Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Lasting legacy?

lasting legacy mosaic

Working endless hours to transform a school and the lives of the children in it seemed worth the hard work, energy and lack of family time. But a moralesapping Ofsted verdict changed all that for one head.

Why would you want to do that?" This was a question one headteacher colleague asked me when I announced I was going to lead a school in Cyprus. He seemed confounded by the prospect of me giving up my career here in the UK to live on a Mediterranean island in the sun. It was a tough decision I admit...

I have loved my job ever since I gave up sales and marketing in 1990 to enter the world of secondary education. As a leader my style is to be full of enthusiasm, keen to try out new ideas and excited by the prospect of every day potentially making a positive difference in children's lives.

My husband would laugh at me because, unlike many other colleagues who had been in education for more than ten years, I resisted becoming cynical and jaded; I would embrace new initiatives and volunteer to take part in pilot projects. Throughout my career in education I would look up at the people in the next level above me and say "I could do that." That's why I became a headteacher at the age of 37.

I have always worked long hours and been totally committed to whatever school I was in. In my current school I worked to move it from a school which had not really changed much over the previous 20 years into a 21st century school. I campaigned for targeted capital funding to build a much needed 20 million, state-of-the-art, environmentally-friendly new school.

We improved behaviour management, we brought in a two-year Key Stage 3 and vertical mentoring with learning guides for each child, and we raised attainment consistently for four years. We have gained the full International School Award; we are a Confucius hub school for the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT); and we have given students a real say in the way that the school is run and the way in which they learn.

I also brought in leaders who were not teachers but experts in their own field. We have featured in SSAT and ASCL publications for our good practice and have presented at a number of SSAT conferences. We were also a pioneer in becoming an early trust school, building partnerships with other successful schools and businesses.

Blood, sweat and tears

As senior leaders, you will be aware of the hard work, energy and drive this took, to the detriment of my family life. I have always been proud of the way I have juggled having a small daughter (aged two when I became a head) and my work, but if I am honest, I have not seen enough of her as she has been growing up and, to my shame, hardly ever take her to school or pick her up.

However, I believed in the greater good of what I was doing. I had over 1,000 youngsters, some of whom came from very deprived homes and did not have all the benefits my daughter enjoyed, and I felt that they needed me to make their school into a place where they would learn, feel safe and enjoy themselves.

Then last summer, the call came from Ofsted. We had been building up to it and we were confident the school was good. After all, we had raised attainment four years running on a building site, with students travelling long distances between lessons. We had just moved into the new building and were still finding our feet. Nevertheless, we were very positive about our school, as was our school improvement partner (SIP). The governing body, too, had always been very supportive, questioning what we were doing in a proactive and helpful way.

However, the inspection team seemed not to be interested in children, moral purpose or anything other than data. They appeared to have made a decision about us before they arrived and were not prepared to take into account the extremely adverse circumstances in which we had had to work over the previous three years.

During the two-day inspection, staff did not produce the outstanding and good lessons we had seen and had verified by external consultants. The inspector told me that in spite of the fact that I was clearly a strong leader, our contextual value-added (CVA) data was below 1,000 and the Key Stage 3 results were not good enough, so leadership could only be judged as satisfactory.

The team were cold and unhelpful. They definitely did not match the image of "critical friends working to support schools" that Ofsted like to portray. When I showed my disappointment at the outcome of the inspection after three years of blood, sweat and tears I was told by the lead inspector to "get it into perspective".

Since that time I have also had to put up with a great deal of pressure, criticism and lack of any praise or support from the local authority. They over-burden schools with bureaucratic tasks and, in my view, do not sufficiently encourage innovation.

Playing the game

When I came back to school last September, I found that I had lost my drive and enthusiasm. This year all I have done is analyse figures, enter students for courses which might increase our CVA and try to find out all the tricks that other schools are using to raise attainment. This is not what I came into teaching to do.

Education is no longer about preparing students for the world of work or for further education but about judging schools on results alone. Admittedly, we have also focused on teaching and learning but improving in this area was an ongoing process.

Senior leaders should not be put under such pressure to get results to the extent that success relies more on playing the game than providing young people with a valuable education and a deep learning experience.

I have only ever known a Labour government while I have been in senior leadership and in many ways it has done a great deal for education. We have been much better funded than we were in the 80s and early 90s. The focus on teaching and learning in the National Strategies has had a positive effect and in classrooms up and down the country children are getting a better deal than they ever did when I was at school.

Children are also safer at school, thanks to much tighter child protection legislation and the advent of Every Child Matters. I also think that the work of the SSAT has had a transformational effect on school leadership and innovation. It has certainly engaged me and my team.

However, when I was trying to decide whether or not to accept a job leading a school on a divided island - where 150 Turkish Cypriot children come over the green line every day and have to show their passports to go to school - I wrote out a plus and minus list and I did come up with a number of negatives for remaining in the state sector in the UK. Here are a few:

  • Central government micro-managing what goes on in classrooms to the detriment of creativity and individuality

  • A monthly barrage of initiatives or new education legislation that you could miss if you don't stay up all night reading the DCSF website

  • Ofsted being obsessed with data which then determines the outcome of inspections

  • Ofsted inspectors not being 'allowed' to give more than a satisfactory rating for leadership if the school's results are not yet what they should be

  • CVA considered king, despite being statistically flawed

  • Local authorities expounding on what you are doing wrong and making you feel uncomfortable but not offering any alternatives

  • Local authorities inventing a list of bureaucratic tasks and hoops to jump through which make your heart sink

  • A constant hard core of children whose behaviour rendered them almost unteachable, whatever innovative and proactive strategies the school adopted, and LAs who offer little support for these youngsters but make schools feel guilty if they have to resort to permanent exclusion

  • Parents who want to criticise everything you do as a head, especially if it involves disciplining their child

  • Local press always looking for bad news stories about schools, featuring photos of parents and students with a hang-dog expression just because they had been sent home for having pink hair

  • Local residents who would frequently cry, "Why doesn't that woman do something about all the louts and hooligans hanging around the high street at 10 at night?"

This list made the decision to go work on an island with huge political and social issues, that even top politicians from the world's leading countries cannot solve, look like a walk in the park.

I am sure I will face lots of new issues that will be equally challenging but at the weekend the sun will be shining, the school day finishes at 1.40pm and the school year will end in June. That'll do for me...

The author was a head in the north west of England.

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