Headship: a multicoloured trip to the lav

It has been two terms since taking on a new headship. For anyone interested in knowing what it’s like, taking on a new school, I can only describe it like this:

It is like looking through a kaleidoscope whilst trying to find the toilet during the middle of the night.

A new school is so exciting. As you explore each nook of the building, cranny of the curriculum; as you dive into the data and ponder the provision, you begin to see its potential. Enjoy this moment for it is the most luxurious time of your tenure. Nothing is, yet, your fault. You flit between experiencing what the school has to offer and evaluating its effectiveness. As you do so, you begin to make two lists: things that you’ll protect and things that you’ll change.

The school opens up to you. It lets you know what it’s about in big and bold colours. Each day, as your understanding develops, the kaleidoscope shifts slightly, and a multitude of epiphanies are reflected back at you, indicating all the possibilities that could be available.

It is immensely liberating. Although be careful not to get too giddy. You must carefully pass on your ideas to the new people who surround you, and, know when to take their counsel. You must nurture these new relationships in order for you to ring the necessary changes whilst enshrining what is scared. New Heads be warned: kill a sacred cow at your peril. (Kill a false prophet by all means but make sure you, and everyone else, knows the difference between the two!)

I can’t decide what I like the most: realising that you need to completely change something wholesale, or, knowing that all something needs is a little tweak. Either way, it’s the being able to enlighten everyone to your way of thinking that’s the real buzz. Do it right and they’ll either be grateful that you’ve overhauled something that was causing them gyp, or, they’ll be pleased that you’ve recognised what works but given it a little polish. Those early quick wins set you up for the long game. It’s a positive and energising period of your leadership – and hopefully others will think so too.

But, then again, finding yourself in a new school is sometimes just plain weird. They do things differently round ‘ere. It’s sort of the same but, then again, totally different. There will be times when you know what needs doing but acting upon it, in the way that you would normally, just doesn’t cut it. Their systems are different. Their procedures, although based on the same fundamentals of logic and necessity, are odd. What used to take you five minutes is now taking up a whole afternoon.

Being in a new school is like being in a strange alternative version of your previous reality. It’s like overhearing a conversation and wondering why you can’t understand a third of it before realising they’re speaking in Welsh. It’s like that dream where you’re in your house (but it’s not your house) with your friends (but they’re all friends from different times in your life and they shouldn’t really know each other) and they’re asking you questions (but no matter how loudly you scream they can’t hear).

Or, it’s like going to the toilet in the dark: you know there’s a light switch somewhere on the wall but you can’t locate it; you know there are some steps on the way to the loo but you can’t remember how many; there’s a big chest of drawers on the landing but you can’t see it so you reach out with your arm and tentatively pat the air hoping your hand finds it before your groin; you basically end up moving an inch at a time like a soldier walking across no-man’s land.

The landscape is familiar and yet alien. And, as exciting as all this new potential is, you need to climatize to your new environment. Giving yourself time to adjust to your new setting is an important part of making the right start. It is disconcerting. Especially when you know that if you were back in your school you would know what to do immediately. But don’t let pride stop you from asking questions, saying you don’t know, or, admitting to an LSA that you can’t remember their name or telling a parent that you don’t know how to unlock the school gate. Yes, you might look stupid, but you will come across as human.

Soon, I will be entering the second phase of a new headship. For anyone interested in knowing what it’s like, entering the second phase of new headship, I can only describe it like this:

It’s like steering a ship whilst trying to find the toilet during the middle of the night.

Welcome to the upside-down.

The Upside Down is an alternate dimension existing in parallel to the human world. It contains the same locations and infrastructure as the human world, but it is much darker, colder and obscured by an omnipresent fog.

[Stranger Things Wiki]

I hope Amanda Spielman wasn’t on Twitter this weekend. I mean, if she’s irritated by all those Headteachers’ blogs that ‘spin up levels of anxiety’ about Ofsted, she really wouldn’t have found #OfstedSongs very funny.

Thinking about it, I think it was a bit churlish for the Chief to have a pop at blogs about Ofsted. I would have thought she’d approve of such things: a singular viewpoint based on a narrow set of experiences gathered over a limited time-frame…isn’t that the original template for the inspection handbook?

Poor old Ofsted. Having to put up with a Colossus of Heads, all chomping at the bit to put the boot in, via their intergalactic blogs. About time someone had a word. I would like to offer a timid riposte, if I may? I don’t think any Headteacher, by sharing their reality of Ofsted, should be accused of ‘spin’. If it was spin, then surely they could be asked to change the content so that it was more in line with the truth. Couldn’t Ofsted, if they felt so aggrieved, complete a factual accuracy check on these blogs?

No blog about Ofsted, that I have read, could be accused of being an unwarranted scare-story. They are sometimes painful to read. But they are often Headteachers articulating their own difficulties with the Ofsted process. I think this is fair enough. Whether they are responding to personal experiences, or, sharing concerns about the known (or unknown) elements of inspection, they are still valid voices. They deserve to be heard – by educators and inspectors – so that Ofsted can evolve.

I agree with Ms Spielman when she talks about those school leaders who have become too focused on Ofsted ratings. A leader’s job is to do what is right for the school because…well, just because! I can’t think of a single decent decision that could be made to please Ofsted that would also guarantee school improvement.

  • Hastily putting up those British Values posters that you bought online…No.
  • Requiring teachers to formally respond to pupils’ responses to teachers’ feedback…Not a chance.
  • Over-aiding Y6 SATS…Nice try.
  • Inventing a progress point system that replicates levels…Dude, just follow @jpembroke already!
  • Buying in a truckload of ‘verbal feedback given’ stamps…That’s sooooo last framework.
  • Forcing staff to have mindfulness staff meetings to support their well-being…Your teachers will destroy you in the Ofsted staff questionnaire.

But these aren’t Heads who are spreading anxiety about Ofsted…they’re just poor leaders who will, most likely, be the ones who are soon bleating about staff retention problems.

So, yes: GO SPIELMAN! Do whatever you can to make sure that Ofsted is not the limit of leaders’ aspirations. But when it comes to uncomfortable blogs about Ofsted, please recognise that it’s you that must change. It’s not the fault of bloggers that, for some leaders, Ofsted dominates their world and causes them to wonder if that’s all there is to headship. That fault lies with you, your predecessors, and your team of Inspectors.

My advice would be to learn from the blogs that seem to be causing you so much pain. Engage with the Heads who are writing them. Don’t dismiss them as spook stories set in an upside-down reality where Ofsted is the ever-lurking Demogorgon. These Heads are writing chapters in the book of your legacy. Just as you should rightly celebrate those blogs that say ‘Ofsted was really positive for us’ you must also take seriously those that call out your failures.

Speaking for myself, I don’t do anything for Ofsted. Not a darn thing. I try to be an effective Head and do my best not to think about you. I consider you to be nothing more than a brief encounter. I hope, when it next happens, it will be fair, without fear and favour. But I’ll be ready if it isn’t. If needs be, I will venture down, into the dark underbelly of the Ofsted upside-down, and I will drag you back up into the light and hold you aloft for all to see.

Listening to you, and Sean Harford, I’m sure that won’t happen. Logic says that if I do what is right by my school then Ofsted will do right by me. That is something that Ofsted and I agree on. So, come on Amanda, let’s lighten up, put on some #OfstedMusic, and dance!


What dreams may come?


I started a new school in September. Compared to my last school, it’s twice the size, is in a more challenging area and has an almost reversed picture of achievement over the last three years. In short: I’ve got my work cut out.

I was told yesterday that I had just passed the 50 days of new headship milestone. That sounded weird. In some ways I already feel such a connection with the school but at the same time, my time here has passed in the blink of an eye. My Deputies and I chuckled at their ‘favourite moments so far’ – which mainly consisted of me being a) lost, b) swearing, c) swearing whilst lost.

My new team are under no illusion about the challenges the school faces. We have a lot to do to turn this big old ‘supertanker’ (as one Head described the school to me) around. But, everyone seems up for it. It all started with the development plan. That was written at a pace that surprised even me – turns out it’s quite easy to write a development plan when the data is only showing one colour, and when the staff are committed to improvement. Despite being only 50 days in, the road to improvement has started in earnest. Although, when my Chair of Governors asked me how far the ‘supertanker’ had already turned I did have to make clear that all we had really done was get the map out on the table for everyone to see…but it’s a start!

In terms of scale, I can’t decide whether this is the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a leader. In terms of ‘bums on seats’, then yes, this school is the biggest. In terms of the scale standards need to improve, then yes, probably.

And yet…

People who know me have commented that I seem more relaxed than I ever have in my entire career. I can’t deny that, for the first time in my adult life, I am sleeping really well. Odd, considering the scale of the challenge I am facing.

Why is this?

Some of this must be down to the ‘honeymoon’ period. I can sleep at night because none of it’s my fault! I don’t mean that I am regularly throwing my predecessor under the bus…that wouldn’t be classy, fair, or truthful. But it is so exhilarating to be the fresh pair of eyes. You can be open to the school’s issues in a way that becomes harder to do once you are entrenched in the systems yourself. I am relishing every opportunity to listen without prejudice and put in place lessons learned. In doing so I can feel other staff members ‘loosen up’ and not take criticism or complaints personally. (I only hope that they can do the same for me later on!)

On reflection, some of my new-found peace and tranquillity is down to having left my previous school behind. There is so much I loved and still treasure about that place. But there were elements that were impacting on me in ways that I now see were causing me immense stress. I shan’t go into details, but it has been incredibly cathartic to experience a new setting where these elements operate differently. Again, I fully expect my new setting to present its own stresses later on down the line, but I feel more confident that I will be able to identify the warning signs and put in place measures to maintain organisational appropriateness as well as my own well-being.

Another reason why I am so cock-a-hoop at the moment is: why wouldn’t I be? It’s a new start, baby! This is the fun bit. This is the time you get to know the school and the people in it, you find its groove and you work out how best to help it evolve into something even stronger. What’s not to love? I focus on three things: equity, unity and responsibility. Get everyone (staff, pupils, governors and parents) approaching their work in school with those three ideas at the forefront of their mind and nothing seems impossible.

Plus, at the moment, it all seems to be going alright…woohoo!

The one catch, of course, is Ofsted. Technically, we’re due an inspection in January. And how sad that the one thing causing me anxiety is a 24 hour (although most likely 48 hour) visitation? The fact is, I don’t trust them. I don’t trust them – and by ‘them’ I mean each individual inspector – to make the right call. I worry that (and I am not a data denier) they could come in, be heavy handed with the stats, presume I don’t know or care, and ultimately, mess up my plan. You see, I know that improvement takes time. There’s loads I want to do at my new school but it’s not all in my SDP. It couldn’t be. If I put everything I wanted to improve inside the plan the school would suffocate. I believe you’ve got to take things one step at a time. Some of that means that not everything is going to be up to ‘my’ standard for quite a while. I am OK with that.

But will that be good enough for Ofsted?

The problem with that question is that there are multiple answers depending on the team you get. And that is nub of the Ofsted issue. I used to think that I would always want Ofsted to visit in the first year of any headship. They’d add weight to my convictions and support my journey to improvement. Now, I’m not so sure. I don’t feel I need them to come in and judge what I already know. I certainly don’t want them advising on what my development plan should be covering because they won’t know the school like I do. I definitely don’t want my school derailed by a wonky report.

Most of all though, I don’t want to lose any sleep because I’m afraid of what Ofsted dreams may come.