Use Your Head


You could almost have missed this nugget amongst the recent KS1 assessment balls up drama. Watching the DfE in crisis would perhaps of been the highlight of the past couple of weeks had three of my favourite people Toby Young, Michael Wilshaw and and Sir Anthony Seldon not put there little heads together and come up with something even more bizarre. They’ve proposed a School Leader’s College that will allow graduates and “career changers” to progress from NQT to Head Teacher in just 2 years. They claim that it will address the shortage of “great heads” in schools at the moment.  I’ll unpack that for anyone who may have been skim reading: they claim that taking graduates straight from university/career changers without any teaching experience and putting them in charge of schools will increase the number of “great heads.”

The problem here is the idea that two years of leadership training can make up for experience. Obviously there is not always a direct correlation between years of service and skills (doing the same job badly every day for 20 years does not mean you’re owed an SLT position as a reward for “years of service.”)

I’ve attended a number of different Leadership Programmes and courses over the last couple of years and whilst some have been very interesting, others have been a PowerPoint of quotes about leadership. Despite days of leadership “training” any leadership skills I can claim to have I’ve developed on the job. Sorry Young, Wilshaw and Sheldon here are the things your leadership college couldn’t have provided me.


Walking into an interview aged 28 to argue my case for why I should be an Assistant Headteacher I felt the need to address the “issue” of my age. I cannot imagine, two years out of university standing in front of a school as Head Teacher explaining that I’d never taught and only graduated two years ago. Firstly – why should any group of staff trust a school leader that hasn’t been a teacher? Apart from the Business Manager, my entire SLT team teach. The Assistant Heads and Deputy Dead each have class and the Head teaches Year 2 Maths every day. You’re a more credible leader if you’re able to practise what you preach. Being in class and juggling Assistant Head duties is challenging but the benefit is I am able to model the expectations in my own classroom. Also when we have to make decisions about monitoring, marking, assessment etc… we can make them with teacher’s workload at the front of our minds.

Difficult conversations

On one course I attended I had to role play having difficult conversations. You know the sort: a member of staff isn’t carrying out their duties or their lesson observation didn’t go well or even a member of staff breaks down on you because they’re struggling to manage their workload or have things going on at home. These role plays in no way prepared me for the first time I had to have a “difficult conversation” because the role play was exactly that – play.

It’s the very fact that the staff you work with every day are real people with feelings that make those conversations “difficult” in the first place.The only way I learnt to have those conversations was by having them over and over and over again. To begin with there was always a more senior member of staff with me who would lead the conversation and who I could learn from – often my head teacher. Had my head teacher only graduated two years ago would they have been able to support me in those situations?

Understanding How Schools Run

By working my way up from class teacher I was able to develop and hone my skills gradually. In the first couple of years I was just getting my head around the logistics of running a class and the small matter of how to plan, deliver and assess lessons. Then I moved on to working in a team leading a foundation subject – this gave me the experience of writing, monitoring, and leading on a School Improvement Plan, later I became a Governor and got my head around the “behind the scenes” running of the school.

By the time I got my job as Assistant Head I’d taught across two Key Stages, observed dozens of lessons, written action plans, attended Governors meetings, run workshops for parents, lead INSET for staff, chaired meetings, helped with PTA events, written and directed a school play, written and ratified policies, held parents consultations, worked with external agencies, dealt with child protection cases and countless other experiences that could only have been gained through working in a school. Since September I’ve been confronted with new challenges nothing like the ones I’ve previously faced but having a secure foundation of skills and experiences to draw on and an experienced SLT to support me I have been able to deal with them.

I’ve worked in three schools in the last 6 years. That’s 3 different sets of staff, children, Governors and parents. Three sets of policies, 3 different timetables, 3 different curricula, 3 staffing structures, 3 different sets of values and potentially by the end of this year, 3 different Ofsted inspections. Every head teacher I’ve ever worked for has taught me something about the leadership. Most of the time that has been by setting a fantastic example although occasionally I’ve picked up what not to do. I’m not sure I ever want to be a Head Teacher but were the time to come I hope I would be able to learn from both the wisdom and mistakes of the leaders I’ve worked with as well as my own.

How To Teach

This is perhaps the most important one. The clue is in the job title: Head TEACHER yet so often that second word is overlooked. I would always expect my head teacher to be able to model exactly the sort of standard they expected in the school. If you are going to take tax payer’s money to run an establishment with the purpose of educating children you’d better know a thing or two about educating children. Yes you also need to know about recruitment, sharing a vision, getting people on board, working with the Local Authority (for now at least), speaking to Ofsted, dealing with parents, managing relationships between staff, having difficult conversations and a whole plethora of other skills but if you don’t know how to teach – how do you expect to develop the teachers in your school?


6 years of working in a school has hardened me. I can now sit in child protection meetings and listen to accounts of abuse without so much as flinching. Six years ago this would have (and did) reduced me to tears. 6 years in I’m far more able to cope with pressure and stress of leading a school. I’m thicker skinned than I was 6 years and more in control of my emotions (read: crying in the toilets rather than in the staff room.)

I’m much better at saying “no” than I was when I first started teaching. At the beginning of my career my default was to say yes to everything and then have a meltdown when I couldn’t manage it. Now I do my job to the best of my ability but I don’t commit to doing things I won’t be able to deliver on. If I feel someone is trying to pass work on to me that they are meant to do I will say so. This was talking about on a Lead”don’t adopt monkeys that don’t belong to you” which sounds easy enough but in reality takes confidence, courage and experience.

Fast tracking graduates to head teachers is an attempt at a quick fix for a bigger problem. Rather than just waving more people through to headship, regardless of their skills or ability to do the job, why not address the reasons why the people who already working in schools don’t want to be head teachers?


2 thoughts on “Use Your Head

  1. Well said! I actually thought that the article in the tes about their leadership plan was an April 1st joke until I checked the date! What a world we live in when those with power and influence can bring an entire profession to its knees. In other times and in other places there would be rebellion in the streets but this is England and we all cry with one voice: “Oh I am vexed!” and then go meekly on our way with heads down!
    One day however there will be that straw which breaks the back and then England may awake….but by then it may just be too damn late!


  2. Love your work and the honesty and insight in all you convey through your blog. Just check your use of their and their because it leaves you open to criticism.


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