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 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: 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: After 27 years, I was knocked, battered & bruised.

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it”

Events in our professional lives may trip us up, or even stop us in our tracks – but we are stronger than we think.  When this happened to me after twenty-seven years of an eventful and positive career in education, I was knocked, battered and bruised.  I was not sure whether I would remain in the profession.

 Having led the school through its first Ofsted inspection I was feeling extremely positive.  It had been a hard few years, but I had been working towards showing the world just how amazing the school community that we had created was!  We had done well, bearing in mind that less than four years ago the school and everything connected to it, did not exist! 

Twelve weeks from the publication of the Ofsted report, unbelievably, I was under investigation for gross misconduct that potentially could have led to my dismissal.  The speed at which it all happened was bewildering. How? Why? Where was the support?  

I felt alone, misunderstood and marginalised by colleagues that I had thought I was valued by/of, and utter confusion reigned. The investigation took place – way too slowly.  Union support was poor.  Line management support was non-existent. The result was punitive – effectively I could not leave to get another job and there were some internal competency targets needed to be met. Interestingly, the investigation did reveal that the organisation was culpable in some of the allegations, which made me question the validity of the investigation.  

As part of a multi-academy trust, isn’t this WHY trusts exist?  To support, help and promote good practice? A year after the investigation, I resigned from my post with no job to go to. I tried to secure a post but struggled because of the impact of the investigation. I was knocked, battered, bruised, bitter and traumatised. I still am – but everyday less so.

I have learned that:

  • Values are everything and sticking to them navigated me through the mess of emotions
  • Integrity carried me through and I am glad that I behaved the way I did throughout the process
  • Looking after people is the best employer attribute that anyone will remember when they leave
  • If an organisation cannot see your worth, don’t hang around or ‘beg’ them to see what they cannot see

 There’s a few things I think the system could learn from my experience:

  • Look after ALL staff.  No lip service – REALLY do it.  
  • Think carefully about how leaders are treated – otherwise they will walk away – either bitter or broken
  • School leaders need some external coaching support as a mandatory part of the role and it should be put in place as soon as someone gains a school leadership post

 

Working with others and being of value is still my overriding desire – but I now do it on my terms! I support others who lead school communities to enable the best for the children and young people that they serve.  I have re-trained and now offer my newly found skills to others.   I have a great work-life balance and less money – but I have peace.  Priceless.


Case Study: Life After Headship

.

 

In offering my experience as a case study, I hope others will read this and recognise they are not alone in experiencing difficult times in their job. I want others to share my thoughts and learning arising from difficulties so that they can look at their experiences from a positive angle and realise they can benefit from personal hardship even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

I worked in secondary schools for 30 years, 11 as a head. Much of my experience was positive, uplifting and inspiring. On the whole, I’m happy I did it but accept I have very mixed feelings about my experiences, successes and failures. I have learned to accept that some things went well and others did not. That’s it, that’s the way it is. This hasn’t defined me, it’s just part of me.

I don’t feel the need to go into the specific details around my departure from the job. I would rather reflect on the thinking and learning that has seen me through. However, I recognise value in broadly outlining the issues because readers might want to gauge their challenges against other experiences. In short, like all heads and leaders, I faced regular challenges around issues such as finances, standards, Ofsted pressures, managing staff accountability, balancing the belief in being an inclusive school against issues of behaviour management. I have firm beliefs on all of these (obviously) and was always prepared to stand my ground. I had backing from my governors and the Trust I took the school into. Then circumstances changed and I felt the backing disappeared. The new Trust CEO tried to put pressure on me. I was very frustrated by this and frankly felt betrayed. My response was to get ASCL involved and with their help, walked away. ASCL were superb.

Being a head instilled a great deal of self confidence and assertiveness in me. Ironically, it was this that led me to walk away. I backed my values and convictions and told myself I would no longer put up with attitudes and ideas I didn’t agree with and the way others tried to impose them on me which was causing me such misery and anxiety. My values and beliefs told me it was wrong so I summoned up the strength to reject it. Others tried to push me around and I said “no, you aren’t doing that to me”.

About eighteen months before I left my role I began to feel worn down by it all. I found it harder to focus on the job overall and gradually felt my resolve and passion weakening. Top sports players will acknowledge that being only a few percent down on top performance will guarantee defeat. I reflect that my losing my edge by a similar few percent, while not leading to something as immediate as a specific defeat, did lead to me losing appetite for the job. I found it hard to care as much about the usual challenges.

My advice would be to seek someone out who can listen and support objectively. It is only now that I realise many leaders have some sort of coach to work with. I tried to reach out and express my feelings but hadn’t got the appropriate person to do that with. Governors/trustees should look out for your well being in a serious, committed and professional manner but should not be the one/s you confide in because there can be a conflict of their interest in your well being and their role and you are unlikely to feel confident or comfortable. I will say, I did try this with my chair of governors and my CEO. Both let me down personally and I wish I hadn’t reached out to them.

Some heads and leaders in other fields invest in a coach of some sort and some are fortunate enough for their school/trust/employers to provide this. It has become clear to me that this should be provided for all heads as a formal feature of their conditions of service. We must have the well being of our leaders at the forefront of our thinking. It is the humane thing to do but it is also inefficient and negligent not to do this. On a personal level, I am now astounded that I was ignorant of this issue. For heaven’s sake, I coached all of the leaders in my school in one way or another but didn’t have such a resource in place for myself

I think there are examples of my learning throughout this piece but overall I learned to trust myself in terms of backing my ability to come through challenging times. The strategies I adopted to help me move on from headship worked. I now know that the attributes I have, and developed as a headteacher, will stand me in good stead for whatever I do in the future. This has given me great self confidence and strength.

I reckon heads do the vast majority of their job really well pretty much all of the time, it’s a hard job requiring a vast range of skills and attributes, yet we dwell disproportionately on what doesn’t go well. In small part this is a personal mindset issue but is much more to do with the nature and culture of the system we work in.

The obsession with defining and then measuring children’s academic progress and using that as the basis for identifying schools as successful or not is at the root of the problem. So many other facets of education are being held up as more or less important and valuable on the basis of their relationship to so called progress measures. Our system measures and evaluates education, learning and therefore individuals and schools in a way that is inevitably culturally biased and discriminatory. It gives a monopoly on the narrative of what is valuable to an elite minority with the unhappy consequence that we have a system that contributes to our unequal and divided society which currently appears to me to be getting worse not better. Education, we are told by so many of the great minds and leaders in society has the capacity to be the answer to the world’s ills and yet in this country it actually contributes to them. This must change.

We must learn to evaluate our educational leaders on as broad a spectrum of factors as there are involved in the job. We must ensure that we then give due recognition, praise and value to our leaders so that they are motivated and encouraged enough to carry on when aspects of the job get tough. We must ensure appropriate support is in place for these leaders

 

I now work for myself. I laid plans from about 2 or 3 years before I left headship. I began to put the actual business in place from the moment I met with my CEO and decided I was going to leave.

I refer to my business as an education support business because that’s what I want to do; support those in the system. I work with Local Authorities, MATs, individual schools and with individual professionals as well. I am very open minded on how broad this work can be and have so far been lucky enough to earn pretty much the same incoming money as in headship. I am well aware that this type of employment is very risky because I cannot be sure money will always be coming in, that’s the fact of it. That said, at the moment it's fine and I really love the work I do. It’s sad I couldn’t say that about headship; certainly not in the last year to 18 months.

My message to others in similar situations is to make sure you assess your options and identify what other opportunities there could be for you. Have a potential exit strategy. Even if you don’t decide to leave headship, you will feel more in control of your situation. If you do feel the need to leave, trust in your skills, qualities and experience. You have so much to offer, you will move on positively with your well being and self esteem in tact.


Case Study: I am not my job

 

 

I joined HeadsUp in July 2020 after a very difficult 18 months. I became the headteacher of a failing inner-city school in September 2013 at the request of the LA. I led the change from a failing grade to a good school over the next three years. The school joined a Trust in November 2018 and I believed that myself and the trust CEO were on the same wavelength. That we had the same values and vision about education and my school. Sadly, this was not the case, after a turbulent six months I resigned from my position in April 2020. Then Covid happened which has made it difficult to find a new job. It did mean I had the opportunity to home school my two boys, which was great, but it was a big change to go from leading over 600 people on a daily basis to sitting at the dining room table with a seven and an 11 year-old.

Whilst I was in the middle of the situation I didn’t always see the big picture. Now I have had time to reflect I understand how and why it happened. This is a simplified account of the events that led up to my resignation. I am sure it is not a unique story and I know it is not a unique outcome.

Before we joined the trust, the CEO talked about support for all children, a value that I believe in whole heartedly. I am certain that all children should be supported to achieve the very best outcomes possible, including and perhaps prioritising, those most vulnerable children who may not reach ‘expected’ at the end of each key stage. I believed that as a school we should set up a nurture unit for children who were struggling with behaviour needs. This was a costly proposal but the SLT, governors and most staff knew that the children needed us to do this. Unfortunately, this was not a view held by all stakeholders. I went ahead with the nurture unit and it was a success for all children who attended. I stuck to what I knew was right however I did not raise standards at KS2. I was called to a meeting and was offered an exit package under the guise that three members staff had made complaints about me and about the direction of the school. These we not official complaints and the whistleblowing policy was not followed. I refused as I knew I had made the right decision. Six months later I was called to another meeting whereby I was offered another exit package, however, this time is being worded as take the package or you will go onto a support programme. With advice from my union I took the exit package.

As the school joined the trust I believed that my vision and values were similar. However, during the first 12 months of the school being a member of the trust I realised that there was a miss-alignment of these values. I therefore took a principled decision to resign so that I can be a leader I am proud of.

Throughout those 12 months and as I was coming to the final decision my feelings were that of disbelief. Is this really happening to me? After my resignation I went through the five stages of grief:
Denial
Anger
Bargaining
Depression
Acceptance

This was definitely not a linear journey but a complete rollercoaster with loops and returns to the beginning. I am now at ‘acceptance’ but it has taken me a while to get there.

I suppose the main learning outcome from this experience is that I’m not on my own and it is not my fault. This has happened to many heads but until it happened to me I wasn’t really aware. The experience is very isolating. I have learnt a great deal about myself as a person as my job formed part of my identity. Therefore, I felt that part of me had been stolen, I was bitter, angry and lost. I spent months reflecting on myself as a leader but more time on me as a person. The list of learning is not exhaustive, just the highlights.

I am not my job. (Some people know this about themselves but I wasn’t one of them)
It is not my fault. (The route of the issue is in the current education system)
I will be a better leader because of it. (The time I have spent on reflection, including the importance of my values and vision has solidified my belief in the fact that this is the best job in the world)
If I do nothing about this situation the system will continue to do this to leaders. (I need to stand on my soapbox and make the changes from within the system)

I am braver than I believed
I am stronger than I seemed
I am smarter than I thought
What the system could learn

Value the leaders
Value the staff
Value all pupils

Listen to the leaders – they know their staff
Listen to the leaders – they know their pupils
Listen to the leaders – they know their communities

Change the accountability of the Education system
Change the remit for OFSTED to that of support
Change the education system so that it is not part of a four-year political cycle

I am looking for a job and will continue to do so, it is not easy for me as I find interviews difficult. The last few years have been an emotional rollercoaster but I don’t want to get off!


Case Study: Local Authority Let Down

Being a headteacher can be the best job in the world, but it can also be soul-destroying. Sitting at home, on a September weekday for the first time in 25 years, I can actually appreciate how much of the latter my job had become last year. I needed to step away and do something different.

There wasn’t a specific point that made me step away from the job I had really enjoyed for 14 years but reflecting on something in Autumn 2019 brought home what my life had become.

My wife and I were waiting in a hospital ward for our daughter to come back from surgery. A nurse popped her head round the curtain, explained that there had been a few complications, but there was ‘nothing to worry about’, and it would be just be a bit longer before we would be able to see the patient.

So, as the curtain closed, we looked at each other, said something like ‘we’ll just have to wait then’.   Then, I got out my laptop to work on the school development plan and my wife started marking the bag full of books she’d brought.
What had our life come to? 8pm on a weeknight, our daughter was in a recovery room, and our first reaction was to fill the time with work… Worryingly it felt so normal.

I considered myself lucky too. I had a great team to work with, a supportive governing body, and a family that understood the demands. I had strategies I used, like exercise, journaling and meditation, to manage the mental pressure that is a constant in the role of headteacher. But all I did was work and do things to help me survive work.

Once the decision that life wasn’t working was made, weighing up what I should do next was hard. I told myself that if I could take the school, away from the local authority, away from OFSTED, then I could continue.

The positive impact we had on the lives of the children could have kept me going. The smiles on the gate, the buzz on the playground, giving out the personalised stickers for amazing work I got to see.

But it was the feeling of unfairness in the wider system, and the pressures that existing as a leader within it, that meant I needed a break.

A big part was the OFSTED inspection framework that hung constantly like the sword of Damocles over my head.

I’d been lucky – RI was the lowest rating we’d got, and we were still a good school. The reality of the lived experience under the framework is that some schools will always find it harder to reach the hoops set for all school. We had the two challenges of being in a pocket of deprivation in an otherwise leafy county and being a school that attracted children with specific needs, often encouraged by other schools who couldn’t meet those needs, another bone of contention. Put those together with a framework that is based on outcomes rather than provision and it just doesn’t seem like a level playing field.

Or a consistent one. We had five inspections in 14 years, and each one was different. Yes, the framework was different too, but it was the inspectors that walked through the door that made each so different. If felt such a lottery; we never knew if our ticket was going to be a lucky winning one or a ripped up losing slip.

I do understand accountability is important and schools do need to be inspected to ensure they are’s doing what they are meant to be doing. But if that system doesn’t seem fair, any judgment lacks credibility and the uncertainty of the process creates anxiety.

The local authority played its part too, or at least didn’t play its part. In recent years, support got less and less, and processes harder and harder to manage as the functions of finance, HR or school support got commissioned out and that work got more and more time consuming. This all meant frustrating time-consuming distractions from the job I should be doing. New computer systems which were a confusing mess, with lots of necessary ‘work-arounds’ hidden within a unfathomable manual, and where mistakes felt more likely, and higher and higher costs for less and less support. And where was the challenge for schools who thought inclusion was sending their children to us?

As someone who feels that Local Authorities could be great structures to support and challenge schools, mine felt like they had given up and wanted us to go and be an academy. And that didn’t feel fair.

In January, I decided I needed a break from Headship, I wanted a fresh challenge. I asked my shocked Chair of Governors to start the process to find my replacement, saying that I would offer an open-ended resignation, leaving when my replacement could start, to ensure continuity.

At the first time of advertising, they got a good shortlist and appointed someone for new new school year as lockdown started. I had hoped and assumed that I would find a role ready for September, but maybe due to Covid, any opportunities seem to have dried up and I find myself having time to reflect in September without that pressure that comes with starting a school year again.

I’d like to be a headteacher again in the future, to get back to that amazing role that can make such a difference to the lives of many children, but not yet. I’m hoping the education system will improve, it really has to, and I can go back into it.

I am missing work. I like the hard work and pressure that comes with leadership and ideally want to work in an area that makes a difference to the most vulnerable members of our society. Hopefully something will come up soon.

I’m not looking for an easy life, just one that feels fair.