Is compliance a disadvantage in leadership?

Is compliance a disadvantage in leadership?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Figure 1


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


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

Figure 2

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

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

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

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

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


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


References and further reading:

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

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

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


Kevin Hewitson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Normal: Looking to 2030

Ten years ago there was a lot of excitement about a ‘2020 Vision’ and what the education system might look like. In the end this excitement was misplaced and not just because of the pandemic. The possibilities which seemed tangible about the future of schooling had not been fulfilled. The pupil premium gap was as stubborn as ever, off-rolling remained a very live issue and the levels of violence which affected young people were disturbingly high. The recruitment and retention of teachers were both significant challenges as had been the case for some time and arguably finished the decade in a worse position than at the beginning. I am sure there will be many with more positive narratives to tell. It is true that the new Ofsted philosophy and the Early Career Framework, amongst other initiatives, were in their infancy at the time of the first lockdown in March 2020 but it was too soon to judge any impact.


While it is tempting at the time of writing (January 2020) to want to return to ‘normal’ we should aim for far better than the normality which existed pre-lockdown in March 2020. Some of this normality from an educational perspective was revealed during the first six months of the pandemic in a very public way. The grading process for GCSE and A level examinations in 2020 was a farce, and betrayed all too obviously the lack of trust from the government towards the profession. This was also on show as Ofsted took far too long to abandon its preferred modus operandi on more than one occasion. It felt that unless high-stakes cliff-edge accountability was in place from the angles of both assessment and inspection then central government was very nervous about the quality of what schools would be offering. The Secretary of State’s emphasis on parents contacting Ofsted if they were unhappy with a school’s remote education offer acted as further evidence.


By 2031 the relationship between government and the profession must be in a better place, not least because it is a poor advertisement for those who may join and those in two minds as to whether they should stay. As a profession we must aim to attract as many as possible with the potential to become fantastic teachers, and for a much higher proportion of those in their formative years to remain in the classroom. In order to do this the profession will need to work more effectively as a collective whole with collaboration, not competition, between trusts and schools as the distinguishing feature. Relationships within the profession need to mature in the same as they do between the profession and government. In 2020 there was far too much concern within secondary schools and MATs as to how their Centre Assessed Grades would hold up against the competition, as part of a sense that what really mattered was the achievement of the school and not those of the students. The process of recruiting and retaining the best teachers will partly depend on the moral core of the profession and what they see in the behaviour of their leaders.


The working conditions available in other professions will also be a factor. The issues around the lack of flexibility for teachers have only been amplified during the pandemic. Working from home with flexible hours is not going to be on offer for teachers, or at least not in the same way in other jobs, and those who have enjoyed it during the pandemic may not appreciate losing it. The gap between the day to day conditions of teaching and those in other industries will only grow. The truth is that teachers have always worked from home but it has been to carry out tasks which could always be delivered off-site, such as marking and planning in evenings and at weekends. Teaching from home may be possible for some, but not as standard practice. 

Conversely there are people who do not enjoy working from home. This includes those who do not have the space to do so. A family in a three bedroom house is in a far different position to several adults in a two bed flat unable to have a private conversation or work with an unreliable connection. Many enjoy the social side of work, and do not want it to be confined to a two dimensional screen. Does anyone really enjoy a ‘zoom lunchtime’? The benefits of having a workplace to attend and a stronger sense of camaraderie may be a greater benefit than is currently realised.


The relative stability of the profession compared to others may offer advantages. Schools will be less affected by Brexit than other workplaces, and the same applies to the automation of work or outsourcing to abroad. A salary with a pension may also look attractive in the likely difficult economic conditions ahead. These are all positives, and are worth making explicit, but they are unlikely to be enough to resolve the issue in the long-term.


Professional development opportunities need to be in the right place. Every school should be in a position where their programme has the requisite quality and quantity. Online learning for teachers can deliver the new National Professional Qualification programmes, master’s degrees, subject specialist workshops and access to the best researchers and speakers. Previously attendance in person was the only viable option for the vast majority. Anyone can attend any school’s INSET day if both parties are so inclined, or sign up to any university’s postgraduate programmes. High quality candidates will still be able to have their pick of schools, and the professional development opportunities may be the point of differentiation. 


The process of schooling must also move forward, and the professionals with them. One legacy of the pandemic is that those whose eyes always glassed over whenever they listened to a message around the speed of change in the workplace in this day and age, or how many different careers or jobs a student might have in the 21st century, are now paying attention. Every adult and child has learned new skills and competencies over the last year as they adjusted to lockdown life, and that process still has some way to run. If schools can demonstrate such agility in such a short space of time, then there is no doubt that education in 2031 can be very different if we choose it to be the case and if the government allows it. In a rare display of unity, education trade unions showed their collective strength in early January 2020 about the safety of returning to school and the government was forced to change its position. If this acts as a catalyst to increase the levels of dialogue and influence in the long term it will be positive for the profession.


Today’s year 1 students will take their GCSE examinations in 2031 and they will not expect an education which is stuck in the past. They are the most advanced group of six year olds in terms of their IT skills which has ever existed. They will not expect to abandon how they have learned during the pandemic going forward, or for their opportunities to be narrowed in the future. If their school’s key stage 4 or 5 option blocks do not allow them to take their subjects of choice they will seek a solution to be found if they are to stay. When there are topics they do not understand in class, they should be able to access a high standard of online resources and possibly a qualified adult to take them through it. In the case of the latter they will not care where the person teaching them on the screen is located, which may provide opportunities to some. Above all they are unlikely to accept that their future should be determined by fifty hours of hand-written examinations at 16 and 18 which do not test the breadth of the subject. The relevance of the system will be in play.


This includes the day to day experience of schooling. The model of all students and teachers on site for six to seven hours a day from Monday to Friday is much more subject to question given the quality remote education has reached already. In my view, it will remain a sufficiently inferior experience to be a genuine challenge to the standard model but it will shape it nonetheless. What will happen when a year 13 student asks to learn from home one or two days per week, in the way that has become common in the workplace?


The young people of 2031 will need a renewed profession as do those who work within it. It is very possible that the economic circumstances over the next five or even ten years mean that the proportion of students who qualify for free school meals will increase, and the prospects for families to extricate themselves from these circumstances diminish. The students whose future is most at risk require qualified, motivated teachers who are happy to be in a physical workplace, reject the flexibility of other professions, want to stay in the profession and develop their skills over time. For that to happen schools must work together more effectively as a group and central government must be explicit in its trust and confidence of the profession.

Do I tick the box?

Do I tick the box?

I am a gay headteacher. This has been and continues to be a professional barrier for me. In the past I have been told that I should not be a headteacher as parents would not want me lead their child’s school, that parents would take their children out of the school ‘in droves’ if they knew. That staff would not respect me and they would leave. Very recently I was told not to apply for headship at a Church of England school as they would not want 'A gay person talking about Jesus.' I realise that these are the views of individuals and not representative of the education sector or indeed the Church of England but it does raise a few questions.

If somebody is willing to say these things out loud and to my face what are they actually thinking on the inside – is it much worse? Also if a few people can say it out loud, how many others think it but don’t say it? The term ‘covert homophobe’ can be interpreted in a few ways but for the purpose of this think piece I am going to use it to describe people who are outwardly positive about members of the LGBTQI+ community but on the inside this is not the case. I cannot count the number of times I hear ‘I love gay people, lots of my friends are gay’ to be followed by a homophobic joke when they think I can’t hear.

Another burning question I have is what to do when I am filling in application forms. Do I tick the lesbian box, leave it blank or lie and tick heterosexual? The easy answer is of course to tick the lesbian box - but does that put me at an immediate disadvantage? Well it does if the person shortlisting is a covert homophobe. I have been advised to always tick it and then if they don’t shortlist you for that reason then it is not the right school for me. Why? There might be only one covert homophobe in a staff of 100 or it could be that I can change their mind? More importantly why should I not be given the job? If I am qualified who are they to stop me! The other side to this coin is if I do get shortlisted, is it because I ticked the box? Are they interviewing me, with no thoughts of ever giving me the job, just because it will look good on their diversity statistics?

I do still hear the phrases

‘Surely that doesn’t happen these days?’,

‘Things are different now.’

In some ways society has progressed, it is less prevalent but by no means gone. In my private life things are the same. I am always conscious of where I am and who is around me. I often feel unable to ‘relax’ in public spaces and show any affection towards my partner.

Covert homophobia happens all the time, I am sure this is the same for covert racism. I have been seated out of turn at restaurants, I have been threatened when I held my partners hand. Then there are the more serious examples including a man shouting ‘I just need the right man to show me how it is done – then I wouldn’t be a lesbian. I am not sure if he meant it to be a harrowing threat, but that is how it felt. The world is a smaller place for me, there are several countries, I cannot visit or teach in. There are still countries where being gay is punishable by death. Ticking the box is not an easy decision, previous homophobic incidents scar in the same way as any other discrimination. It cannot be easily erased. So I ask you to think about the following:    

When you get an application from somebody who has ticked the box, understand how much this person may have agonised over this.
Try to think about new members of staff who are gay and go out of your way to support them as much as you can, covert homophobia is still around and may well be present in your staffroom when you are not there.
Don’t be too keen to join the ‘it doesn’t happen in this day and age’ band wagon, as it does.
You should consider if not being homophobic is enough. Being anti-homophobic and acting as an ally and an advocate at all times is the only way to counteract the covert homophobia that is still there under the surface.

HeadsUp4HTs: A reflection of my experience

I joined HeadsUp during Lockdown. I’d seen it pop up on my feed a couple of times and then I recognised a couple of people that were rewteeting. Several weeks into lockdown and the challenges and pressures from the community, the Governors, the last minute changes from the DfE and the sleepless nights over safeguarding were all taking their toll. I’d been running a school from my kitchen table for 6 weeks on top of home schooling my own children. 


Could I share a space with them? 


I attended a session on a Saturday morning. Looking around the Zoom studio put me at ease. Some names and faces I recognised. Lots of coffee drinkers. Someone was eating porridge. I could see a pile of ironing in the background of one member’s living room. No one had a fancy bookcase. This was a space for me! 


James Pope the founder of HeadsUp framed the space for us all: HeadsUp is a safe space for Headteachers, past, present and future. HeadsUp provide free support to teachers, through crisis calls, career advice, safe spaces to meet with other values-based leaders, events throughout the year all based on things real Headteachers care about. No one would be screen shotting or tweeting about others that attend, it was our choice if we wanted to share that we’d been to a meeting. It is a place to share vulnerabilities and champion the role of Headship. 


We talked about what we felt needed to change in the system. We all had a chance to speak. As usual, I felt nervous about sharing a part of myself with others, but James and the other Heads had put my mind at ease with their reassuring nods, smiles and championing chatter in the chat function. Within the first session I felt part of an extraordinary community.


Over the weeks, as I attended more sessions, I learned more about the other members. Some Heads appeared each week, fiercely loyal and compassionate in remembering the details shared by others in the weeks before. I shared my number with another Head who had messaged my privately during the session. ‘Are you ok? You look tired this week.’ That Head is now a friend. We are united through HeadsUp and share our values and have telephone chats on our car journeys most weeks. Another Head sent me a book in the post, she noticed I was having a bad week and wanted to cheer me up. 


Towards the end of lockdown I was on my knees. James had offered the free crisis calls and I needed help. I called him late one night. He listened as I ranted and struggled to articulate my feelings and explain the situation I’d found myself in. He calmly coached me through my thoughts. He shared a little of his own experience. He repeated my thinking in a way that sounded more logical. He asked me to think about the pros and cons of the situation. Most of all, he reminded me that the problem was not me, and that I was in control of the situation. He left me standing stronger and with some small actions to complete to improve my situation. I’ve had two more calls with James since then and my issues were resolved and I moved forwards. There’s a lot to be said about those that support and give their time for free. I know that there is always someone at HeadsUp who is willing to give their time to me. 


Some Heads are really going through the mill. Others have been brutally pushed out of the system and attend as part of a cathartic process and to support others in a similar position. Others are new to headship yet have an enviable energy and innocence! Everyone has a story to tell, a journey to share, and experience to enrich the conversation. 


Each week my cup is refilled as I meet with people like me. Heads who sometimes struggle, Heads who are finding it tough, Heads who are courageous in their pursuit of a better education, for their own communities and beyond. Within this group, I have a voice. I am valued and listened to. I am supported and I don’t have to wear a mask.


The conversations often develop from mutually supporting each other to a deeper discussion about what education could and should be and how we need to champion the role of Headship more. I know that there are several events coming up where we will get to discuss our ideas with a wider professional community. I like the fact that even Headteachers like me, with a small Twitter following and a small voice, get the opportunity to collaborate with those who are more widely recognised in the world of education. HeadsUp reminds us Headteachers at the coal face, in our crumbling LA schools, that we matter. That we have a voice and we can be heard. We are reminded each week that we are working in a human industry. Relationships are the foundations of what we do.


I love that we have opportunities to chair network meetings and contribute to the newsletter. Next month I’m going to host a Saturday morning meeting. I’ll get the chance to facilitate the safe space. There’s no hierarchy, no intimidating Edu Celebs, just a powerful and compassionate group of porridge eating, pyjama wearing professionals who have the potential to shape the future of education. I’m also going to nominate one of the members to appear in the members spotlight in the newsletter. He doesn’t know it yet, but he deserves a light shining on him. I’m also building up to writing a Thinkpiece about what it’s like to be an Introverted Leader and I’ve been asked if I’d like to write a Case Study on one of my experiences which I shared at a recent meeting. It’s surprising how you think you’re the only one that’s ever worked in a toxic environment! No - I can assure you you’re not!


I’ve watched Heads laugh and cry. I’ve laughed and cried. I’ve also changed policy and actioned changes in my school as a result of the discussions we have. I’m empowered each week and even when I’m feeling low at the thought of another DfE announcement, or a week of safeguarding issues, I show up. I show up because I also feel a loyalty and a collective responsibility to the members of the network. They’ve been there for me and I will be there for them, although, I am reminded by the hosts most weeks, we should only attend if it serves us to do so. See what I mean about compassion and values-driven? No pressure here, just recognition that there is enough pressure on Heads at the moment. 


To anyone who is thinking about coming to a meeting, or getting in touch for a supportive call, then you should. It’s safe, it’s kind and it’s empowering. It’s humanistic networking and leadership at it’s best.