Educational leadership & learning

Reflections on a two term secondment

They say context is all important: so the context.

I had been a Deputy Headteacher at a 3 form entry primary school for two and a half years. A new Headteacher had joined the school two terms before my secondment began and helped us realise very quickly that we were not as good as we thought we were as a school and that many aspects of our work needed an overhaul. Two terms after his arrival I was invited to take on an Acting Headteacher secondment at a local one form entry primary, which had been judged Outstanding by Ofsted two years previously. My Headteacher and governors agreed to the secondment which was planned to run for the Spring and Summer term of 2014.

During the secondment my substantive school was inspected by Ofsted in February 2014 and was judged as Requiring Improvement. At about the same time the previous Headteacher passed away with ill health. In April I was successful at interview for my own Headship at a third school, which is due to commence in September 2014. My substantive school received an HMI inspection in June 2014 which showed good progress was being made.

During these six months my wife has had two serious operations, with an 8-12 weeks timeframe for full recovery. One of my daughters has been in her first year of primary school and my other daughter in her final year and therefore now starting to go on transition days to her secondary school for September 2014.

My aim had been to experience and then judge if I wanted to become a Headteacher and what a typical two terms of the job might be like. I don’t think these terms have been typical – I am not sure whether they ever will be in such a role, or indeed for anyone working in schools.

 

I am generally an enthusiastic, hard-working person who loves his job. I also generally work well with other staff and have found in the past that on the whole pupils, staff and parents warm to me, and we build positive mutually respectful relationships. My coach who knows me well often uses words like integrity, authentic and passionate to describe me – which obviously I very much appreciate hearing. I was keen to make a positive impact and help move an outstanding school further forward whilst also still supporting my substantive school and laterally start to prepare for the exciting challenge of my new school.

 

What have I learnt?

I have learnt many things that I might do and will do differently in the future – which really is the point of experiences and reflecting on them.

I am aware that I have over-promised and under-delivered. I get very excited about opportunities and possibilities and can sometimes make rash promises which I then find it very difficult to keep. Part of the problem I think has been about me spreading myself too thin with different work and family commitments. I just never have time to complete all that I want to. I find I have to postpone meetings, change dates, not cover or take groups when I said I would. This has led to staff who do not know me as well in my seconded school feeling less trust and confidence in my ability to deliver. It is a fairly straightforward lesson, one which many people may not have needed – but in the future I am going to endeavour to restrain some of my natural instincts and promise less and ensure I stick to those commitments, however tempted I am to say, “do you know what I could probably do that”. The key point for me here is to keep reminding myself that I am paid to accomplish a role that requires me to remain strategic.

Part of this came about I believe because I knew the clock was ticking on the secondment and I wanted to ensure that when I left I had had an impact. 120 days and counting I thought when I started. I was pleased that I gave a number of key messages, and undertook some significant tasks during the first half term, but was told by my considerate and wise performance managers that I could not sustain the pace I started at – they were right.

My Headteacher discussed with me when the secondment was first suggested that I could not do both jobs. I could not by Acting Headteacher 3 or 4 days a week and an effective Deputy Headteacher for 2 or 1 day(s) a week. He was also right. It has been a real challenge shifting my focus on the half days I have been back at my original school. It is a totally different context with different priorities – and the school has progressed in (hopefully not because of) my absence. It is not the school it was when I left in December. The hope for me (naive though it might be) is that in September with one school to focus on, life should be simpler. One school, one set of strategic priorities, one set of pupils, staff, parents and governors.

I have also learnt the importance of prioritising and achieving a few improvements well and embedding them. I had a number of strategic development ideas when I started my secondment, and although I may have overdone the number of messages / conversations I had in Spring 1, I deliberately focused back on four key points from February half-term. My performance managers might well argue that the detail I broke those four down into was too substantial, but I do not believe I ever intended that these points would be totally completed by the end of the secondment. There would still be work to do in the following years for the leadership of the school, and indeed there will. For me I am reminded of the quote from Michelangelo: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.”

I have been reminded of the ultimate value of people and the crucial importance of finding time to build quality and trusting relationships. There are some colleagues were this has been successful and we have reached a positive and trusting collegiate level of relationship quite quickly. I am aware that I have not given other members of staff as much time as I would have wished, which has meant the relationships have not been as strong and therefore my influence has not been as great as I would have wished.

This has been coupled with the rollercoaster manner of a short secondment. By the end of the first half-term in Spring a number of staff thought that the Headteacher would not be returning and had positive conversations about me applying for the post full time. By the middle of the second half-term of Spring it was clear he would be returning. At the start of the summer term I gained a full time Headship of my own, only for us to find out a week later that the Headteacher would not be returning and since then that my Deputy Headteacher (who is exceptional, and will do an amazing job) would be in an Acting Headteacher role for two terms. This will take place while significant building works are happening to transform the school to a two form entry primary by September 2015. Understandably this has all been unsettling and at times confusing for staff, parents and governors. What I have noticed is that attitudes towards me in my role have changed subtly during the two terms. People give greater credence and thought to you, your words and your requests when they think you are there for the long term. I do not blame anyone for these changes, I think it is perfectly natural and understandable, but it is interesting to reflect upon.

I was keen when starting the secondment to spend a reasonable amount of each week in and out of classes, seeing the learning in the school first hand and discussing with the staff and pupils. Teaching and learning is what all great schools focus on and I think the view of a Headteacher as a (not the) lead learner, who takes an interest and knows the learning in their school inside out, is the right view to have. Again it is time. The number of other issues, priorities, dull forms…that come across a Headteacher’s desk that you have to deal with are countless. I can imagine many experienced Headteachers nodding with wry amusement at this and thinking “of course, what did you expect”. Well I did expect it, I knew some of what would be coming my way, but I was determined to tick off those jobs in the shortest amount of time possible so I could focus on what I thought, and still think, are the most important aspects of a school: the learning, the vision, the strategic development and the people. I believe I have been reasonably successful at this, but not as much as I would like to have been. In my opinion there are still too many low level tasks involved in this job and that actually the amount of rapid change in legislation, DfE initiatives and Ofsted frameworks, only create more time being consumed. I am still determined next year to try and create as much time as possible for what truly matters in a school – the learning and the people.

 

So not over-promising, focusing on key priorities, making time to build professional and trusting relationships with all staff and spending the minimum amount of time on low-level / trivial tasks are key elements I will take from this experience. To be honest I could probably have predicted all of these to some extent, but it has been invaluable to actually experience how significant and complex they are.

You may be wondering at this point what on earth possessed anyone to ask me to take on this secondment. Have I achieved anything worthwhile for the school and its pupils in my two terms? I believe I have, but rather than discussing them in detail will just bullet point the highlights.

  • Greater awareness and focus for staff and governors on increasing rates of progress in year groups other than predominantly in Y2 and Y6
  • Developing an awareness amongst staff of greater levels of pupils partnership and ownership in their learning
  • More effective use of feedback, and greater amounts of time to respond to it, to move learners on
  • Striving for and public celebration of higher quality writing from the pupils
  • A more exciting, engaging and creative curriculum for the pupils being planned for September 2014
  • Development of skills, experience and confidence of some other senior leaders
  • A greater awareness and acceptance amongst governors of their strategic role and heightened expectations of them

I am indebted to those members of staff and governors at both schools who have agreed this secondment and supported me unselfishly, patiently and wholeheartedly through it. I approach my first full time Headship with enthusiasm, confidence and a resolve to do a better job. Again another quote, though this time I’m not sure who it is from: “You should only ever aim to be better than the person you were yesterday.” I am sure I will still make plenty of mistakes and misjudge aspects of the role – but I hope to continue to learn and grow for myself and the benefit of those around me.

 

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