A Passion for Education – Chapter 1 – Headship – the beginning

This gives you a taste of what the book is about. Whether you are in teaching or not I think you will be able to connect with this.

Chapter 1 – Headship – beginning the perfect storm and other disasters

The start of my sleepless nights began before my first term of Headship even began.

Having reached my mid fifties I was beginning to look ahead to taking an early retirement so that I had time to do all those things I’d been wanting to do, such as writing. Much as I loved teaching there was no denying that work left little time for my creative endeavours. I yearned for a more bohemian lifestyle. All my life I have fought against the conflicting interests of my biological clock and the timetable of work. Left to my own devices I gravitated to working late at night. As the evening progressed I tended to become more alert. In my younger days I would happily type my books from 10.00 pm until 2.00 am or even 3.00 am and then pay heavily for it the next morning when the alarm went off. I’d somehow manage on four hours sleep a night, with a little catch up on the weekend, as much as family life would allow, for three months or so until I’d completed the book that had been sitting in my head.

Throughout my working life I’d go to bed wide awake, sleep well and wake up feeling dopey with tiredness.

Retirement might just sort this out.

Then, out of the blue, Gerry, the Headteacher, retired and I was thrown into a dilemma: should I apply for the Headship or not?

Was I too old?

‘You’ll only regret it if you don’t,’ Liz admonished me. She was always the voice of reason. ‘What harm can it do? You probably won’t get it anyway. You know you won’t be happy working for a new Head.’

She was right.

I had been happy working as a Deputy under Gerry. He gave me almost complete freedom to do my own thing. I could put my ideas into action. I was happy even though I was beginning to get bored. I’d got most things sorted and there was very little challenge in the role anymore. I was craving change. I’d been talking to Gerry about bringing in some major changes and had even drawn up plans for the introduction of vertical tutoring and the disbandment and restructuring of the Curriculum Team and Pastoral Team. I needed something to get my teeth into and keep my interest. In my head I was going to work for another three years and then retire. The idea of working for someone else whose views might not mirror mine, who might even start undoing all the stuff I’d put in place, was unsettling. I’d worked in the place for over thirty years and come to think of the school as mine. I could see the initiatives I had brought in bearing fruit. I couldn’t bear to see them dismantled. I did not take much persuading.

I decided to apply.

The only problem was that the government had just made it mandatory to have, or be on the course for, the new NPQH qualification of Headship and I hadn’t even applied for it. I checked with the website and found that I had just missed the deadline to get on the course by a few days; I was unable to get enrolled before the interviews. I applied for the next course which began in June. It was now February.

I thought this might well preclude me from being accepted as an applicant but put on my application that I had applied for the NPQH course and that I would be willing to accept the position subject to being accepted on the course. It was the best I could do.

My application was accepted. There were no objections from County at that point and my application proceeded.

My references from Gerry and my fellow deputy Dave were incredible.

My work record at the school was impressive. The number of initiatives I had successfully brought in and seen bedded was exceptional and fully backed up by inspection reports.

The negative side of things was mainly concerned with image. I knew this was the main factor from previous shenanigans around my appointment as a deputy head. I was a short scruffy individual who did not sit easy in a suit. I was also extremely maverick in the way I did things. I was not one for following rules and regulations or adhering to procedures. I rather did it my way.

People had trouble seeing me standing on the stage at public forums looking like a Headmaster. I could not blame them as I had trouble seeing myself that way. This was made worse by the fact that these were precisely the attributes Gerry did best. He could shine on a stage, talk for England and project charisma. These were things that did not come easy to me, yet I knew I still had all the ideas and energy to take the school to another level.

Liz took me in hand, decked me out in new suits, ties and shirts and created a more palatable image. It wasn’t me but it partially filled the hole in what I had to offer. After all – this was a game.

I progressed to interview where I had to work at overcoming the image of the past and selling the ‘new’ me.

I had nothing to lose. I spoke from the heart and told them what I believed in and what I would do for the school.

The interviews took place in March.

The three day interviews were very exacting. They grilled me on all aspects of my philosophy, achievements and intentions through panel after panel, performance after performance. I had no problem with any of this because I had loads of experience and ideas and did not bother preparing – I just spoke from the heart and was relaxed about the whole thing. I had nothing to lose.

A more difficult part of the exercise involved being taken out to an evening meal. Prior to the meal candidates were told the title of the presentation they had to give to the whole governing body the next morning. The whole idea was to create enormous pressure and observe how you reacted. I ate my meal, sipped my wine, smiled a lot and made intelligent conversation as my mind churned over how I was going to handle the presentation. It was important that I remained relaxed and took my time even though I was straining to get away and begin work on the presentation for the morning.

I got through it without swearing or spilling wine over anyone. I used the right cutlery and even managed to crack a few jokes in a seemingly relaxed manner.

The next day I delivered my presentation and laid out my passion and philosophy with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.

That evening I waited at home with Liz on tenterhooks.

The chair of governors rang and told me I’d been successful, adding as a rider that it was subject to me being accepted on the NPQH. As this was a formality this seemed unimportant.

We celebrated.

It was exciting to think that I was going to have the opportunity to put my philosophy to the test. Would I be able to successfully sell the vision? Could I get the roof on the building I had designed and constructed or would the weight pull it all down? There would be no excuse. I would have a free rein. There would be no Headteacher to mull over my ideas with and give them the yea or nay. I would be my own master.

Psychologically Headship is totally different to deputy headship. As a deputy you can put forward the most radical ideas. Someone else takes ultimate responsibility. They oversee it; if the Head says ‘no’ it doesn’t happen; if they say yes they take responsibility. As a deputy you are free to drive as hard as you like. You also have someone to talk it through with, to rub off the rough edges. As a Head you are on your own. There is no-one to pick up the pieces.

It is like doing a tight-rope walk without a safety net.

It was suddenly overwhelmingly daunting.

I remember Chris Woodward the England rugby coach being interviewed following England’s victory at the world cup.

‘How do you select the best team to get the fifteen best players out on the pitch?’ an interviewer enquired.

‘You never get the best players on the pitch,’ Chris Woodward replied. ‘You get the best that will perform on the day.’

The interviewer looked bemused.

‘If I was to put a long beam down on the gym floor and ask the team to run the length of it most of them would do so easily,’ Clive explained. ‘Maybe the odd one would lose their balance and fall off but they wouldn’t find it too hard. But if I was to place that same beam between two skyscrapers and ask them to run across it it’s a different kettle of fish. The actual task hasn’t changed. The fear of failure has become so much greater.’

‘That’s the same as running out on the field at Twickenham,’ Clive continued. ‘The expectation is enormous. Everything you do is filmed and analysed by millions. The pressure is unbelievable. Some of the most talented players are overawed by it. They freeze and under-perform. My job is to help them deal with the pressure and perform to their potential. That is why you pick the team that can perform best under that pressure. They are not always the best players.’

Headship is like that. The danger is that you may freeze and play safe by following all the rules.

Headship, if you strive for excellence, is about risk taking and giving full rein to that quirky individuality. Playing safe always creates mediocrity.

I didn’t know if I could do it. The responsibility was suddenly frightening.

One lesson life has taught me is that you should never give in to your fears. Your subconscious is your worst enemy. It is always whispering in your ear telling you that you are going to make a fool of yourself. The trouble is that it knows you so well it knows all your weaknesses and never holds back at pointing them out to you.

‘When you stand up there on that stage your hands will shake and your voice tremble. You’ll look a fool,’ it whispered in my head. ‘You’ll forget what you want to say and far from inspiring people you’ll be ridiculed.’

It was this fear of failure that creates pressure.

I put my notes in a plastic wallet so any shaking was not so visible. I practised speaking so that I could control my voice and always took a glass of water on stage so that I could take a sip and control myself. It helped.

You have to stand up to your subconscious and tell it sternly to shut up.

Your subconscious holds you back.

I don’t just mean that in terms of career development; I mean it in terms of life experience. There is no feeling as good as conquering your fear, doing something you dread and doing it well. This is true for bungee jumpers, sky-divers and people in all walks of life.

The fear of public speaking holds many people back. Don’t let it. I have seen ‘Heads of Year’ delivering their first assemblies shaking and stuttering only to find, a year later, those same people have become confident and at ease on a stage. If it really bothers you, go on a public speaking course.

Don’t allow yourself to be beaten by your own self before you even start.

The danger of not taking risks and pushing yourself is that you stay in your comfort zone. That is fatal. You get bored and shrink into yourself. I’ve seen teachers who had the ability to do so much more, decay into cynical individuals who spent the latter days of their career going through the motions. They grow to hate the job and can’t wait to get out. Yet these individuals had so much more to offer and they owed it to themselves, as well as the kids they taught, to push harder.

By the time I finished I was confident on any stage but I never lost my nerves.

This is true of many performers. Many great comedians and musicians get themselves in a complete state before they go on stage. Then they walk out on the platform and become the epitome of relaxed self-assurance. You feel nervous because you care.

Even giving morning briefing was a nightmare for me at first. The start of a new school year staff meeting or staff training days were things I worried about all summer holiday though I doubt any of the staff noticed what a mess I got myself in. The outside was projecting calm humour while the inside churned and raged.

I was glad I took risks and made myself confront and overcome my demons.

You don’t ever want to end your life with regrets.

During the summer term I began preparing for taking over the school.

I was told there were a few concerns regarding my application. Seemingly County had now objected because I was not on the NPQH at the time of my application.

I thought little of this at the time. I would shortly be on the course, which would fulfil the need, and I had a letter offering me the post subject to getting on the course. It seemed water-tight. I had more pressing things to think about. I had a school to prepare for September. I had to pick up the reins of Headship and manage the change-over.

Out of nowhere, three weeks before the end of term, I was informed that as County had formally objected I would have to reapply for my post. I would have to put in a fresh application and go through the whole process again and this would have to be overseen by officers from County to ensure it was all above board.

I was dismayed.

Here I was gearing up for a take over and suddenly I was no longer Head. What sort of start was that?

I could not see why the governors did not stand up to County and say ‘no way’. They had appointed me fair and square. But they didn’t. They backed down.

Then the school had an Ofsted inspection in the last two weeks of the summer term. It was all hands to the pump and complete mayhem.

All my hopes of a smooth transition were thrown into complete disarray. There were no cosy chats with the outgoing Head. There were no leisurely meetings to sort the nuts and bolts out. We were all rushing about getting the documentation and sorting the requirements for the Ofsted. In the midst of this I was in discussion with my union, the governors and County regarding my Headship.

The upshot of all this was that we achieved a second Outstanding Ofsted report and all my areas of responsibility once more came out as excellent. This was a really nice way for Gerry to leave and it cleared the way for me. I no longer had an Ofsted inspection looming over me for a while. It gave me time to do my thing and get it right.

The big downside at the end of that term was that the NUT union informed me that they unwilling to back me. I gained the distinct impression that they were not so bothered about Headteachers. I was on my own. I had to reapply for my job. I would only be a temporary Head in September.

County provided me with no mentorship, training programme or support. Nor was I allocated a fund to facilitate this.

There were huge knock-on effects to being a temporary Head:

My first task in September was to inform the staff that I was not actually the Headteacher; I was merely acting Head and would have to apply for my job. This, of course, led to everyone questioning whether I was still going to be around at the end of the term; did they have to do what I told them?

In their eyes I was not Head. It stripped me of credibility and all authority. I was a lame duck from the first day.

The second effect was that I could not appoint a new deputy head to replace my former role as I might have to drop back into that position if I failed to secure the job. This meant that I was still doing the bulk of that deputy’s job while I was trying to pick up the reins of Headship. Fortunately I did have one deputy – Grahame.

My workload was colossal and further compounded by me starting the NPQH and having to carry out an enormous amount of work entailed in that plus my own stupid decision of wanting to continue my teaching load. I continued with A Level Biology teaching and my Y11 PSHE commitment.

I was determined to set an example. I was determined that no member of staff would work harder than me.

It was an ambitious and foolhardy decision that I soon came to regret.

No-one did work harder than me. I was driven like a maniac. I was regularly doing 80 hour weeks with no lunch or breaks.

At the start of my Headship, and much to the chagrin of the bulk of the staff, we had brought in a five period day to replace our four period day. We had to do this in order to give the range of curriculum options for the students. The previous Head, knowing what an upheaval it would bring, and nearing the end of his career, had knowingly left it to me to introduce. It was not the easiest thing to do at the best of times and the disaster of my uncertain situation made it trebly difficult. This was not the pleasant honeymoon period it could have been. We were straight into full-blooded confrontation.

This major development had been introduced with full staff consultation though the whole process had been messed about and curtailed due to the situation regarding my appointment and the Ofsted inspection coming at the end of term. Consequently the staff felt it had been rushed and rather imposed. They were up in arms because it increased their workload and worsened their work/life balance.

Despite the fact that we gave them more generous allowances of preparation time they did have a bit of a point. The lessons were shorter but they had to prepare, teach and mark more.

I think if we had taken longer over this consultation and talked it through more the staff would have been won over. They were a dedicated, caring staff and they would have acknowledged that, despite slight worsening of their conditions, it was definitely better for the students and the school. Without the proposed introduction of the five period day we would not have achieved an outstanding Ofsted with all the many benefits that brought for the school. We were told that by the Ofsted Registrar. These outstanding Ofsted inspections were essential for the survival of the school. They attracted the students to the school and it was student numbers that generated the cash. Without those outstanding inspections we might have been facing staff redundancies.

However the staff were not looking at the big picture. They viewed it from their own narrow perspective. They just wanted things to be the same as before. All they saw was that it had been good under the last Head and now it was looking a whole lot worse. They were railing at the workload without looking at the broader picture or the long term benefits. It made for a fraught start.

This was further compounded by the introduction of a new IT Management system. Unsurprisingly we had gone for a different system to all the other schools. It gave us an integrated attendance, behaviour and curriculum package that would enable us to develop our systems and incorporate them. It looked brilliant but was quite complicated. It had meant a lot of change and a lot of staff training.

That too impacted on workload.

Staff do not like change. People were struggling to understand the complicated system.

You could not have conceived of introducing as much change all in one dollop. It was far from ideal but in reality there was not much option. This was the time to do it. It would have been foolish to delay.

It would have been a lot easier if I had not had my own problems to contend with. It also would have been a lot easier if the new system had not completely crashed at the beginning of term leaving us without registers, teaching groups or registration groups. We were thrown back to paperwork and chaos.

That first week could not have gone much worse. Staff were muttering about my survival and what sort of Head might they get come half-term when the new Headship interviews were to take place.

My stress levels were through the roof. I was working all hours, going to bed exhausted with a head full of problems, concerns and worries and unable to sleep.

Each day was like an insurmountable nightmare. It looked as if I was heading for a breakdown.


Fortunately we got the ICT management system back up and running and that settled down. Grahame my deputy had only been with us for a year but he pulled more than his weight and rose to the challenge. Between us we did the necessary planning and made it work.

He was a stalwart. I could leave the curriculum, stats and ICT management in his capable hands and not have to worry about it.

We were a team though I don’t think he was completely aware of the mayhem that was going on in my head. Liz was worried that I’d have a heart attack or stroke. My kids were worried about my health. I was trying to hold it all together and get through it.

Through all this turmoil and confusion I had to stand on that stage in front of staff, the school and the public and project calm confidence, charisma and leadership. Welcome to Headship.

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