At the ASCL 2013 conference I am asked Michael Gove, a man strong on rhetoric and self- belief. “Who would take on a challenging school in his brave new world of education?” The press report the phrase I use at the time, “Career suicide”.
The answer was me. In 2009 I took on a failing school in a low income white working class area that had never achieved Good. After seven years of school improvement, reaching its peak with working hours exceeding ninety hours per week, and a national agenda and operative that I have a lost all faith in. The intelligent decision is to walk away from secondary headship. The wise but wholly alien decision for me is to catch the chair lift downwards and move off of the mountain climb that is school improvement, because the summit and the goal are now so hidden in the clouds of politics. As a challenging school, the crampons and climbing gear that naively I believed would be given to some of the most vulnerable schools to support the climb, have been removed. Having successfully navigated the lift out of Failing.The label Requiring Improvement (RI) has damaged my staff and I, regardless of always receiving Good leadership, in the five inspections we have faced in seven years. This label reduces me to a pariah for most Governing bodies of good and outstanding schools. They can’t recognise my skill set, let alone appoint me. I have entered the state of career suicide at the age of forty- four.
Please note during my headship the school took significantly below average students to broadly average. Our sixth form intake although below average exceeded all expectations for the numbers of white working class boys who went to university. Again we reached average with these students, and we excelled in our vocational subjects. None of this was good enough for Good. In the 2014 annual Ofsted report it was noted that nationally low income white working class students achieve 25% 5 A- C with English and Maths. White working class boys (which we had a significant proportion of) achieve in line with SEND students (exceptionally low). Under 10% attend university.
I managed to choose headship as the Government changed, the public purse closed and the regime moved to a pure attainment measure of success. The curriculum reverted to a 1950’s ideal of education, ignoring the growing body of research screaming that this model will not provide in the 21st century.
Within my headship, Ofsted has changed the handbook (the way schools are judged) nine times, the exam system has moved into overdrive with huge and regular inaccuracy, expectations of standards rise, with no explanation of where the new measures originate from. How for example floor standards set and what is their statistical meaning?
During this time like many schools in challenging circumstances we experienced:
- A lock on access to additional pots of funding due to our Failing and then Requiring Improvement (RI) position, and the fact we were not an academy. This included new builds (I managed a school with significant and debilitating asbestos)
- A death lock on our ability to train teachers. RI and Failing schools are not open to training teachers and sourcing new staff, unless part of a Teaching Alliance. Entry into Teaching Alliance is difficult we have tried on several occasions to no avail. Without a source of quality teachers, a school can’t sustain itself.
- A death lock on any member of staff in an RI or Failing school training to be an Ofsted inspector and therefore having access to the internal insight into the inspectorate.
- A lock on any members of my staff including the Head applying for any recognition award for subject or national leader. All schools have pockets of excellence, but why would a great leader stay when they can’t be recognised?
- The removal of the experienced Local Authority, as the main lead in providing school support and replacing this with a brokering system where outstanding schools and leaders are bought in to provide advice. With respect to all leaders of the schools I have worked with, their experiences are so different and their ability to provide the time limited.
- We entered one the biggest experiments in education. Raising standards with blind belief that if we raise them significantly enough and expect students to achieve they will.
As I make this decision, I am suffering from significant depression, that leaves me unable to see a future. In order to help me process, I have decided to write a book and I have been advised a blog can help to publicise this book. Apparently I write as I speak. I don’t know if anyone will be very interested in my story or at least my learning about the nature of headship, but as I do this, the reflection is helping me to process.
Originally I thought I might write about what I have learnt and some of my experiences in chronological order, but while this was fine for the start of the book, when discussing how you breed the seed of a potential head, and the recruitment process for headship. When I reach the story of taking over a failing school, one that was recognised by the local authority as failing in all areas of leadership and operation, chronology has stopped working and I am now debating why this is?
I think the route to headship for me, naturally lends itself to a chronological story, because for a significant part in my 20’s and early 30’s I could command my own destiny and I was successful. I didn’t have children, and for whatever reason, the work I carried out with my teams was successful. I valued the system, and the changes while regular, were not incessant and seemed for the most part to have some reason, logic and most important professionals involved. (I exempt Mr Balls from this comment, fortunately his surname is a metaphor for my judgement of his capacity as education minister.) I worked with challenging students but was able to make and then lead substantial change and improvement. During this period of time the journey your students achieved with you was the key measure of success, not their raw attainment. This is crucial if you chose to work in a low attainment school on entry, who start 300 metres behind the average school on the race track to GCSE. Context was valued.
However, as I tell my story when I reach my appointment as Head of a failing school the reality of the situation at that time, is not lending itself to chronology. If you think about a landslide you come close to the feeling of my headship at first! You are constantly hit by issues in a random, pattern that feels like chaos and actually in trying to write them down looks like chaos. Of course now as I reflect I realise a truly failing school is chaos! All you can do is grab on tight hold on by your finger tips and pull you and whatever you select to place around you upwards!
So once I have passed my appointment to headship in my story, I am going to write about themes that impact on a troubled school which has never achieved Good. In a community and location that are now recognised as least likely to achieve good educational outcomes.
The book is divided into three sections:
- What a chaotic school looks and feels like – and what you can learn from this as a Head.
- How we began to imbed the seeds of improvement?
- Why I think our current system is limiting the conditions for growth in these challenging communities and schools.
None of these themes are intended to provide a definitive list to all that will appear to you if you take on a failing school. They are what I remember at present, and as I contemplate a new career and the death of a career I absolutely adored, they need a health warning. A damaged heart and soul at work currently!
In setting up my blog I am hoping to post a few of the chapters from the first two sections. As, soon as we received the label Failing three months into my headship and then Requiring improvement two years later (Satisfactory was stripped from us) my voice has disappeared. It has felt as if no one is the system has wanted to listen or valued our voice as we are condemned by our label. One of my staff members broke this system with their blog, he advised I try this route to. So here goes…………………………..