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Some Tips for School Leaders

The following are lessons I have learned about key issues for headteachers and school leaders after over 15 years in leadership and Headteacher positions. I share them is the spirit of co-operation and collaboration that I think is crucial for all working in schools. They are definitely things for aspiring leaders to think about, and perhaps for experienced leaders to remind themselves of if they have been distracted by everything else they have to deal with. I don't think the following issues are exhaustive but they are common to most schools and in most situations.


You really do need to understand learning and teaching, and have to see the development of this as your core businessHave a clear understanding of your values, principles,  and aims and vision, as an individual and for your schoolUnderstand, and take time to develop, the crucial relationships that make the school real, and allow it to function at its bestRemember you are a leader and leadership involves getting your he…

Relationships Are Key

"The secret of my success is a two word answer: Know people!" Harry S Firestone

"Our staff is our most important resource." How often have you heard this trotted out by senior managers at meetings, in newsletters, in briefings and in policies? I believe it to be true, but too many people who say this are then betrayed by their actions, not their words. Talking the talk, but failing to walk the walk.

Schools, and their workings, are complex because they are centred on people. In case you hadn't noticed, people are complex and complicated. Schools succeed or fail according to the strengths and capabilities of the individuals within them and, more importantly, the success and strength of their collaborations and relationships.

Deep and successful learning is a social and collaborative activity. Yes, there are times when we need to learn and think alone, but we deepen that learning and understanding through collaboration and exploration with others. This way we can…

This Heidie's Not For Turning!

I see Michael Gove is minded to approve applications for new Grammar Schools in England, as he seeks to turn the educational clock back to the 'glory' days of the 1950s. My heart sinks at the thought  of another generation of children suffering from all the inequalities and segregation of such a system.

I went through a segregated education system in the mid to late sixties in England. This was very much a time of fixed mindsets, where intelligence was seen as a gift of genetics, you either had it or you didn't. There wasn't anything you could do about it. Very early in a child's time at school, decisions were quickly made about who the bright ones were, and who weren't. These decisions were often based on who could keep up with the teacher at the front of the classroom and their explanation of new learning and knowledge they deemed you should have. It also helped if your parents were seen to be upper working class or middle class Just to confirm the judgements…

My Values Help Me Sleep

"When your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier." Roy E Disney

I have long thought and argued that, as a school leader, your values and principles are what are made real by your actions. If you are really clear about your own values and principles, these should be reflected in your actions, and interactions, as a leader. I agree with Disney also, in that when such values are clear and understood, they make making decisions easier. They help you establish the 'lines in the sand' that you wish to establish personally professionally and within the organisation you lead.

A good self evaluation question to ask is, 'do your actions reflect and give life to your values?' Leaders who struggle with credibility are those who display a mismatch between what they say and what they do. It really is destructive to talk one talk, but walk another walk. People really do judge you by your actions, not your words. Yes they will listen to your words, to star…

Just How Important Are Headteachers To Schools?

The range of responses to the question posed in the title of this post will range from 'very' to 'not at all.' But where does the real truth lie?

There is one school of thought that suggests the Headteacher as the most important member of the staffing compliment of any school. This argument hinges on the hierarchical structure that pertain in many schools. In such structures, the Headteacher is at the pinnacle of the hierarchical pyramid. They believe that the Headteacher is most important as they are the ones who will drive forward improvements, set the agenda for the school, set and raise standards, deploy resources and deal with underperformance. The quality of the school is a reflection of the quality of the Headteacher. Their sheer force of will, personality and charisma will be reflected throughout the school and in all areas.

Others argue that the Headteacher is not so important or crucial. This argument  supports the view that it is really teachers who deliver …

Accentuate The Positive

I had a couple of experiences with colleagues today that again reminded me how we in education find it so easy to focus on the negatives, even when surrounded by overwhelming positives! We have been using questionnaires to gather parent and pupil views on our schools. This is not something we do too often, every three years or so, but is a key component of our self-evaluation processes and engagement with parents. The parental surveys had started to arrive back in school and teacher angst had begun!

The first teacher I spoke to had received most of her parent responses after only two days. She was upset because two, out of twenty five, were not overwhelmingly positive! She was taking this very personally, even though most of her children, and their parents, had many years of engagement with our school and only one term with her. She showed me the two responses and I discovered that out of twenty questions they had two or three each which the response was not as positive as she, and I,…

The Perils of Back Seat Drivers!

This week in school I was visited by a company representative and her area manager. They had made an appointment to show me some new resources they had been developing. The rep was very interested to hear about the programmes we were using in school to deliver literacy and numeracy learning. I pointed out that I wasn't that interested in programmes 'as we preferred to focus on learning and teaching.' 'Oh, I haven't heard of that one,' was her response. I stopped myself from bursting out laughing and explained how our focus was on the learning and teaching experiences going on in each classroom, and with each teacher. I explained that I want, and have, teachers who know exactly where children are in terms of their learning and understanding. They then use this knowledge, their baseline, to help them plan for new learning that builds on this. These plans identify learning outcomes, agreed with the pupils, and would help them choose from a range of resources to de…

Principles, Not Performance!

For a number of years now a common call to those in education has been for us to share good practice, and to do more of it. We all need to stop reinventing the wheel and working in isolation on the same things. We need to share more. I have a problem with this. I don't think sharing good practice works. It is one of those ideas that sounds as though it's a no-brainer. Of course we should share good practice! No-one would suggest we share, bad or even satisfactory, practice. It would seem to make sense that when we identify good, or excellent practice, that we should encourage the sharing of this amongst our staff or schools. I suppose the theory goes that by observing and sharing good practice, that such practice can be disseminated and copied by those it is been shared with. To be honest, I have seen this work. The only trouble is, that it only works to a limited extent, and is rarely sustainable.

What such an approach to school and individual development results in is a shal…

Parents, Don't You Just Love Them?

I have just finished two nights of Parent's Evening's at one school, and face another two at the other school I manage next week. I have a confession. I really enjoy them! I count them among the highlights of the school year. Yes I know they keep us all in school, or drag us back, on what are often long and cold winter nights at this time of the year. Or, they can keep us from enjoying the delights of spring or summer evenings, when the sun can be guaranteed to be shining invitingly outside. I also appreciate the time that teachers put into preparing for such evenings. But we do all this, to paraphrase the L'oreal adverts, 'because they are worth it!'

I am a firm believer in the positive benefits of true partnership working between schools, teachers and parents. Not the ticky-boxy, or one-sided type of partnership, but the type that is deep, sustained and valued as a means of achieving the best for all our learners. By establishing positive relationships with all o…

We Are Not Alone!

For the last there and a half years the schools I manage have been working very closely with colleagues from Edinburgh University. In that time we have developed a relationship built on mutual respect that has, I believe, produced benefits for both organisations. We in school have had access to a level of professional expertise, knowledge and experience that has enabled us to update and improve our understanding and our practice, to the benefit of all our pupils. The university has had the opportunity to work closely with committed staff, trial new approaches to teacher development, understand and witness the complexity faced by schools and teachers in managing curriculum reform and development and help them in understanding how they may build sustainable partnerships with schools and local authorities.

So if this is seen by both schools and university as a 'win-win' situation why are such partnerships and joint working not more common? There has been for many years an atmosph…

In Praise of Non-Conformists

Leadership can provide us with a heady mix of emotional highs and depressive lows. Fortunately I think we all experience far more of the former than we have to endure the latter. In schools the highs are usually associated with progress from,and interaction with, pupils and staff. In this post I would like to focus on the staff.

What type of staff do you look for as a school leader? What qualities do you look for in your staff and colleagues?

Do you look for people who look like you? I don't mean they are some sort of doppelgänger, I mean that they share your views, attitudes and ways of working. It is important that staff can and do work together as part of a team, and that they share and endorse your establishment's collective values, ethos and culture. They should contribute to the collaborative culture of the school. However, I would like to argue that it is important that they remain individuals. Their credence in the school should not hinge on their endorsement and compl…

I'm A Teacher, Not A Mechanic!

Last year We heard from Dylan Wiliam, Paul Black and others about their concerns regarding Formative Assessment and how the implementation and introduction of their findings and recommendations into schools had stalled, and required revisiting. They noted that we were well over ten years from publication of their paper 'Inside the Black Box' but we still weren't there with delivery of FA. Why? Wiliam argued that their original work and ideas had been taken by others and almost corrupted as these were broken down into mere indicators for Heads, inspectors, observers and others to look for as confirmation that FA and it's strategies were in place in a school or classroom. Various providers of CPD to schools and teachers began running courses on the techniques and gimmicks teachers could use in the classroom to demonstrate their application of FA principles into their practice. So we were flooded with WALTS, WILFS, traffic lights, thumbs, lollipop sticks, three stars and …

Jump In The Deep End!

Depth in continuous professional development is just as crucial as depth in learning? We in Scotland have recognised the importance of deepening pupil's learning and understanding, and this is reflected in one of the seven key principles of curriculum design underpinning Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). What this has allowed schools to do is to slow down in order for our learners to deepen their learning and understanding, to understand how the learning connects across the curriculum, into the real world and in different contexts. A well overdue recognition that it is depth of learning that is important, not just coverage.

Unfortunately, I don't think we are there yet in applying the same principles to CPD! I have long believed that in CPD we have also been too involved in encouraging staff and schools to do lots of different 'things' in terms of professional development, moving from one to another, with little regard to the impact all these activities actually had on …

Don't Let The Tail Wag The Dog!

An interesting question for school leaders to ask is, ' who decides on the priorities for development in your school, or schools?'  I am sure that most would reply that they, and perhaps their staff, do. Some may even say that actually it's our self evaluation processes that determine our priorities.

If this is really true, why then are so many Headteachers and SMT fixated on what OFSTED or HMIe or others say they are looking for as their priorities? That is not to say that we should take no notice of what these organisations are saying, of course we should, just as we do with others who might have contributions to make to the Education debate, and help develop understanding. But my concern is with the number of schools and management teams who are constantly scrutinising the latest newsletters or updates from such organisations and then adjust or change what they are doing to respond to this. Why do some Heads and their teams constantly screen latest school reports after …

Dear Michael

Dear Michael,
I am writing in response to your speech to teachers at the Hackney Learning Trust regarding your vision for future school leaders. Whilst I actually agree with some of the content of this speech, I am afraid I have to disagree and express concerns about many of the key messages you were giving to your audience.

As a Headteacher myself, I must say your description of  many school staff rooms was not one I recognised. This could be because I am a Headteacher in Scotland, or that such staff rooms are not as common as you seem to think. Perhaps the ones you experienced in your role as a Headteacher  have clouded your view of what staff rooms are like? The staff rooms I experience are usually full of committed, professional staff who are working hard to improve everything they do, and outcomes for the learners in their charge. They are doing this in the face of diminishing resources due to the current financial difficulties, and the almost constant attacks on them by Governme…

I Don't Encourage Innovation!

Yes folks, I really don't encourage innovation in the schools I lead. I expect it!

Amongst the characteristics I expect to see in all staff, teachers and support workers, is a constant curiosity that is enshrined in the question, "what if?" I want staff to ask this of themselves and their work constantly. I want them to ask it of each other and importantly of me. I want staff who are reflective and professionally curious. If I wanted sheep, I would be a farmer!

I expect staff to be constantly engaged in an examination of what goes on in classrooms and around school, and thinking about, and identifying, how we might do things differently, and better. That is not to say that everything is in a constant state of flux, or that we promote change for change sake, because that is not what we do. Therein lies madness and is the surest way to destroy practice and morale in staff. Innovation and change should be not based on whims, they have to be based on sound research and pract…

Know Where You Are, Before You Decide Where You Are Going

I remember seeing a comedy sketch on TV from years ago, where a couple of lost  travellers stop to ask directions from a local character leaning on a gate to a field. "Where you heading?" The helpful local asks. When he is told, he replies, "well ye can't get there from here!" The travellers were  suitably nonplussed.

I have a similar reaction when schools, and others, look at how they are going to get to the same destination, i.e. improved performance, raised attainment, higher achievement, better teaching and learning and so on, and think they can lift exactly what others have done and drop it into their own establishments and situations. I don't think you can do this, because every school's starting position is different. This is one of the big dangers of the 'sharing good practice' mantra that we are always being extolled to follow and improve. Yes, we do need to share practice and solutions that have worked, but these should come with impor…

The Power Within

I sent a tweet the other day which seemed to generate a deal of resonance with some on my PLN. What I said was that meaningful school development can only come from within and cannot be imposed from outside. Now 140 characters on Twitter does have benefits but, as anyone who tweets regularly knows, it also has huge limitations in what you can say. So what I would like to do here is offer some further explanation of what I was trying to convey in my tweet.

For many years well meaning and informed people have increased our understanding and have made constructive suggestions  on how schools can develop and move forward. We also know that there have been lots of other suggestions made by less informed but vocal contributors to this debate! As all in education and schools know, everyone has an opinion or view on what should be going on in our schools. The media loves to feed on all of this and much of it stokes the fires of debate and gives oxygen to some of the wilder suggestions.

As som…

Slow down, we move too fast!

I believe if we really want to improve what we do in schools, we need to slow down. For too long we have rushed, or been pushed, headlong into one change after another. As a result, many schools and teachers have done lots, but have achieved little in terms of real development that impacts on learners.

Each new 'thing' is embraced by senior leaders, then passed on to individuals or a working-party to implement and deliver. The result is a glut of little understood initiatives, with little understanding of where they come from, or why they are being introduced. All of which leads to little, if any, positive impact in classrooms or for learners.

So what can we do about this?

My suggestion is to slow down, think more and act less. How we do this is by firstly understanding exactly where we are in development terms. We need to recognise what our strengths are, individually and across the school. We need to then identify what we need to focus on next, in order to develop and keep m…

Year Four and Beyond Practitioner Enquiry

We are now just into our fourth year of taking a Practitioner Enquiry approach to our school development. All our evaluations, internal and external, have demonstrated the positive, and continuing, impact we have had. Teachers and schools have moved forward and we have lots of hard, and soft, evidence to support this assertion. In our last session teachers finished their research posters and we had most of these professionally reproduced.
We started this session with an in-house sharing by teachers with their colleagues around their enquiries and their posters. The schools were buzzing with conversations around teaching and learning, and the sharing of experiences and discoveries. A fabulous way to start the new session!
As you will understand, we are committed to taking the same approach. Staff have again asked, to which we agreed, for more input around language so we are looking at poetry as a genre and persuasive writing as another. All staff are carrying out their own enquiries ag…

Year Three Practitioner Enquiry

Towards the end of year two we again evaluated the impact of the work using all the techniques from year one. This time we were able to include the observations of various visitors who had been in to the schools and were interested in the approach we were taking. These included officers of the local authority, other Headteachers and representatives of the GTCS, who had begun to support our work. The GTCS reps met with myself and my DHT, as well as teachers, to explore the impact of such an approach. They backed up our own positive evaluations and helped us evidence the impact we were having on individual teachers, their practice, and across the schools.
We again asked the staff if they wanted to continue and they all expressed the desire to maintain the momentum we were building up. There really was no turning back!
We wished to change the focus in year three and so we decided that our enquiry this year would be in the area of maths teaching. So in this third year Gillian was able to …