Saturday, 26 September 2015

Finding my way...

Next week, I will be packing my bags and heading back to England for a few days to attend a conference about women in education leadership. I will also spend some time helping with the professional development of some newly-appointed female leaders in their school.  I am always very excited when my experience of education takes a new turn and the recognition of the need for a community of support for women in the profession is a wonderful thing.  It has, along with many other colleagues, made me think of my own experiences and my own feelings about my career.  The more I read and reflect, the more I keep coming across words like ‘confidence’, ‘balance’, ‘guilt’, ‘opportunity’, ‘support’ and ‘choice’.  Various forums have debated these, offering up personal stories, discussing the nature of being a female leader or that of one who is also a mother, arguing out work/life balance, promoting the right to lead authentically and in one’s own style and much more. 

Increasingly, I find myself listening to women considering their careers, who are filled with doubt and tension about what to do next and the only advice I can ever give is to do what is right for them right now. I too have had the sleepless nights and butterflies in the stomach caused by the fear of bad decisions, the terror of messing it all up and having to compromise at the cost of all that hard work.  When I contemplate it all, there is one word that keeps bobbing about in my mind. ‘Permission’.  More specifically, it is the permission I have slowly learned to give myself to do what I think is best for me.  It has been a lengthy and often frustrating journey, but one that may well resonate with others.

If you asked me what has been the significant shift in my attitude, I would say that it has been that instead of seeking others’ approval, their acceptance, their perception of where my career should go, their sense of my professional worth, I can now finally find the validation and direction from within.  This has not been easy.  While I have never been an ambitious, career-driven seeker of opportunity for the sake of it, I care deeply and passionately about education and being an educator.  If I have ever gone for a post or promotion, it has been because it was the right thing for me and it would make me happy to be able to contribute more through that particular role.  As I have moved through my life, other factors have played a part in my happiness – my family, my home, my sense of wellbeing, my close friends, my thirst for knowledge, my understanding of time.   As this has happened, I have had to learn to give myself permission to do what enables me to feel peaceful and happy about my own life, without worrying so much about what other people think about my decisions.  To be honest, if I hadn’t, I would be a miserable wreck and that is no way to lead your life.

It started before I even met my husband or became a parent or had anything else much to think about in my life.  After a very rapid move through promotions in a couple of schools, I suddenly realised that I had been entered into a race I wasn’t even aware existed and it terrified me.  From nowhere, it became about becoming a Deputy Head in order to reach the heights of Headteacher as quickly as possible.  If I didn’t do it in my mid-thirties then I was no longer one of the frontrunners. It bothered me, made me achingly uncomfortable and I felt like I was in danger of letting myself be convinced of what I wanted rather than following my heart. I remember how, one sunny Sunday morning, I suddenly felt an unforgettable sense of calm when I decided that I wanted to go and work elsewhere in education for a few years. Just because it would give me a great experience of so much in the wider system. So that is what I did. It made me even more passionate about education. It made me want to continue on as a school leader because there was work to be done and some incredible people already doing it. Most of all, I did it because I wanted to and not because it was what was expected of me.

Once family happened, my ability to give myself permission to do what was tolerable to my soul became even more important. I found this out after I had cried for 3 weeks straight dreading telling the Head at my very new school that I was unexpectedly pregnant. She was brilliant, told me some enduring home truths about being a working mother and couldn’t have been more supportive when we then had to move due to my husband’s work. Awkward. I had to let myself absorb the guilt and embarrassment of not having control over my own life and career, but equally to accept that nothing would have been worth our family living apart all week, every week. As I said in my leaving speech, my younger, feminist self would have imploded. My older, wiser feminist self was happy to be able to make the choice and be content with it.

A few years later, I had strong words with myself and said it was absolutely ok to say that I didn’t want to be considered for potential promotion to lead a school because I didn’t know if we would be moving again the following year. I knew I couldn’t live with letting anyone down, least of all myself and my own sense of professionalism.  I gave myself permission to skirt the edges of madness holding together a web of support around me and my son, so that I could give it my all again in that second Deputy Headship, with my husband in another demanding role with unpredictable hours.  I learned to ‘let it go’ when things didn’t go to plan. I stopped looking at how many cars were in the car park when I got to school and at the end of my working day, its length dictated by childcare. The world never once ended, I didn’t feel less respected. I realised that if I worked hard, was a nice person and did what I said I was going to do, then nobody cared what time I entered or left the building. My voice was heard and I was taken seriously because I thought about what I said and made sure I knew what I was talking about, not because I declared how busy I was or how many hours I’d worked over the weekend.

Most recently, I gave myself permission to be happy to take a long sabbatical that potentially jeopardised the next steps in my career, because it meant that my family could move abroad for a few years and have an amazing experience together.  Which we are.  I have started studying again, I am very involved in my son’s school, and I indulge myself in writing, which I have always adored.  Every day, I tell myself it is ok to feel a pang when I see someone I know move on to their first Headship, when I watch posts go by in schools I would have loved to lead, when I read about the latest policy I want to be in school to fight from the trenches, when I can’t participate more because I’m not ‘home’.  I have learned to give myself permission to choose the right path for me, for living in the present, and it has been the most liberating thing I have ever done. 

I am entirely at peace with my life, both personal and professional. I wish I’d known that would be the case as a middle leader in her late twenties with no life, a caffeine addiction, plenty of great ideas and too many late nights working, trying so hard to live up to other people’s expectations.  I wish I hadn’t wasted so many hours since then feeling guilty, confused, inadequate, emotionally exhausted and a disappointment because I just didn’t always want, or could do, what others felt I should aspire to.  I wish I could have told myself what I have learned.

Be true to your own ambition, not that of others. Know that it is both good and right to put your personal self ahead of your school self.  You only gain professional respect by walking the walk and being a consistent, compassionate human being. Life is messy, you will always have days when you feel like it has all gone wrong. It all works out fine in the end if your aim is to be happy.

When I left my school last year, someone asked me if I would find it difficult to give it ‘all’ up.  Without even thinking, I simply said that I didn’t feel I had anything to prove to anyone except myself, and I absolutely meant it.  It felt great.

This post was inspired by the WomenEd network and their first ‘unconference’. You can follow @WomenEd on Twitter and more details about their networks and events can be found on their website

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Gently does it...

There are many things to be learned from leadership courses, but in general I am not well suited to them. I have an exceptionally low tolerance of role-playing, team games, hot seating, card sorting and all that other stuff you are made to do to throw you ‘out of your comfort zone’. I have spent many hours half-heartedly throwing balls of paper at targets, drawing various diagrams and creating paperclip towers, but like many, I have always learned best from seeing, doing, making mistakes and putting them right. I have worked with brilliant leaders, terrible ones and others who were finding their way. When I first started my journey into school leadership, I desperately hoped that I would find the right role models and that they weren’t all the very similar, stereotypical ‘blokes in suits’ or ‘unapproachable women in twinsets’ that I kept encountering in my career.  As a relatively young female school leader (back then…), I wanted and needed to know that it was ok to have a gentler, more subtle approach to the whole thing and still be taken seriously.

It has therefore been my great fortune to have worked with some wonderful leaders of all varieties and they have all been hugely influential in how I have grown both personally and professionally. I can only hope to be like any one of them.  Right now though, my mind is very focused on one particular person who would probably never presume to think that she had influenced me at all.  Let me tell you about Jenny. 

Jenny is the person who has been my guide to so much that I would want to be as a leader. At the end of this school year, she will retire as a headteacher, having given her all and then some.  She has always taught, turning her hand to various subjects but mainly as an exceptional teacher of art and photography. She will continue to teach, she loves it too much to step away completely. However, I am sure that many others would join me in saying that perhaps her greatest teaching role has been incidental, that of living and breathing graceful, compassionate, moral, dutiful, robust leadership. All done with a cracking sense of humour, creative flair and quiet humility. 

What I have always admired most in Jenny is that she is herself, always.  She will agree or disagree and make her feelings known, she will ask the question that everyone else is trying hard to avoid. It will be done with care and consideration, but if it falls outside her understanding of what is absolutely right for her school, staff or students, then her tenacity and incisiveness will cut through any amount of smoke and mirrors.  Jenny has her own way of leading, never attempting to emulate that of other colleagues or leaders.  Hers is a calm, steady voice that doesn’t need to raise itself to be heard, because her reasoned, rational wisdom is something we all want to listen to.  There is no ‘flannel’, no artificial persona created to command power or respect, because there is no need for it. She has the knack of entrusting responsibility, stepping back, then asking the right questions at the right time to allow you to shine or to steer you back in the right direction. I have watched her give the over ambitious a mile just so that they can realise for themselves that they only ever wanted an inch, then support them through taking ever greater steps towards their goals.

One thing I really can’t do is ignore the fact that Jenny is, clearly, a woman.  In a world where I am sometimes wearied by being told to lean in/be fierce/speak up/roar as a female professional, it is truly my great fortune to have had a role model so relaxed and discerning with her own traits as a woman.  She can be the listener, the comforter, the lender of advice and the dispenser of hugs. She can be the owner of the demanding arched eyebrow, the softly-spoken yet razor-sharp inquisitor, the instigator of the difficult conversation, the gently nagging voice in your head.  Nobody wants to displease her or let her down, not out of fear, but because they know that she will take it upon herself to make things as they should be and you will feel that your loyalty to the collective mission has been tarnished. Forgiveness is immediate, but goodness me how you will work to make it up to her and give of your very best, just so you can look her in the eye again. 

I have shared tears of laughter, frustration, sadness and raw emotion with Jenny.  She held it together giving staff our OFSTED feedback, letting them know how highly we had all been praised, but it took one moment of eye contact for us both to be moved to tears by pride and relief.  She has delivered sad news of the illness and passing of staff and students, making it her personal business to keep in touch, visit and bring human compassion to their families way beyond the role of colleague or headteacher.  Her voice has cracked during many a speech, but she has never been too proud to just stop, breathe a while, then carry on.

On a very personal level, I couldn’t have asked for a better role model when it came to work-life balance.  Jenny encouraged us all to not eat ‘al desko’, always asked what we were doing at the weekend, often shared what she had been up to, teased us when we spoke of weekends chained to laptops or marking.  Above all else, in a school already incredibly family-friendly, she completely understood the value of supporting teachers with families.  How could we not want to give more and be better when we could do our jobs and get to go to the Christmas play or the awards assembly, stay home with our sick children or deal with family emergencies without being made to feel the external pressure of guilt? Likewise, those without families could earn their day at Glastonbury or their best mate's wedding by cannily being asked to do something in return for the good of the school.  They paid it back several times over, gladly.

In my case, with a husband in the Forces and away for almost a whole academic year, working full-time as a Deputy Head with a four year old would have driven me insane if it were not for Jenny’s support and outright knack for being eminently sensible.  No, the world will not end if you can’t deliver your Year 9 Options presentation because your son has been throwing up all day and wants his mum, not a babysitter.  It shall be dealt with and we shall speak of it no more.  When I told her that we had the opportunity for the experience of a lifetime as my husband had been offered a posting abroad, she simply said, “These are other people’s children, of course you must go.” There was no disapproving lecture about my career trajectory or leaving the school. Life is not a rehearsal.

No number of leadership courses could ever teach me any of these lessons in how to be a great leader; a great female leader; a great person who happens to be a female leader. One who is gladly followed, much loved and enormously respected by all.  I know that I don’t have to be anything other than myself, that understated is as good as shouting from the rooftops, that showing your humanity is exposing but powerful.  I know that I do not need to be part of a 'club', the most visible person in the room or concerned with the recognition of my peers. I know that it is ok to quietly listen while the ideas form in my mind then ask the questions that need to be asked. I also know that reaping your own rewards from a job done well and with care for others is a wonderful thing.

Jenny will be mortified that I wrote any of this, but deserves every word. Having been her colleague at various points in our careers, I am deeply honoured to know that she is also my friend. It will be my privilege to continue to learn from her.

“Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed.
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It's in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need of my care,
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me. “

(extract from ‘Phenomenal Woman’ by Maya Angelou)

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

It's just what we do...

“By schools, for schools” is a mantra deeply ingrained in my educational psyche and may be familiar to some of you as the tagline for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) over the years.  It is a phrase that keeps coming back to me in this time of change, trepidation and hope as education policy shifts once again and we find ourselves in the midst of an extraordinary power game.  Above all else, we can see the fear culture that has been patiently building in the background coming to the fore and gripping many of us.  We hear of changes in “powers”, of “orders”, “letters direct from the Secretary of State”, “no right of appeal”, etc, etc. 

Well, well. Strong language. Sure to stir up emotions. All in the name of ‘raising standards’.  All pretty heart-breaking, really. In the meanwhile, lists of ‘coasting’ schools are made public (a bit of naming and shaming always helps, does it?) while leadership teams across the country spend hours of their time trying to work out if they could be next, devoid of any clear definitions of what would make them ‘coast’.  While the fear spreads, paralysis sets in and the system-wide spirit of innovation, inquiry and self-improvement is in danger of gradually fading. Survival becomes the priority, avoiding the shame of failing your community becomes the goal, the potential of losing your job a reality. 

We are in danger of many schools behaving in that weird way we often do when we are being observed teaching and having a bit of a wobbly day because our confidence has taken flight. We over-think, over-plan, trip on our words, misplace our resources, crow-bar in the things that will tick the right boxes, produce document after document to justify the efficacy of our teaching.  Above all else, we confuse the students with our obsessive control on what they are doing, learning or saying.  Worst of all, in our hearts we know that at best it was a mediocre lesson and that they were definitely short-changed. We stop listening to ourselves and don’t want to hear what others have to say.  Imagine if everyone in the school behaved that way.  What a miserable experience of education for the learners.  How dreadful if most schools were like that.

So, ‘by schools, for schools’ is of course, an apt, handy and obvious phrase to keep in mind.  I’ll be bold and say that we have moved on enormously from the days of being isolationist and competitive with the ‘school up the road’ and venture so far as to say that there is a stronger collegiality that has built up through both necessity and a deeper understanding of being in this whole business of education together. For every bad ‘takeover’, there is a story of great partnership.  We know that this has not always been the case but it is where we have hope.  It is our greatest weapon against the fear that threatens to grip us.  Allow me to reminisce...

In the mid-noughties, I stepped out of school for three years and worked for SSAT as part of a team that facilitated school improvement programmes.  One of these was commissioned by the DfE to tackle, wait for it, ‘coasting’ schools.  They were defined from their overall results over a three-year period, their contextual value-added and meeting suggested targets from RAISE and FFT data.  These schools received a letter.  It told them that they had been identified as being ready to benefit from some support in order to improve outcomes for their students.  It offered them a modest amount of additional funding, exploratory conferences, peer-to-peer support, and a network of schools who were there to share their improvement journeys and solutions.  I spent a lot of time phoning schools to follow up the letter, convincing them that there wasn’t a catch and that this was all about support and opportunity, not a telling off. For many, the naming of the underperformance elephant in the room was a relief. They were ready for change but hadn’t known where to go, knowing only that their local authority didn’t think they were good enough and that they were part of a limited and often static network.

The programme was called ‘Raising Achievement Transforming Learning’. There were ‘mentor’ schools and headteachers, all of whom had been asked to contribute because they had done what the programme said on the tin and the vast majority were still in post. School leaders and teachers mingled, shared and connected across geographical boundaries and very often with their ‘competitors’ in the same authority. The good and the great of the education world spoke at conferences and seminars, making research accessible and practical. The strategies shared, the innovations trialled and undertaken, the partnerships forged, the sheer creativity that erupted from these connections were often breathtaking.  For most, results improved, for some, dramatically.  The changes made in many of those schools were not just quick fixes but bold new directions that invigorated the learning experience for both students and teachers. Data became a tool for analysis, not merely a measurement, the curriculum was an exciting place to motivate and capture the imagination of students.  It seemed to work for most of the schools. The energy was wondrous. A very different approach to school improvement than the current one, then, in spirit, language and ethos. A lot of schools even thought it was… (sssshhhh) enjoyable.

Nothing is perfect, even with hindsight, and we live in times of austerity. It is never useful to idealise or to try to replicate what has passed. However, my wistful reminiscing has made me smile with optimism. As much as thoughtfully-worded letters and the promise of a supportive, creative community inspired those despairing school leaders, it was a domain devised and created to help ‘by schools for schools’ become a reality for them that made the difference.  We are in a much better place now, aren’t we? So much peer-to-peer and school-to-school support happens because that is how we do things now, the exchange of ideas and innovation has become organic and system-led, our collegiality as a profession is arguably the best it has ever been, we communicate endlessly in person and using all the media available to us. We understand our own data and are knowledgeable enough to critically analyse external measures. We have created a friendly community with the shared aim of making education the best it can be, there is innovation, creativity and bold-thinking all around us. We don’t really need to create networks and opportunities for professional learning in quite the same way we used to. By schools, for schools. It’s just what we do.

In the unfriendly era of shaming lists, feared letters, the dread of unwanted ‘takeovers’ from unknown quantities, the pressure to play it safe, it is this community we have grown that will keep the paralysis of fear at bay. One of the biggest lessons I learned a decade ago working with those schools is that sometimes, the hand of friendship needs to be extended to those who need it most.  Often they are the ones who have already begun to retreat into themselves, ready to do only what they think will please everyone and make them go away. The successful, thriving schools, leaders and teachers who are confident and popular, share wonderful insights, appear to be at the cutting edge of innovative thinking and mingling in all the right places can be scary, too.  If we are going to continue to make schools the key agents of change and not the ‘fear’ regime of policy makers, we need to remember those who are already losing sleep, offer our support and have the humility to remember that yes, “we are all in it together”. Let’s just try to do it before the letter arrives.  Let’s show them who really has the power to make the difference.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Time to view the horizon...

I have so far avoided the intimidating jump into the world of blogging, but a number of recent events have led me to feel the fear and do it anyway. I should explain myself a little, I guess. Having been a secondary Deputy Headteacher in two schools for the past 7 years, I am currently taking an extended career break/sabbatical/step back from twenty years (how did that happen?) in the English education system and living a bit of a dream with my family in Italy.  Not one to let go, I have had the privilege of being part of the SSAT Vision 2040 group, which has recently released the publication ‘A vision for education – beyond five-year policy cycles’ ( I have added a link to this at the end).  The exchange of ideas and values that led to this vision has been completely inspirational.  I haven’t stopped thinking about what a great future it would be if it became reality.

So, while I soak up the sunshine and try not to indulge in too much wine and ice cream, the one thing I have been able to do, for the first time in years, is stand in the distance and cast an eye over the landscape I have left behind. Clarify my vision, check my maps, making sure that my compass is set straight. What I see both troubles and excites me.  Much of this is to do with what dismayed me before I stepped away, most of which is to do with political whim playing with our education system, all of which has fallen sharply into focus as we head towards the General Election.

I ought to confess early on that when I hear the latest ill-conceived proclamation of what actual or aspiring secretaries of state for education feel is ‘best’, I crave being at the front line and feel guilty for not being a present and correct comrade in arms with my colleagues at school.  I hear and see their exasperation, anger and sometimes their sense of resignation when changes are made to performance measures, inspection guidelines, examinations, external assessment, the national curriculum, pay and conditions, pensions, funding – and the rest.  I witness time and energy spent trying hard to hold on to principles and values while trying to protect their schools from the very real harm that can be done by being the brave non-conformists who don’t change everything to please inspection teams and deflect desktop analyses of adequacy.  Judgements made around ‘the gap’.  Ah yes, if you aren’t trying to close the gap then you are ‘racing to the bottom’, part of ‘the blob’ and ‘enemies of promise’.  (I will ‘let it go’ with regards to those particular insults one day, but not quite yet, they are important to hold on to for motivational purposes).

The more I scan all that is done in the name of the gap, the more I find myself troubled by the ownership that has been taken of its definition.  When we strip away the narrow view of exam outcomes that ‘matter’, when we look at what is being poured into ring-fenced Pupil Premium funds while budgets are being shrunk, when we look at the mechanisms by which you stand or fall as a school depending on how you address the former with the latter, we know that doing our best will never be deemed good enough by those who deem to judge us. Why? Because it is a faceless definition.  It doesn’t want to take the individual child, school or community into account.  Yes, in an ideal world all children would have the same life chances, equal career opportunities, access to future financial security, good prospects for physical and mental wellbeing because they were able to ‘do well’ at school.  What we all know is that ‘doing well’ can mean so many things for so many different children and for most it really isn’t having a brace of ‘good’ GCSEs, defined by someone else, that is going to get them ahead in life or inspire their love of learning.

While we’re at it, what else won’t transform their lives?

Being baseline tested at the start of their reception year and potentially labelled for life by means of a conversation (because all 4 and 5 year olds are great at telling you what they know or can do - my son told me he’d done nothing but sit on the rug all day at school today, must be lower percentile…).

Being tested to sound out real and nonsense words to see if they have grasped phonics, because all children learn to read the same way, of course. Oh, and not sure if testing this on the ‘brightest’ ones earlier is going to prove very much of use.

Being taught vast amounts of content at the cost of the skills to interpret and make meaning of it.

Being able to know their times tables when they leave primary school, which would clearly make year 6 a barrel of laughs for any child who isn’t able to progress to this with ease (or who is fond of their primary school leadership team).

Being made to resit tests in year 7 that they couldn’t ‘pass’ in year 6 even if they require specialist, scaffolded, personalised intervention for all of that first year, preferably from a qualified teacher.

Being subjected to endless learning of ‘knowledge’ in KS3, (possibly not from a specialist teacher due to shortages), coupled with having to try retaining it all in training for their future high-stakes exams.

Being forced to take subjects that don’t play to their strengths and passions at GCSE, then getting ‘poor’ grades because they can’t remember two years’ worth of content or get it all written down in a two hour exam.

Being in schools that are underfunded, suffering teacher shortages, lacking decent, co-ordinated welfare support systems and part of a national set up that has seen increasing financial corruption and mismanagement (here’s looking at you, favoured Academy chains, UTCs and Free Schools…)

I could go on. I am horrified at these and most of the other actual and intended policies inflicted by our current government should it remain in power.  I despair at schools and children being judged as successful based on a group of subjects they have the arrogance to call an English Baccalaureate. I mourn the years of freedom and creativity that came with specialist schools, a wide range of ‘acceptable’ exam courses and a recognition of the value we truly add to our own communities of learners. I regret that some made it a way of playing the system.  I wish we had not had the kicking we have just experienced for the past five years.

Someone asked me the other day if I could see myself trying to be a Headteacher given all of the above (I may have been having a bit of an after-dinner state education warrior rant, we’ve all been there).  My immediate response was that no, I couldn’t possibly do what the current government would want me to do because it sat so badly with my own moral compass.  Then I remembered and changed my reply immediately to a resounding ‘yes, if they would let me’. I remembered the bright, bright light that I catch a glimpse of daily.  The tweets, blogs, articles, journals, publications that are shining through the darkness of the policy fog.  The light that shines from

the Heads that have decided to work together to create alternative curriculum models

the schools that are peer reviewing to get the clear picture OFSTED can’t provide 

those who are activists in teacher-to-teacher CPD and research, who are tireless in creating opportunities for this to happen

the partnerships that are doggedly pulling together support around children who need it despite the cuts and bureaucracy

those who are making more sense of the post-levels apocalypse than any civil servant could dare to imagine

the swelling numbers pushing for a College of Teaching that is ours, built by us and owned by us, doing what we need it to do

the senior leaders refusing to be bullied into making children take courses that will brand them failures by working across partnerships to create alternative provision

those who have to make the budget work yet still hold onto their integrity and values to deliver the education that they and their schools believe in and need

That is the profession and community that I remember before the fog descended. That is the profession I am intensely, ferociously proud of.  It is taking back the power and it grows ever-stronger.  It will be resilient enough to continue on, whatever the future holds, because political whim will not be strong enough to trample its course, not again.  We understand that the gap is not about the approved exam passes, it is about confidence.  Our confidence as a profession to do what we know is right for the children in our schools. It is about both them and us having confidence, self-belief, aspiration, resilience and the knowledge of what it truly means to be ‘good’ in life.  By taking this pathway, together as a system, we can surely make some difference to the important gaps created in the stability and success of our schools and the social mobility of our students.

As the outcomes of this election become clearer, I urge you, comrades, to take a moment to view the horizon as I have done.  We don’t need to wait for the glorious day, it is entirely in our power to be living it now.  Whatever the politicians think. I shall be cheering you on.

You can download the Vision 2040 pamphlet here: