La La Land

la-la-land

There was a time when the Local Authority ruled supreme. The LA controlled all schools and, as such, all schools were linked. The LA collected all the money from central government and decided how it would be shared across its schools. The LA kept some money back for itself to create services that its schools would – must – use. These ranged from the sort of corporate services (that head teachers hoped they wouldn’t need to use – or understand – such as HR and Legal) to educational services (that head teachers were told they needed to use to improve further, such as school improvement officers and LA-wide data sets). Every school was entitled to LA support and this ensured that no school was left behind.

Except, of course, some were.

There is a truth that should be universally acknowledged: some schools, sometimes, go wrong.

Welcome to LA land.

When this happened, the LA would spring into action. The school would be given more support until it improved. It would have to improve because there was no option for it not to. Sometimes improvements came quickly, sometimes they did not. Schools are complex beasts and they can’t always be fixed by chucking money and resources at it. But, as the LA controlled everything, they had ultimate accountability and there was nowhere for them to hide.

Sometimes, other schools moaned about the LA. What did the LA ever do for them? Forget all the corporate services – who cares about them? – why couldn’t they get more out of the LA? Why was the LA always concerned with the crap schools and not theirs? Why were some of the LA services rubbish? Why couldn’t schools seek out their own services that could be better? Of course, schools that were succeeding could enjoy complete autonomy by creating their own infrastructures; shaping their own curriculum; devising their own approaches to teaching and learning; bringing in their own CPD opportunities; managing their own budgets and working in collaboration with other schools if they wished. Technically, as long as they were delivering the goods, it didn’t really matter. And maybe these schools could be forgiven for wondering what the LA, apart from admissions, safeguarding and SEND arrangements, was actually doing for them.

Then, somebody had a bright idea. Schools could come out from under the LA’s control. They could be standalone schools. Free to do whatever they wanted and, what’s more, they would have more money with which to do it with.

More money?

How?

Because you wouldn’t have to give the LA any money for all their services as you’d be getting them from somewhere else. Up and down the land, schools began to imagine the possibilities. Finally, they could employ their own caterers, HR officers, Lawyers, and accountants. It was as if every educationalist’s dream had come true. Even better than that, you’d be totally on your own. Free from the shackles of the LA who were either leaving you alone to get on with it, or, getting involved because something had gone wrong.

True, some schools couldn’t really see the benefits and decided to carry on as normal.

But those that could see some benefits busied themselves with becoming an academy. Not a school. An academy. An academy where new freedoms meant they could do whatever they wished. Free to spend every penny of the people’s money to get better results, for otherwise, what would have been the point? Academies sought out alternative corporate services and invented ways to generate additional income revenues. Some of them, presumably, found newer ways to deliver teaching and learning that LA schools were not aware of. We heard less about this bit.

Gradually the LA responded by improving its services. Schools, who had never even been aware of the myriad of backroom services provided by the LA, were suddenly invited to meetings to discuss how to improve the quality of the LA’s core offer. Without having to change the name of the school, or having to become a Principal Executive, Heads were becoming more involved in improving the business side of their school. And all at no extra cost.

Then the costs began. Not satisfied with Local Authorities offering their schools more ‘freedoms’ the government decided to further weaken the LA through economic strangulation. Meanwhile, those academies who were (to everyone’s surprise, not least of all theirs) also facing the pinch were resorting to alternative strategies to try and convince their board members that everything was still A-OK; such as flouting admission rules to engineer their pupil intake and using questionable exclusion policies to drive out vulnerable pupils. This heady mix of dubious uses of academy freedoms and local authority neutering only served to make life harder in LA land.

However…

A dim light had been switched on. A cheap neon sign that read ‘join us’ flickered in the dark. Illuminated promises of ‘freedoms’ and ‘cash’ burned the retinas of every LA maintained Head that stared at it for too long. And stood there, flicking the switch as they handed out their glossy ‘sign now, read later’ articles of association, were the regional school commissioners. MATs, they whispered, were the answer. Multi Academy Trusts are the only way you’ll make your school work. The LA is dead. Step over its twitching corpse and join a MAT. Why, we’ll even let you create your own. Imagine that! Create your own MAT [subject to our approval] and the world could be yours!

What could schools do? No matter where they looked they were either facing cuts, a diminishing service from the LA and increasing demands from the communities they served. And all the time the RSCs were whispering matspeak into their ears. Gradually, one by one, they walked towards the light, unable to notice if they were getting burned.

Multi Academy Trusts are the future.

Resistance is futile.

Soon there will be one MAT to rule us all.

Resistance is futile.

There will be a time when the MAT will rule supreme. The MAT will control all schools and, as such, all schools will be linked. The MAT will collect all the money from central government and decide how it will be shared across its schools. The MAT will keep some money back for itself to create services that its schools would – must – use. These will range from the sort of corporate services (that heads of school hope they’ll never need to use or understand, such as HR and Legal) to educational services (that heads of school will be told by the Exec they need to use in order to improve further, such as school improvement officers and MAT-wide data sets). Every school will be entitled to MAT support and this will ensure that no school is left behind.

Except, of course, some will be.

There is a truth that should be universally acknowledged: some schools, sometimes, go wrong.

Welcome to La La land.

The lightness of being

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As I walked out of my office, for the last time on the final day of my first ever Ofsted inspection as a Head, I made some off the cuff gag to the governors who were waiting. This prompted the Lead Inspector to slap me on the back and say ‘I can’t believe he’s still smiling, he’s had a tough old two days, and he’s still smiling.’

I had. And I was.

Not because I am some super-being. (Although the 360-degree survey I conducted on myself shows that I’m darn close). Not because I didn’t get the gravity of the situation. (We’d just been placed in RI, the lowest outcome for the school in a hundred years, so, yes, I had realised that the week’s newsletter was going to require some careful editing.) Not because I was drunk. (That was to happen 91 minutes later.)

The reason why I was still making cheap gags at such a time was because…why not?

I enjoy being alive. It’s fun. If I can’t smile, what’s the point?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not some irritating buffoon who feels the need to make light of misery. I wouldn’t for example, on hearing the news that…

[Blank space representing all the inappropriate jokes in relation to serious incidents that my editor has deemed it necessary to delete even though I claimed that my readers were intelligent people and could understand the difference between me actually being offensive and me making a point. But, my editor argued, you’ll put it out on twitter and they’re mostly idiots.]

…of course I wouldn’t say that! That would just be highly insensitive and extremely offensive.

But even though I don’t make light of serious issues, I see no problem in tackling serious issues with a lightness of touch. This enables hard messages to be communicated clearly but sensitively. It allows points of view to be heard. It provides freedom of speech without either side feeling battered by an over-bearing and one-sided narrative.

In times of united struggle, being able to end on a light note, doesn’t so much provide others with hope, (that would be an incredibly pretentious claim) but it can help put things in perspective. It can allow others to take a breath and relax before fighting on.

Twitter could do with gaining a lightness of touch. I don’t want this to sound like the hundred other blogs out there that say: Why is everyone so mean? Why can’t we all just get on? I don’t want everyone to get on. I want there to be discourse and conversation. I want passionate teachers to spar with each other on the educational battlefield.

What I don’t want, and what is beginning to be boring, is the joyless and heavy bombardment of over-serious and self-worthy laments. These tedious battles that end up nowhere. I mean, come on people: WAR! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

I don’t care what side you’re on. I don’t care what your beliefs are. Just remember: this is Twitter! It’s next to meaningless. Nobody cares, that much, what you do in your classroom. What you say might be interesting but then again, it might not be. If you put it out there be prepared for others to ignore it or knock it down. Don’t object. Get over it. If they’re ‘abusing’ you, report them or block them. But don’t tell everyone you’ve blocked them whilst tweeting a ton of screenshots of something they said fifteen years ago before twitter was invented as if we care about your justification: just do it.

If people in the real world have an issue with your beliefs, go and work somewhere else. You’ll be happier. If you can’t and if the real world is being unfair and unjust, tell us about it and we will all rally round and support you. Because that’s why we all signed up to this. We want to make friends, learn something, and support the education community. Oh, and we want to occasionally tweet funny things that happened to us or share the occasional gif of a cat ice skating or whatever.

So, please, Twitter: lighten up!

I: Head

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The Big Bang

I doubt there are many Heads who don’t consider themselves to be top of the tree. That’s why we took on the job, right? We had the belief that we were the best person to oversee the running of an entire school. I bet most of us got that inkling when we first walked around the building before we even applied for the job; we just knew that something was right here and that this school was a perfect fit. Sure, others might be able to do a perfectly reasonable job, but, when we received the call from the Chair of Governors saying we’d got the headship, we knew that it was because they had seen what we knew: no one was going to do the job better than us.

Few of us (I hope) have the ego that makes us believe we would be the best in any school. No way! But I bet most of us believe that we were the only choice for our school. I know I did. I felt an immediate affinity with my school, as if somehow, I knew it better than anyone else. I could see through it and I understood what was holding it back. I could see its potential. I believed that only I could unlock its strengths. I knew we belonged together.

I know one day I won’t feel that. One day it’ll dawn on me that I can no longer see the school for what it is. I will be blind. I may care more about preserving its name and covering up its secrets rather than constantly exposing its faults to make it stronger. When that day comes, the school will need someone else at the helm. I will require replacing. I will need to look for a new school that needs me.

Superhead

So, you’re the Head of the school. You have all the plans and all the ideas. You have the capacity to inspire, uniting your community in striving to achieve the ambitions you have for the school. You are respected and people warm to your leadership.

That’s great. But that will only get you so far.

I thought my leadership was pretty darn great in my first year. A friend of mine regularly reminds me that I once judged my leadership to be a solid nine out of ten. This causes him no end of amusement especially when I am in the middle of some crisis. However, I stand by the fact that in my first year I was great! I think it’s easier to be good in your first year of headship at a new school. Your role, in that first year, is simpler. Have a plan, convince everyone that you know what you’re doing and end the year with most people on your side. Yes, you are building teams but you’re building your teams. You work tirelessly, often independently, but hopefully not in isolation.  I worked with some fantastic people in my first year and they helped me no end but for most of the time it was ‘my show’.

The point of your first year however is to end it with it no longer being just ‘your show’. And then of course, being a Head becomes much harder.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

Since my first year I don’t think I’ve reached the dizzying heights of a ‘nine out of ten’ ever again. The job is so much harder. Headship, post year one, is not a job that can be done alone. Partly because the more you do it the more you become aware of the role’s complexities; partly because situations arise that really test you; partly because the job itself evolves. What becomes clearer though, the more you do it, is how much you need strong people around you. I am lucky that I have a very close senior leadership team. Between us, we know what the rest of us are like. We know our strengths, weaknesses and our characters. For me, them knowing what I am like, is invaluable.

I know what I’m like. Therefore, I know what I will shy away from; what I will find uncomfortable; what I would rather not do. Sometimes this helps. I don’t, for example, like confrontation. Therefore, I try to minimise the need for confrontation through my leadership style. This works, most of the time. When it doesn’t, I am blessed to have a leadership team who will challenge me to go out of my comfort zone. They will recognise the signs that I am avoiding something and push me to get it sorted. Occasionally they misunderstand my perceived avoidance; they cannot see that it is a masterful strategic action that is several steps ahead of the game that they are, as yet, unaware of…sometimes they are bang on the money.

I am eternally grateful for this challenge and the way in which the people around me challenge me to see things from different perspectives. I trust them because I value their integrity and their motives: they want to work in the best school possible. They are able to challenge me because they know I want that too.

There are still times when I excel as a leader. There are plenty of other times when those in my orbit outshine me. Often, when I lead well, it is because I know that it is expected of me, or, because other leaders have prompted me to do so. Either way, who cares, so long as it enables the school to move forward?

I doubt there are many Heads who don’t consider themselves to be top of the tree. But I bet most of them will acknowledge that one of the perks of being in that tree is knowing that they are in good company.