A Passion For Education – The Story of a Headteacher

This is the second part of my story. A tale of disaster and destruction.

A passion for Education – The story of a Headteacher: Amazon.co.uk: Goodwin BSc (Hons) NPQH, Christopher R: 9781502984685: Books

Chapter 2 –More about the catastrophe and other disasters   It is true to say that the start of my Headship could hardly have been worse! I think it was George Washington who said something on the lines of ‘Most men can cope with adversity; to see the real character of a man give him power.’ On my first day as a temporary Head I had arrived early in the morning before the caretaker had even begun to unlock the place and stood in the driveway surveying the school as objectively as I could. What I saw, when viewed dispassionately, was not too good. The iconic pavilion was almost derelict. Its windows were smashed in and boarded up, paintwork was a disaster with bare rotting wood exposed, tiles were missing and it looked ready for demolition. Inside the place it was no better. I knew the old boiler was broken, the roof leaked and it was a mud streaked wreck. The smell of the urinals pervaded the place and the showers did not function at all. It was still used as changing rooms but with no heating and in such a mess that it could not go on for long. The pavilion was the first thing you saw as you came up the drive and used to be the pride of the school. It was a ruin. It set the tone for the rest of the school. In the holidays someone had gone round with something like a hammer and smashed three huge windows in the technology block, two in the English block and two in the sixth form block. A corner flag from one of the football pitches was actually sticking out of one of the broken windows where someone had rammed it through. Even the relatively new blocks were in disrepair. It looked a mess. I looked round at the beautiful grounds with their established horse chestnut trees in full bloom. The sun was shining, flowers blooming and fields looked a picture. At least the grounds man was a star. It was quite a challenge. There was a lot to do. I was overcome with a feeling that it was all my responsibility. If I fell short then the lives of all the students and staff would be affected. I was responsible for their futures. It made me feel sick. At that point I didn’t know the half of it.   From day one, as I tried to cope with the storm that had overtaken me and keep my head above water, below the surface an even more serious set of challenges were circling like great white sharks silently rushing in at me to tear me apart. The finances were busy going awry.   I inherited the school with a £90,000 surplus. This meant that for the first half of the term I did not have to concern myself too much with the finances. I had enough on my plate. I was struggling to establish myself as an acting Head with all that entailed; doing the work for the NPQH, keeping up with my former deputy’s work, introducing the new initiatives against heated opposition, doing justice to my teaching and trying to plan for the forthcoming Headship interviews. As everything was going pear-shaped this was proving more than difficult. I only just managed to keep up with my teaching commitment. It was getting all too much. I felt I was floundering. I had taken on too much and had reached saturation. I’d found my limits. The finances were not a priority. I wasn’t proposing to spend anything apart from a window pane replacement programme. It could tick over in the background. Or that was what I thought. Unfortunately it couldn’t and this became apparent following my successful second interview and my appointment as Head. The school had suffered from falling roles. It had its lowest number of students for some considerable time. Fewer students had returned to the sixth form and year 7 was nowhere near full. More students were moving out than coming in, every single year group was depleted. While this made for pleasant small teaching groups that pleased the staff it meant that there was far less money coming in to the school than had been predicted. This had been compounded by a staffing crisis. Three staff were suddenly on long term sick leave, including a nasty accident in the swimming pool while on holiday abroad. They required expensive cover staffing. Effectively we were paying twice for the same amount of teaching. On top of this a boiler blew and had to be replaced. The government had been negotiating with the unions and the new contract involved revised teacher contact time, workload and emergency cover only teaching. The idea was sound – teachers should be in the classroom teaching; mundane tasks such as photocopying, displays, filing, supervision of exams and typing should be carried out by clerical and support staff. This had resulted in us having to employ more support staff and outside teacher cover for absence. Teachers would no longer cover lessons for absent staff except in emergencies. As a consequence the wage bill had shot up over night.   After half term there was a brief lull. The five period day had settled in even though teachers detested the extra workload. The SERCO ICT management system had begun working and staff were beginning to get to grips with it. Things were looking up. I sat down with my bursar Pat and went through the finances. I had a picture of where we should be from previous discussions with Gerry. It didn’t seem to be there. We had a black hole. It appeared we had gone from a surplus to a deficit of nearly half a million. It sent chills through me. There had to be something wrong here. I rang up Gerry. We’d always got along really well and I knew he’d be supportive. He said to ring if I had anything he could help with. He was very reassuring: ‘Don’t worry,’ he chuckled. ‘It always looks bad this time of year. It’ll settle down. There are always bits of money here and there that start coming in. It’ll look better in a while. Don’t worry about it.’ I sat down with Pat and went through it with a microscope. She fed in all the monies that were likely to manifest and we still had a black hole of £450,000. There had to be something I was doing wrong. I rang Gerry back and asked him to come in and go through it with me. There had to be something I was overlooking. It couldn’t get this bad so quickly. He came into school, immediately sparking rumours that the governors had asked him back. We went through the finances. No matter how he looked at it there was no other result. We were looking at a massive black hole. I went to the staff. They were cynical. They saw it as a management ploy to get more out of them. The unions were adamant that they were not going to provide cover. We had to stand by all the hard won agreements on working practice. They thought my fears of staff redundancies were scaremongering.   I sat down and explained the situation to the governors hopeful that they would see that this was none of my doing. A set of circumstances had conspired to create the perfect storm. I could not anticipate staff illness and boilers breaking down. The falling roles were unexpected. It had come together to create a catastrophic deficit. My sleepless nights were now full of sweaty nightmares as my mind churned over and over how I was going to get out of this hole. This was the reality of Headship.   I arranged a meeting with the education officers at County Hall. They had an emergency fund that could perhaps bail us out. The boiler and long-term staff absences met the criteria. A bail out could at least get the deficit down to manageable proportions and buy us the time to address the problem. The school had history with County. We were grant maintained and been at loggerheads with them right back to the days when the school had initially resisted becoming a comprehensive thirty years before. There had been a major confrontation. County did not like the fact that being a grant maintained school gave us a lot of autonomy. We were highly successful and yet did not buy in to county programmes. It rankled with them. We’d always born a grudge because we knew we didn’t get a fair crack of the whip. Our buildings were dilapidated and it was felt that county starved us of money. Other schools fared a lot better. None the less I went along to County Hall with what I felt was a good case. As a new Head I was sure they would want to be supportive. I was ushered into a plush room with oak panels and red leather seats. I spread my paperwork and handouts on the polished wooden table and began to explain out tale of woe to the director of education, his deputy, a senior supervisor and the head of finance. It was quite an intimidating array. I outlined the falling roles, workforce agreement, long term sickness and broken boiler. I asked for emergency funding from the fund set up for just such contingencies. I asked for a loan to see us through and offered them the plan I had come up with to address the short-fall. I had spent time and effort over the three year plan I had drawn up. I had looked at staffing levels, including not replacing a second deputy, and had schemes to get more bums on seats. I was confident that in a few years I would pull it round. It was all detailed and costed out. It looked sound. They listened and studied the plans. They fired questions at me and gave me a hard time. I was still sure that as a new Head, only in post for a matter of weeks, they would want to support me and the school. After all they had the interests of the students at heart as much as we did. Perhaps they just wanted to give me a hard time to ensure I took it seriously. I endured the ear-bashing in the expectation of getting a sizeable chunk of our debt written off and a loan that would enable to address the deficit in a controlled manner over the next three years. I was asked to go out and wait. They conferred. I was called back in. No they would not give me any contribution towards the boiler or staff absence from the emergency fund. Further to that they were not prepared to loan money. I had to come up with a plan that would address the shortfall by the following summer – forget the three years I had come up with. They demanded that I instantly invoke redundancy proceedings and look to shed at least five teaching staff if not more. They were going to send their finance manager in to go through our finances. If I did not come up with an approved plan to instigate redundancies they would have no option but to take over the governing body and enforce their own plan. I basically had until the next summer and if I had not solved it they were going to take over the school. I sat there stunned. I could not believe what I was hearing or the attitude with which they were delivering it. If I introduced a redundancy programme I knew I would lose the support of staff. They were furious enough at having to swallow the five period day. To dump more work, fear and worry on them would have caused morale to collapse. I’d lose the school. I was in my first term of Headship and I was looking at the possibility of losing the school. That kept going round my head. I stared back at them with fury building up inside. I told them in no uncertain terms where they could shove their ultimatum. I told them with plenty of choice words that I didn’t need their help and stormed out. Welcome to Headship.   I went back to school with fresh determination. Fury had fired me up. I stopped the building programme that had been started by Gerry. This money came from a special Government building fund and could only be used for building work but by devising a scheme for extensive building modification and remodelling throughout the school I could use the building money to refurbish and replace furniture. By doing this I reallocated all the money from repairs and maintenance to help plug the debt. It came to about a £100,000 saved. I then clawed back some money spent from capitation on building work the previous year. I cut capitation by 10% and started stripping out every budget I could get my hands on. Every penny counted. I went back to the unions to discuss cover. They refused to budge. I introduced more cover for the senior team. We tried to reduce supply needs as much as possible. I did not advertise for the new deputy. On top of my workload I was now doing more cover than anybody else. I was living on adrenalin. I put my plans to the governors, (though I think I may have forgotten to tell them about any possible take over!) They were very supportive. There was no way I was going to allow the school to go under. By the time I had finished with my measly penny pinching austerity drive I had rescued £250,000. We had got below the £200,000 we were permitted to carry over. Not only that but I had managed it without having to lay off a single member of staff.   County would have to wait if they wanted to take us over.   I turned my attention to more long term solutions. I could not use the same tactics twice. There were no building programmes to rob next year. We were cut to the bone and there were only two possibilities left: increase student numbers to gain more income or reduce staffing to cut costs, staffing being the bulk of the budget. You could not save much any other way. I knew that if we reduced staffing it would snowball into disaster. Classes would have to be merged, class sizes would rocket and morale would go through the floor. Once teaching and learning were affected results would plummet, student numbers would drop and we would be in a downward spiral. A Head is always, no matter how good a school is, one step away from a spiral down into the abyss. All it takes is a financial crisis, a bad set of results or a poor Ofsted. One of these can lead to the others. I could not bear the thought that I might be the Head to preside over the school as it plummeted. It was down to me to come up with a plan to attract students in. We had to fill all our year groups and attract students into the sixth form. Our survival depended on it. I put my energies into doing that. To attract students in you had to be outstanding, which we were, and you had to sell that to the public. That required a publicity campaign and good PR. We had to quickly knock the school into better physical shape, get it painted up so it looked good, improve our results and sell it to the public. I wanted every parent to see that we were a caring community school. I was not prepared to compromise on that for anyone. We were an open, caring friendly school in which their children would be happy and flourish. Not only that but they would be successful into the bargain. I was not going to pander to the education establishment by focussing purely on results. I was banking on the fact that parents wanted their children to go to a school that focussed on the whole child, where their sons were not going to be bullied and would be cheerful and thrive. I was not prepared to sacrifice my principles on the altar of dogma. I had introduced my philosophy as a teacher and a deputy. I was now going to live or die by proving it to be correct. I was determined to run the school on my lines or not at all. I knew I was right. There were more important things than results. However, if I got those things right the results would improve as well. I set about getting the pastoral, support, attendance, rewards and informal curriculum to function properly. Education should be fun. I wanted staff to take risks in the classroom and feel secure knowing they would have my support. I wanted passion and energy in the lessons. I wanted active learning. I wanted a happy school. I wanted my door open all the time so anybody, student, cleaner or teacher could pop in for a chat. I smiled and greeted students every day. I smiled and greeted staff. I smiled and greeted parents. I had to mirror what I wanted. I smiled even though inside my stomach was churning and my thoughts reeling. I was in a constant state of panic. I was working fourteen hours a day. But I knew what I wanted! I wanted praise and recognition to ring out from every classroom, from every corridor and every assembly. There could not be too much praise and recognition. That simply was not possible. People thrived on praise. It set the tone I wanted for the school. We were a community. The staff and students were exceptional. I wanted them to know that. Whatever problems we might be facing behind the scenes I wanted the school to be brimming with laughter, full of wear-what-you-like days, concerts, charity events and extra-curricular activities. Get the ethos right and everything follows. I would not settle for an ordinary school with ordinary targets – we were to be extraordinary – or bust! At that point the first thing to bust felt like it was going to be me!

3 thoughts on “A Passion For Education – The Story of a Headteacher

  1. Outstanding, Opher! Of course you have the right frame of mind for learning. BTW, a true teacher is not an educator, but a learning coach, someone who facilitates learning. Cheers to you for plowing through against the odds of the administration that was ‘confirm or you’re on your own’. Looking forward to Part 3.

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