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: 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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.