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Another year, but different.

As I write this, we are rapidly heading towards the end of the school year in Scotland. In my own two schools we have one full week and three days to go to the end of the current session. Of course, as anyone who works in a school knows only too well, there is no sense of 'winding down' as there is still much to do and to achieve before we all head off to our summer break. In my own case, there are two school sports days, one parents' evening, one music competition, one end-of-year celebration, one end of term service, one P7 Swansong and one school trip over the next eight working days. So, plenty to do, and this list does not even include some of my other tasks to be completed in that time. The submission of School Improvement Plan, School Improvement Report, trying to finalise staffing for next session, and a social event to thank, and mark the moving on, of several members of staff, all still to be completed, especially as I am heading off to Australia the day after our schools close. Possibly the only way to stop a school leader from being in school the first week of the 'holiday'!

It is a time in the school year where we do tend to reflect on the year coming to an end, and begin to consider and plan for the one to come. I would like to share some of my thoughts and experiences about the school year coming to an end. I am sure some of them will sound and feel very familiar to many, and some will be completely alien and unknown to others. Everyone's context and journey is unique but hopefully there are insights for us all in each journey. If nothing else, you might be able to say I recognise that completely, or, thank goodness I didn't have to deal with all that.

I considered whether to go through each month of the school year and look at significant events, but decided it might be better to consider the year under a few of themes.

First we have learners. Everything we do starts and finishes with our learners. Yet again this year, I have been blown away by their achievements, their resilience and their determination to do well. Across both schools they have produced work of a tremendous quality and have demonstrated a range of qualities that makes me proud of every single one of them. They are not all the same, they are not all working and achieving at the same level but, they have all made progress and contributed much to the uniqueness of both settings. They have achieved in school and out and have grown as individuals as a result. I marvel at their ability to deal with change and take it all in their stride, an ability we sometimes lose as we get older and become adults. Many of our learners have faced a range of challenges across the course of the year, and a number have had to deal with tragedy and chaos outside of school. More have faced learning and social challenges, in school and out. But every single one of them has been supported, both in school and at home, so that they made progress and overcame many of their personal challenges. They have been funny, insightful and upset at times but we have loved working with them all, and their families. It's what we do, and perhaps the most important thing we do. We lose sight of the importance of all these interactions and relationships at our peril. It is too easy in the current climate to fail to see the individuals and only see data. We owe it to every individual child and learner to ensure this doesn't happen.

Next there is staff and staffing. Like with our learners, I am equally in awe of the commitment and professionalism of all the staff I have the pleasure to work with. They demonstrate their willingness to go that extra mile for all their learners time and time again. They sometimes struggle with all that is asked of them, and all the criticism they face from the uninformed, or those who should know better. But, they never struggle to do the best they can, day in and day out, for all their learners. We all understand the importance of having the right staff in place, especially teaching, but all are important to being able to deliver for all learners. We began the new school year, in one of my schools,  with a new teacher, who had been appointed during the holidays by the local authority, as backfill for a member of staff who had been seconded to a role in the centre to support other schools. We also had three other temporary members of teaching staff, after another teacher took a secondment right at the start of the year. Another was still recovering from an operation she'd had during the summer break, and a third was on maternity leave. This amounted to to more than a third of the teaching compliment in the school, and in addition our Nursery teacher had taken a retirement package and the nursery would be led by our senior nursery nurse for the first time. Staffing at the other school I lead was more stable and there were no changes there. Issues with staffing, due to secondments, retirals, long term illness and maternity leave had been common during the previous school year, and this one was to be no different. During the session just ending, a further two members of staff at the larger school became pregnant and went off on maternity leaves and two temporary teachers accepted a permanent contract elsewhere during the session, all of which caused massive headaches. There just weren't the teachers out there to do supply work, or even looking for longer term temporary work. We advertised the two maternity leaves twice and had no applicants each time. We struggled to find cover and luckily were able to call on two former teachers who had retired to help us out, but also my DHT has had to teach for a lot of the year. As I write this, we currently have an NQT  covering one class for us, and a job-share where the teachers have more children than they should, so we have augmented the staffing with a succession of supply teachers. All of this puts massive pressure on a school and it's development, and we have not achieved all that we had planned as a result. This is the second year in a row we have battled with staffing issues, but I am hopeful this might improve next session. I also think our experience is very much a reflection of the national picture, with regards to teacher availability.

School development continued at both schools, despite the staffing issues described above. Obviously, what we were able to achieve was definitely impacted adversely by the staffing turnover, but we still moved forward on a lot of our development agenda. The core staff, who had been in the schools for a number of years, were able to work together on helping us develop our curricular mapping for literacy and numeracy. We completed another curricular map for health and well-being and we were able to continue to develop other aspects of our curriculum and structures. All these teachers were able to keep developing their learning and teaching through practitioner enquiries, and were able to collaborate and support each other to keep developing their practice. One or two aspects of the improvement plans dropped off the agenda, or didn't progress as much as we would like, but I am happy that both schools and all staff still moved forward over the session. Some years you can achieve a lot more than others, but school leaders need to recognise this and adjust expectations when necessary, confident that progress is still being made and that you can get back on track when conditions allow. We continued to work collaboratively within our local cluster, and important professional relationships and dialogue developed further across schools and sectors. All individuals committed to improve their understandings and their practice, and to support colleagues to do the same, to ensure both schools, and the others in the cluster, kept developing and improving. The development agenda of the local authority and the government keeps growing at a pace, but we dealt with this, where we needed to, and protected ourselves from demands that we considered unhelpful, or unachievable at the present time.

Considering my own professional development and leadership, this too has continued to develop and move forward. As a result of everything that has happened this year, planned and unplanned, I am a different headteacher to the one who started the school year. I have continued to blog and use Twitter for professional development purposes, and to engage with teachers and leaders, to improve my understandings and practice. I have attended a number of conferences and Teachmeet events, where I was able to tap into the knowledge, wisdom and enthusiasm of so many wonderful people. I have spoken at a number of events on a range of topics, including leadership, practitioner enquiry and aspects of the National Improvement Framework in Scotland. I like to think I have contributed to the debate and the dialogue around what we do as school leaders and educationalists. I continue to write. I have written for a number of professional magazines and websites and have contributed to a couple of books that might see the light of day soon. I have begun writing another book of my own, this one on practitioner enquiry, and hopefully this will be published next year. My biggest disappointment of the year was not being able to attend the ICSEI 2016 conference in Glasgow, especially as I had attended the previous one in Cincinnati. As with everything in a school leader's diary, it is subject to change according to the needs and demands of the day job. ICSEI was just another example of this truism, and more of that later. I carried out some duties for SCEL, as part of my role as a fellow, but perhaps not as many as I expected or would have liked, again due mainly to the demands of my main role. I became a director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council (SPTC) and look forward to developing this role, and the partnership between schools and parents, further in the future. So, although both schools were incredibly busy, I was still able to keep a focus on my own professional development and growth and to contribute to system leadership at all levels. This has benefits for me and the schools I lead.

One unexpected event was another reason I wasn't able to do everything I had planned, including attending ICSEI. In December storm Desmond went through southern Scotland and resulted in severe damage being done to our neighbouring primary school. The school had to be closed and within two days one of my schools found itself hosting most of their classes, staff and parents. We put emergency measures in place for the last week in the lead up to Christmas, and made the best of a difficult situation. We knew that our neighbours would have done exactly the same for us if the situation had been reversed. We returned in January to discover that our visitors would be staying with us for the full term up to the Easter break. This was no longer just an emergency situation for a short period and required more long-term planning and collaboration by all. Various issues arose and had to be dealt with, whilst all the time trying to ensure all schools and their learners were still moving forward, and retaining their unique identities. What we learnt pretty quickly that, whilst the children and staff from the two schools looked and sounded similar, they were in fact quite different. The culture and ethos of both were different and this posed perhaps the greatest challenges for all. We also saw this as an opportunity for learners and teachers to collaborate and work together and to develop deeper relationships than previously. I think the pupils found this easier than the adults, but it was a great, if unusual, learning situation for us all. Having two headteachers in the same school, provided some interesting challenges!

I have always said that every day, week, month and year are different in schools. Never has this been brought home to me as much as this last year in school. It started busy and then just got busier, but don't they all? It had lots of highs, and a few lows. It was both challenging and exciting, and very very tiring. But I really wouldn't change much of it. There is a satisfaction in facing the challenges and overcoming them and finding a way forward. I have the pleasure of working with fabulous people, learners and colleagues, and I continue to seek to make a difference for them all. If I have upset you this year because of some of the stances I take, it is only because I remain so passionate about providing the best learning environment and opportunities for all learners. This can bring me into conflict with some, when policy and actions seem destined to work against what we are all trying to do. But I try to do this in a considered and professional way and only look to others to do the same with me. I will always fight for what I believe in, I owe it to myself but most of all I owe it to every single learner moving through our education system and the schools I lead. 

I honestly do look forward to the next school year. In the meantime I will be heading off to Perth in Australia, to recharge and refresh my batteries. Being me, I do have a couple of professional visits booked when I am over there, so do come and say hello, or G'day' if you see me. To everyone in Scotland, have a restful summer break and I will see you all again in August. 😊


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