Tales from the Head’s Office#10

There is a lot going on in school at the moment so I’m writing a lot from my Office. Hope you like my quips, quotes &  ramblings many of which come from 13 years experience as a HT. All views expressed here are my own.


Should they go?

Children get one chance at primary education. Those formative years between 4-11 are the time when little ones become sponges. They just crave knowledge, many of them without realising it. It is during the primary years that the building blocks for future learning are laid. It is where a thirst for knowledge can be encouraged & moulded. It is at this age that the ‘Wow’ factor is so vital.

It is therefore unbelievable that some schools are not providing this grounding. The press has recently highlighted the fact that there are under performing teachers in our schools who should not be there. I agree that they should be removed but for me the focus is in the wrong area. My anger is focused on the leadership of these  schools.

Many head teachers ‘leading’ our schools are doing an amazing job in very difficult circumstances. They have had to adapt to an ever changing job description which requires them to be a financial manager, a grounds maintenance expert, a community leader & many more, plus of course knowing something about the way children learn! They are able to build creative teams who embrace the new technologies & engage parents to become full partners in their children’s education.

However, there are many head teachers who are just not up to the job! They joined the profession with the best of intentions wanting to make a difference to young lives. Their classroom practice was often good; children in their care loved them & held onto their every word. I’m sure that many of you reading this would be able to name a teacher who really inspired you. Unfortunately, this persona does not necessarily translate into headship.

A head teacher is first & foremost a leader. They have to lead their staff to provide a first class education for all the children in the school. Their knowledge has to include utilising the masses of data that schools now have to produce so that it is more than a set of numbers. They have to look at the progress each child is making & find ways to make sure that full potential is tapped. They should be establishing  the relevant operational systems that allow governing bodies to support & challenge the school.

Whether we agree with it or not, Ofsted is part of the culture in our schools. The head teacher should be guiding the team to make sure the school is judged in the best possible light. Putting SATs & targets aside, if a school is judged outstanding you will know that your child is in the best possible place. What about those schools though, that only just scrape a satisfactory  judgement often falling down in the area of progress of teaching & learning?  Surely the leadership should be moving the school forward, getting rid of some of those inadequate teachers.

So, how come these ineffective head teachers are in our schools? They are there because for too long Local Authorities have protected their positions & supported mediocre leadership. Their first thought when faced with an inadequate head teacher seems to be ‘How can we make sure if Ofsted come & it all goes pear shaped, we can’t be criticised for not supporting the school?’ They hide behind governing bodies who themselves are kept in the dark or are rendered impotent by barriers placed in front of them.

It is our children’s opportunities they are messing up & for some, possibly  their futures.   Parents really only know what they are told. They do not have the robust questions that are needed to be asked to get to the heart of what is happening. They make judgements on how happy & settled their child is & trust that they are learning well. More often than not, they are really shocked when they receive a report saying their school has been put into special measures & what that means for the experience their child has been receiving.

How confident are you about the education your child is receiving? Would you know what to do if you had concerns? Please make sure you don’t get any nasty surprises!

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  • itsasmallworldafterallfamily

    I think we’ve been very lucky. We had two schools to choose between, both with outstanding Ofsted reports. We went with the one that suited us best from an educational philosophy point of view (children should be allowed to learn through play and express their individuality). I’ve always felt listened to by the teachers and been very happy with the way the school deals with things.

  • I find myself nodding sadly at both your post, Julia and particularly at Dianne Spencer’s comment; my mother was a phenominal teacher in several of Bradford’s most deprived areas in her younger years, where she was highly respected at maintaining a balance of a no-nonsense approach while excercising the utmost in empathy, sensitivity, diplomacy and a creative attitude to improvement. She went on to accept a headship in a 2-class village school further South and was literally forced out, ultimately almost at the point of breakdown due to the lack of basic support and financial input. She was a teaching head at the brunt of change to the educational system, a guinea-pig to the new administration and pig in the middle between screaming parents and a governing board which had not evolved since the middle ages. She receiving zero help from the new LA and could not lead in the way she wanted through lack of hours in the day to perform her primary task: teaching, in parallel to the mountains of paperwork and testing admin. The only comment I will now make is that I find it criminal that the system forced out not only a tremendous teacher, but a great leader who’s primary interest was that of the children and their families in her care, but who was made ill and squeezed out by the ignorance and greed of the power-seekers who never ever set foot in a school and by the decision-makers who were only interested in furthering their political career. Bitter? Yes. I am. For her and all who would have benefitted from her sticking around for another 20 years.
    Phew. Rant over. Sorry! (hangs head and steps down from soap-box).

    • You are both so right & it is so unfair. As usual the media only sees the teacher – doesn’t look at the leaders in the schools & certainly doesn’t look beyond that. As a HT you have to have support – from staff, from Govs AND from the LA who often hold the strings that can restrict your progress.
      Thank you for your moving comment!

  • Dianne Spencer

    This is a very thought provoking post which has certainly gained a great deal of interest at many levels. My concern now, is that so few teachers actually want to become Headteachers. As a HT of a small school I do not have a bursar, site manager or raft of Assistant Headteachers and the sheer range of tasks which I carry out each and every day is immense. We need to re evaluate the workload of Headteachers and Senior Leaders in school because at present too many potential fantastic leaders are saying to me that it is not a job that they want to do. It is very hard to be strategic if your school funding does not enable you to put the right people with the best skills in the right place. Having said that, on the days when things go well it really is the best job in the world!!

    • You are SO right! We are going to be in a pickle if things don’t change soon. It is about a re-evaluation so that we know exactly what to expect. Then once those are in place, we need to make sure the support & robust evaluation is there.
      I really appreciate your time commenting!

  • Roslet

    Julia, as you know I have had cause to manage out a Head teacher recently and there were several things that struck me around the proceedings.

    In this particular case, she had been a very strong headteacher but there have been enormous changes around what HTs are now expected to do and deal with, ranging from project managing a build, raising monies, to the increased work around child protection following the death of baby Peter… I could go on… but this was not a bad HT – just one who had ended up out of her depth. This then led to other issues but it was initially a challenge to work with the LA and the staff to do the right thing for the children.

    But the good news is that we did manage her out and now we continue on a very positive journey.

    It is amazing when you talk to HTs how many say that the CEO role is not one that they signed on for, to say nothing of the political games they may have to play and how many of them talk wistfully about how they would still like to keep their hand in by teaching at least once a week. I think we may be mocing to a point where the (Executive) Head is not a qualified teacher but a Bursar-type professional with bells and whistles.

    As to choosing schools, back when I was inspecting, you almost certainly knew what sort of school you were going into from the moment you entered the place… you could tell from your five senses. I know that sounds somewhat nebulous and trite but those first impressions told you so much about the school… if you could smell the toilets and cabbage, see peeling paint and litter, hear a din rather than a hum then you would already know that staff were not caring and it would be likely that this lack of care would transfer to teaching and learning. I have been in old buildings which were dilapidated but the care that was taken of what they had, made you look past it. In truth after reading about the school and listening to other parents, you need to go with your gut instinct when you choose.

    • Appointing a new HT is the most important but difficult a Governing body can have. So many rush into it rather than have the school ‘leaderless’. We need t5o build the team so that time is available for that most vital decision
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! Reall appreciated!

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  • So glad you posted this, well done! I would echo much of what you say so I won’t rant on but I will add that I think a large part of the problem is the perception of education and teaching in wider society. Who would want to be a head when politicians and newspapers feel they can take a side swipe at schools to divert attention from something else or to grab a headline? For too long education has been a punch bag for passing politicos. Headship has become a thankless task with overwhelming paperwork requirements (or, increasingly, online form filling) with less and less support as LA’s are cut back. I have experience of many schools as teacher, parent and governor and all too often the head seems to be in place by default; they were the only one who wanted the job or it was ‘better the devil you know’ and that simply isn’t good enough. It is important to raise standards and improve practice and of course ‘inadequate’ teachers should go but society beating the whole profession with the ‘not good enough’ stick serves only to dampen spirits and drive good people away……..and on and on and on, I’m ranting a bit now aren’t I?

    Excellent, thought provoking post J, keep it up!

    • Many thanks Chris. It is all about balance isn’t it? We don’t seem to be able to find a middle road which is about children rather than adults!

  • I agree with what you’ve written. Leaders are there to steer the school along its course. They have to be be part of the team yet detached from it. From what I’ve read and heard, local authority support is not always what it should be, and too many weak leaders are allowed to obfuscate for too long. LA SIPs have made a difference, but I’m not sure where we stand with the new government on those. As for parents, how much transparency should be given? I would welcome the formalisation of parent councils or forums to provide an extra layer of communication between SLT and parent body. I don’t think it’s a PG’s role to do this.

  • Very interesting post – we’ve just had a confirmed place for our son at nursery in September and whilst visiting the different schools in the area, I was struck by contrasts in the quality of the headteachers we met. One in particular was just as you describe – I’m sure she would have been a lovely teacher but did not seem to display great leadership qualities at all.
    There is a very good headmaster at the school my son will be attending and although he is obviously very focused on overall school performance, he also seems to be great at coaching his teaching staff and has a strong interest in the children at an individual level.
    On a slightly different topic, I have a friend from South Africa who mentioned that children do not start school there until much older and I’ve also read that the UK is one of the most-tested and formally-educated countries in the world. I’ve think I’ve also read somewhere that boys in particular are better in the long run if they do not start formal education until a bit older. My little boy just seems so young at 3 1/2 to be starting school (even though it’s only afternoons!) I guess that may be a different post all together but I’d be really interested in your thoughts! Helen

    • I’m glad you are feeling comfortable about the school. As for when they start – well we must be a nation where parertns go to work sooner. I think it is that which drives the desire for early education. That, & the fact that not all parents give their children a solid foundation for life. Thank you so much for your thoughtful contribution

  • What a thought provoking read this is. I love your Tales from the Heads Office but this one has really set me pondering.

    I nearly set off on a rant then, but will spare you that.

    Thanks for provoking my mind.

    • Oooo! I’d love to know what you were gojng to rant about! Thank you for stopping by!

      • It was about my views from being a PG in two schools at either end of the spectrum (both Ofsteded in 2010. One Outstanding, one scraping a satisfactory but both with good capacity to improve) in two different authorities and also about being employed by an LA but that is probably something I shouldn’t air on a public area.

  • This is a valid viewpoint, not only from your position as an ex-headteacher but also as a parent (no matter how old your children are). It will be interesting to hear from dedicated teachers/headteachers/wannabe headteachers who believe that they are doing all they can to stay at a “satisfactory” level, say, for example, in a deprived area.

    At one of my children’s primary schools there was a teacher who brought the school from the brink of closure (many contributing factors) to climbing back up in the league tables. The problem after this was that she was headhunted to do the same for another school 40 miles North and then she joined a forum to train headteachers to do an effective job. My disappointment was that she was tempted away from a job and a school that I knew she loved. Yes, money has a lot to do with it but she also wanted (needed?) to use her knowledge and experience in other parts of the county.

    The school continues to thrive but I often wonder how far it could have gone if she’d have stayed.

    • It is important that schools are not dependant on one person. They have to have the vision & drive embedded throughout so that when the key person leaves (not always the HT) the school can continue to flourish.

  • I have just seen your message but strangely I had already been here!! Hagar’s night flying so I have more time to read other blogs. Just wait until he goes away – I’ll be comment-tastic!!

  • I think the one of the problem is that people don’t know how to lead, or even want to. Therefore schools have to take whoever is willing to take the job and not the best person for the job. You should set up a consultancy business on leadership courses for heads of schools. The education system would benefit from your experience and direction – plus I am sure that you would have a succinct no nonsense approach that heads could really benefit from.

    • That’s very kind of you but I ruffled a few feathers so the LA would not be keen! May think about it though!

      • Sounds like this is exactly why you should do it. Especially as you have nothing to lose now – genuinely independent and could really push some buttons and make a difference with education and children’s best interests at the core of your philosophy. I’ll help you promote it if you decide to do it.

  • This always amazes me when people choose schools. They are easily swayed by the herd and go to a school because it is popular or has the highest SATs and yet, don’t consider what the head is like.

    When I had to choose schools, we met the head of the school where my son now goes (and my daughter will start in September) but found out he was retiring. I therefore made sure I went back to meet the new head, and took pains to find out from other parents with children at the school what they thought about her before we settled on that school. We got positive reports back and I have never had cause to doubt her leadership. She ruffled a few feathers when she came in and changed a few things but that always happens, doesn’t it? I have spoken to her several times and I know if I had a major concern, she would listen to me. I’ve contacted her once about an issue and it was quickly and quietly dealt with by her.

    I couldn’t have said that about other heads I met. One of them took us on a tour of their school and was very evasive answering some of my questions which I found intensely irritating and put me right off as I thought they could easily be like that if I had to go to her with a concern. Another school didn’t even offer us the chance to meet the head. A third ran an open day where the head “addressed” a very large group of us although the offer was there to go back for a further meeting but I’d seen enough by then.

    Maybe it is a personal choice about how you decide, but I felt I had to feel confident in the person leading the school where my children were going to spend so much of their time over 7 years. I know, a year on, I made the right choice for us, and I always recommend to people just starting the process that they meet the head before they decide.

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