

I started my first and only Headship seven years ago and felt reasonably prepared through the support, training and encouragement during my Deputy Headship in a challenging area. I was excited about the difference I believed I could make in my new school and how I wanted to ensure that all pupils within the school had the opportunity to learn skills for life that were fully transferable- the most important, I believe, resilience and reciprocity. I believe that this is something I did indeed achieve, alongside enabling pupils to dream and aspire to futures they had no idea could be possible. I also drew together an extremely divided community that was angry and resentful of each other. It also became apparent very quickly that the identification and support required to address the huge number of safeguarding issues was going to be one of my biggest challenges- opening the eyes of others to what can happen (and often did) in the lives of our precious young learners, many of whom were not in a position to start to learn because their basic needs were not being met. I know that hand on heart, when during my time at the school, it was always a place of safety and security for everyone and I had enabled this ethos of nurture and tailored support to grow and flourish.

Headship always felt like an enormous privilege and I put everything I had into it, as we all do. Not only was I meeting the challenge of a school that needed so much development it was hard to know where to start and historical results were too low, but I had no mentor from the local authority and was left ‘to get on with it’. Over time, we were successful in many new areas which were of benefit to the pupils and the school- achieving local accolades for our new award-winning choir, staff achieving local education awards for inspiring teaching and our Outdoor Learning provision, to name a few.

Sadly, the positives did not outweigh the sadness and loss within the school. Within 2 months of starting at the school a member of staff passed away from a sudden illness. Leading and supporting others with whom you had only just met was indeed a challenge, but it made us stronger and connected as a team. Who knew what was yetto come! In the following few years, I led and navigated the school through a local double murder (a former pupil of the school and their mother, who was an employee at the school) along with subsequent national and international press/ interviews and speaking at their funerals, the sudden suicide of a young member of staff anda court case of SEND discrimination (that was finally dismissed) to name a few. This was on top of school improvement and staff who weren’t open to change. On reflection (whether it was right or wrong in the eyes of some) I opened my heart to support and protect others, enabling them to heal and grieve but never really allowed myself that same grace. As a team we built ourselves back up with the self-sought support of the Samaritans, but not once did the local authority or governors recognise the impact it was having on me and offer support for my wellbeing. It is only now that I can recognise how much that was needed and how empty my ‘bucket’ had become. I even recall telling the Director of Education at the start of a Heads meeting that I was having panic attacks on the way to work and had to pull over several times before I could complete journeys -the advice given was to simply work from home one afternoon a week! This also matched the lack of school improvement support the school was offered historically being on the edge of the county.

It was after this that I started to look into the future security and growth of the school and decided to engage in research with regards to joining an Academy Trust. I felt that I eventually found one whose values aligned with ours and felt that they had listened to the journey of the school and they understood the huge challenges we/I had been facing. How naïve was I?! I did not realise that signing the conversion documents was in effect signing away my position in the school.

Following conversion, I received praise from the Trust and continued to work effectively with them, even during the first national lockdown and no issues were raised. At the start of the new academic year my eyes were well and truly opened and I began to wonder whether there was a plan to replace me. I then personally understood the meaning of the term ‘gas lighting’ and no matter what I did or achieved, the behaviours of the senior team from the Trust made me question everything I did and said and made me so confused and anxious about every move I made. Things that were said in passing were jumped upon and recorded as an issue (with no conversation) and I felt that I was constantly looking over my shoulder. I even started to believe that the was a conspiracy and new members of staff were part of the drive to push me out. It became unbearable and after approximately four weeks I was completely blindsided when a planned meeting suddenly turned into a meeting to raise concerns over my ability to lead the school. It felt as though my whole being crumbled and that my heart had been ripped out. I became frozen and numb and forgot how to function for a while.

Now out the other side, having rebuilt some of my confidence, self-belief and self-worth, I can see how toxic the situation had become and how I am now better off giving myself some time to heal and dream about what I might like to do next. I’ve never stopped to do this before - it feels very alien. I miss the children so much but know that the staff in school will continue to meet their needs and support them through the change to come.

I have realised that no matter what you do or how hard to try to hold on as tight as you can, when your face doesn’t fit, you have no control over what happens next. I have also realised that no matter what has happened, I was a successful and effective teacher/ Deputy Headteacher and Headteacher and no one can take that away from me. I did achieve more than I set out to and can hold my head up high- it is those who treat people so poorly that should hang their heads low- not me. The hardest realisation of all has been how easy it had been to become so absorbed in Headship and the pressures surrounding the role, and how I had neglected those who mean the most to me- my partner, my family and my friends. I am now ‘present’ in the room, I smile and laugh at silly things everyday and now have time to do so many things to make them smile. I am using my creative abilities to make things and gain so much pleasure from completing each project. Before now, this was only a luxury I afforded to myself in the summer holiday for about two weeks!

I have been known to have ‘wobbles’ at random times and question my identity now I no longer work in education, but I try and remember the words of my partner during one of these wobbles….“You are you, you are my partner who I have with me again, you are a supportive daughter to your ageing parents, you are an amazing step-mum to my daughter, a mum to our puppy and an amazing friend to so many- never forget that!”

I also want to thank both James Pope and Kate Smith for being there when I reached out for help- your support, advice, counsel and presence were always timely and I wouldn’t have healed as well without you. I have started to dip my toe further into HeadsUp and have been amazed at how quickly I felt at ease to share my thoughts and felt valued. HeadsUp is a safe space, a thought-provoking space and a space I will use throughout the future!


Case Study: Advocates

“You know sir, some of the other boys say you’re a w****r but I tell them you’re alright, ‘cos you are. You’re alright. So that’s alright, isn’t it?”

I was escorting a boy from a lesson he had been sent out of. His relationship with his teacher had completely broken down and it was hard to say whose behaviour was worse – his or the teacher’s. This might appear an unlikely moment to remember as a breakthrough, but coming four weeks into my first headship in a rapidly deteriorating school, it was the moment I knew things were going to be OK.  Amongst the group of utterly disaffected, educationally failed, socially disadvantaged boys in Year 10, the boys who demonstrated their distaste for school through loud, loutish, contagiously anti-social behaviour, I had an advocate.

The school I took on was reeling from a series of setbacks, most recently the massive instability caused by forty-three staff - over 50% of the teaching force - leaving at the end of the previous year. Teachers who had stayed were despondent. They were trying to be loyal to their school but were starting to question that loyalty. Other teachers were new to the school, recruited in a flurry of desperation. Many were on short term contracts making accountability difficult. The school desperately needed leadership, but as I was the fifth head in less than five years, commitment to me personally was slow in coming. People were looking at me not to see what kind of leader I was, but to see how long I lasted. 

There were a number of pressing priorities. Behaviour was terrible and needed addressing urgently if we were to keep the rump of what had once been a strong teaching force. There had been a substantial erosion of trust between leaders and the rest of the staff. Trust between the community and the school had all but evaporated. That trust needed restoring. The operational systems in place were byzantine, with complexity being misunderstood as a proxy for innovation. Things looked bad in almost every direction. 

I needed to gain people’s trust sufficiently to be able to take the school community with me through the rocky decisions we needed to take – curriculum reform, behaviour reform, a simplified school day, higher expectations. In a packed parents’ forum, I promised that things were going to be different, that I was in it for the long haul, that I was invested in the future of the school. Without looking up from her phone, one mother said “The last one said all that.” Her friend, also looking at her phone, added “And the one before.” Simply imploring people to trust me wasn’t going to be enough. I needed a way to fast forward that trust. I needed advocates.

I was lucky in that I had worked with the deputy previously, and we got on. I had an advocate there already who would reassure people that I was a decent person, that I would take care of the school. But I needed more. That meant inviting parents to come and meet me, inviting complaints so that I could get a more profound understanding of the problems, answering email after email asking what was I going to do about the shocking state of the school. It meant endless patience and endless optimism.  It meant every spare moment being spent out and about – on the gate, in the canteen, in offices and classrooms, demonstrating my values. 

Values are much discussed in school literature. Rather than trying to work out what the school needed, I went with what I believed in because integrity was going to be essential in maintaining my leadership. So I was open, honest and fair. I showed confidence and humility. I listened with curiosity. I shared details about myself with people. It wasn’t a charm offensive, it was a “this is me” offensive. And gradually, week by week, I won people over. 

Some people were, justifiably, suspicious. They had been let down again and again. But I kept at it. No matter how tired I was, how shell-shocked by what I was seeing, I kept at it – cheerful, upbeat, optimistic. I tackled every breach of the rules I saw. I took on every child who stepped out of line. I challenged every instance of low standards that other adults were just walking past. I worked my socks off.

And by the end of that first half term, I had secured advocates amongst the staff, the students and the parents. People were willing to give me a go. I had the support I needed to get on and do my job because there were enough people who agreed with that boy in Year 10 that, at the end of the day, I was alright. I had advocates.

Andy Hunter


Case Study: Wellbeing commitment should be built into our contracts

I wish I had known about Heads Up 18 months ago, maybe even 12 months ago, it probably wouldn’t have stopped what happened, but I might not have felt so alone professionally. I may have been on twitter, with a decent support network and I thought I was doing ok, but I wasn’t.

I became a head when my predecessor retired. I hadn’t intended to be a head, but felt that I needed to be head of the school I was in, as I felt I could do so much for the staff and the community. I went through the recruitment process and got the job. Academy conversion was under way, but massively delayed, in part because we were not a forced conversion. my predecessor (with my knowledge and backing) and the governors had started the process. It took ages, so I had a foot in both camps, making decisions that were in the best interest of my school, but also aware of what was coming. As we were not a typical school in our LA we often missed out on funding and initiatives and were largely ignored by the LA. The MAT was led by a secondary, and there was limited knowledge and understanding primary.

My workload, and that of my SBM, doubled and then if felt like it tripled, it felt like we were learning new systems and processes whilst still running our ‘old systems’, that worked for us. Every decision was questioned, our concerns were minimised (we’ll get to that, just keep doing what you have in place and then we will transfer over) but then we were made to feel wrong or foolish if our way of doing things wasn’t the same as their (obviously superior) way. I was making sure my staff were supported, coached, workload managed and that they didn’t feel much changed, I was so busy looking out for them and for their wellbeing, that mine took a back seat, and then disappeared. I was making decisions on the spot, not being able to think strategically, it felt that I was losing my ability to do what was best for my children, families, staff, as it wasn’t how it was supposed to be done. I was really questioned around some of the decisions I was making to support staff who were experiencing difficulties outside of school (for example; I altered their hours slightly, or supported them in seeking mental health help) I was also running a leadership team with a long term member off long term sick, and we struggled to recruit after they left, so decided not to. This meant further leadership duties falling to me and my deputy.

I was working so hard to protect everyone that I just forgot about myself. I went to the doctor convinced that I was pre-menopausal, or that I was very low in Vitamin D (again) or that there was something else…. My doctor listened, reminded me that I did a highly stressful job, I said it wasn’t stress, so she did the blood tests. Of course they all came back fine…. We had to circle back round to stress.

I was called to a meeting. I was basically told I was not up to the job. My union was excellent, my doctor was excellent. I was signed off. I crashed. I felt so awful and embarrassed. What do I tell my family, my friends (they were all ace!) My union negotiated a great package for me. I could have stayed and fought it, and I had support to do that if I wanted to. But I couldn’t, I was burnt out and having a crisis of confidence. Maybe I was a rubbish headteacher, maybe I can’t do it. Who was I if I wasn’t working in a school? If I wasn’t a leader?

You absolutely must ensure your own wellbeing, if you are so busy holding the umbrella over your staff to protect them from the storm, but you are not under it, you will get battered and unable to hold the umbrella!

I also know now that I am more than my role. I still ‘feel’ like a headteacher, but in my own  special school that supports other leaders. Not being in role doesn’t mean that you stop caring about children, staff, the system. I also know that my friends and family care about me as me, not me as a headteacher.

Stop paying lip service to wellbeing, we need money and conviction from all levels. Wellbeing commitment should be built into our contracts; sessions of coaching or supervision and someone keeping an eye on our workload

We also need to stop thinking that saying the job is tough = we are no good at it, or we are not capable. We do not need leaders as martyrs, prepared to sacrifice themselves for the good of the job. It may be a calling, it may be public service, but it is a JOB!

A colleague of mine, who is now a friend, said to me ‘you put care and compassion for children and staff at the centre of everything you do’ I want to be working in a system that truly allows leaders to do that.

I know what I am good at, I know what really matters. I am now supporting other leaders (not just heads). I may well go back into headship, but right now I am helping those that are doing the job (and other key roles in school) to maintain their wellbeing, to support their leadership development and to make sure that no one else ends up how I did.


Case Study: When resilience alone isn't enough - the importance of proactive support

Since taking up my first senior position within a secondary school, twenty years ago, I have had a desire to learn more about and develop my skills and knowledge as a school leader. As my experience grew, I became more and more fascinated in how I could  design and shape school policy in order to provide the best educational experiences for young people. I still live by this core value but found that the changing context of school leadership moved me further away from being able to do this as a Headteacher - spending too much time and effort on financial and operational matters. I know that this experience is not unique and wanted to share my own experience of living through and eventually moving on from Headship in order to help others who may find themselves in a similar context.

I took up my second headship in September 2016. I took over at a large and recently merged secondary school which had just gone through two rounds of significant restructure. In addition to this, in the few months before taking up the position, the school received a Financial Notice to Improve (FNTI) for failing to file its end of year accounts on time and being unable to set a balanced budget. On top of this I also inherited a Progress 8 score of less than -0.5 which put us in a vulnerable position with OFSTED. Two months into post, I had to suspend and ultimately dismiss the Finance Director. This process took five months and in the interim I undertook the role of both Principal and Finance Director. I worked closely with the ESFA in trying to stabilise the finances but it was clear that the significantly reduced budget would not support the structure of the new school and its failing buildings. The need to focus on keeping the school afloat was a huge strain on my time and that of the trustees. Following another poor set of examination outcomes in 2017 we were still below the floor target and our seven terms of ‘grace’ for the new school was almost up. We had made great progress in creating a real positive ethos in the school and the local community, teaching and learning was better, behaviour was much improved but this had still not impacted positively on outcomes. Although no real surprise, it was still devastating, when in May 2018, we were placed in Special Measures. The HMI at the time was clear that the fundamentals of setting the school up in the first place had not been put in place and that myself and the trustees were too distracted by finances/ESFA and not focussed enough on school improvement. As a leader, I felt about as bad as you can get; Special Measures, FNTI and below the floor target. The report wasn’t published until the school holidays and so myself and a few leaders and trustees carried this news around behind our poker faces - ironically many staff and parents were of the belief that we had probably done OK as the local reputation was increasingly positive.

As a consequence, the DFE and ESFA informed us that we needed to join a trust ‘as a matter of urgency’ in the summer of 2018. Further financial difficulties, no deal on joining a trust,  further decaying buildings, another business manager coming and going, two very positive (but draining) OFSTED monitoring visits and the start of a global pandemic meant that by Spring of 2020, I decided that I needed to move on from Headship and reconnect with my family and the life I left behind. I had originally kept going because I knew that we were on the right path and that by the Spring of 2020 we would have come out of Special Measures and would be looking forward to outcomes more in line with national averages. When schools were closed, inspections suspended (quite rightly) I knew this wouldn’t happen.

Among fellow heads in Leicestershire, I was known for my resilience and overcoming difficulties. I had even presented to them on a couple of occasions about  working with difficult financial situations. It is true that I had learnt how to keep on going but I have learnt that this can also be damaging. Whilst you are working to ignore the parts that are ‘hurting’ you could be missing the signals that you need to address some aspect of damage. 

With the benefit of hindsight and some distance from this experience, I have learnt that I should have demanded more support early on, that by trying to be the one who solves the problems and keeps everything (and everyone else) going, I was attempting the impossible. There are reasons why the Headship and the Business Manager roles are normally undertaken by two people! I have learnt that I should have insisted to the ESFA/DFE and my trustees that I couldn’t solve all of it, or carry the weight of responsibility for it all. Too many others were happy to stand by and watch me take it all on, because I presented a front of being OK to do so.

Above all, I have learnt that your fundamental values, in my case, ‘to provide the best educational experiences for young people’ should not be compromised by lack of resource and support. 

If I was parachuted into my own experience as an advisor, I would have been frustrated how the three aspects of our educational department, the ESFA, OFSTED and the DFE could exert such conflicting priorities on an individual or school. Each demanded we spend more time focussing on their particular aspect of concern, and criticised us for focussing too much on the others.

When a school such as mine gets itself into difficulties, every agency should be on hand to lend support but not compete for their own priorities.

At one of the lowest points I reached out to James Pope who was always available to lend a virtual ear. Whilst this was invaluable, it is a shame that ‘the system’ still doesn’t acknowledge or support school leaders in difficulties.

Five months since walking away from headship for the last time I am in a much better place. I now work within an excellent Trust as School Improvement Lead, I am able to focus 100% on teaching and learning, leadership, CPD and school improvement. I find that I am able to use the best bits of my school leadership experience and I enjoy the fact of being able to work within my capabilities rather than constantly on the edge of incompetence.