I have been a school leader for fifteen years and a head for nearly nine and whilst I can’t say I have enjoyed every minute, I have never once not wanted to get up, go to school, roll my sleeves up and get stuck in. I am lucky enough to be part of a community and culture that really works. We are extremely successful, oversubscribed, in a beautiful location with a talented and committed staff and delightful, hardworking students, supported by families who trust and back us. In many ways it is a dream job and after nearly thirty years in the profession it is wonderful to be in a comprehensive school that properly lives up to the values it espouses.
I feel sad when I hear stories of teachers leaving the profession in droves; of unreasonable demands or bullying leaders. I know that in some schools behaviour is a problem: that colleagues spend as much time fighting fire as teaching; lessons are disrupted and teachers disrespected. I know that this is exhausting and I know that not all leaders help as much as they could. I know that in some schools, books have to be marked after every six lessons, in different coloured pens; and that sometimes the written feedback is as much for the manager who is doing the book scrutiny as it is for the child to learn what they have done well and what they need to do next. Monitoring can be oppressive and the spectre of Ofsted is a very real fear. I know that we cram a full year’s worth of working into 39 weeks and that none of us are strangers to 50/60 hour working weeks. And I know that a Sunday in term time often has a certain leaden feel to it that may not seem quite so burdensome in other professions.
Teaching is not easy; it is not for everyone; and it is sometimes made harder by the people who are in charge. I know all of this to be true, but it has not been my experience.
I started teaching in 1988, straight from University with little intention of making it my career. I trained as a primary teacher but knew that I really only wanted to teach English and that I preferred the older children. I was lucky enough to find a secondary head who was willing to take a chance on me. I only planned to do one or two years but from day one I was hooked. I have honestly never wanted to do anything else. It goes without saying that the last 29 years have seen massive changes in the profession. I started with no national curriculum, no formal assessment model, no schemes of work, no data, no technology, no Ofsted, no league tables and in all honesty not much of a clue. We kind of made it up as we went along. But I loved it. I still do.
The job has always been hard. I have never not taken work home. As an English teacher, marking has always been tyrannical. 100% coursework in the early days meant constant marking of drafts, redrafts and final pieces. Report writing (by hand) used to take weeks while a whole weekend and the living room floor was taken over by sorting out those belonging to a tutor group. Free lessons were few and far between and we did loads of cover and exam invigilation.
So if there was ever a golden age when workload was manageable and evenings and weekends were your own, it was before my time. Having said that, we certainly weren’t monitored like teachers are now. Lessons were not routinely observed and nobody really even took much notice of the exam results. Kids got what they got and by and large it was accepted that that’s what they deserved. I think on reflection therefore that despite the fact that back then there really was no support if you were struggling; it was sink or swim, the job is probably harder now than when I started. There is instead much greater accountability and far higher expectations. I also think teachers – and schools – are better now than they were then. If you could control a class, that was generally enough. I look back with real embarrassment at some of the stuff I asked my students to do in the early days: posters, board games, the missing chapter, the stream of consciousness, letters to a problem page, cartoon strips, a new book jacket, videos. We had fun but I would be horrified if I saw my students engaged in so many unproductive activities now.
The one constant however over the last nearly 30 years is that whatever school I have worked in I have loved it. Some have been challenging; some less so. Some have been well led, others have had all or parts of leadership teams who varied from ineffective to downright destructive. All have had students who have given me far more, than I have ever given them. Building relationships with young people, watching their confidence grow, helping them succeed academically and in other ways has been an absolute privilege.
What has changed with headship is that this is probably the first time as a teacher that I have cared as much about the staff as I do the students. As a head, I love that I get to work on the bigger picture, and that I get to set the direction with a team of likeminded people. I am so lucky that I work in a school where we really do trust each other to do the right thing. I cannot bear fruitless activity or meaningless admin. I am very bad at making sure the policies are up to date and all written in the same format. I despise paperwork and filing and I know that this is a bit of a weakness.
But I want our teachers to concentrate on what matters: teaching bloody good lessons and not collating folders of stuff which looks impressive but has minimal impact in the classroom. I want them to have excellent relationships with students and know that when they stand in front of a class they are not going to be ambushed by poor behaviour. Marking is important because it helps students and teachers work out where to go next but I really don’t care what colour pen it’s in – or how frequent – as long as it’s reasonably regular and 100% meaningful. I hate homework for homework sake, and our homework policy, like the marking policy is flexible and allows for departments to use them to service their own needs. We have no collective orthodoxy about what a “good” lesson looks like, if it gets the job done, do it. If it fills the time without really moving learning on, don’t. Every minute of every lesson counts and we aim to remove everything that gets in the way of that.
I have enjoyed being able to recruit excellent colleagues. It is an honour to watch someone develop through their career and help them to fulfil their own career aspirations. I work with a leadership team who are skilled and committed and passionate about doing the best by the children and the staff. I couldn’t ask for a better teaching or support team. We have worked extremely hard to achieve what we have done, but we have done it together and I am so proud of and humbled by the willingness of everyone to come with me.
There have, of course, been challenges, worries and sleepless nights but I can honestly say that the last nine years have been the most enjoyable and fulfilling of my career. Until now. Now I am faced with trying to make huge savings out of a budget that is already cut to the bone. I have to think perhaps about reducing non-contact time, increasing class sizes, cutting the curriculum, reducing student support. I want my teachers to have more than four hours a week not less. In fact I really want them to have 10. I want to keep class sizes reasonable. I don’t want classes of more than 30 in any subject but would ideally like no more than 25. I want to keep my subject specialists and a broad and balanced curriculum offer. I want to have enough TAs to support the most vulnerable groups and not share them out or spread them so thinly they don’t have any real impact with students. I want to welcome SEN students with open arms, without worrying if we have the resources to support them. I want to keep what little student support I have – we realized we couldn’t afford a counsellor ages ago – but I have (only two) student support workers whose caring and skilful input makes a massive difference with some students who really need it. I want to keep a site team who take a pride in the school and its environment and maintain it so that the school always looks welcoming, inviting, clean and purposeful. I want to keep a balance between experienced and less experienced teachers and not be pleased if a UPS3 teacher leaves because I can save money with an NQT. I want to keep all of my fantastic leadership team who have worked so hard with me over the last nine years to take the school to levels we only really dreamed we can achieve – including having a P8 score that placed us 11th nationally last year. I want to keep supporting teachers with cover when they are ill, or have family commitments or celebrations or personal tragedies or when they want to do amazing, exciting things by taking students out of the classroom.
I want to do all of these things; but the new national funding formula on top of all of the other increased costs means I almost certainly cant. My budget will shrink by 2.8% under the new proposals and I have to make some really difficult decisions as a result. Increased employer costs, the loss of the ESG, the apprenticeship levy, inflation etc have already taken more than £300,000 out of my budget next year but we have been able to plan for some of this. The further loss of £140,000 under these new “fairer” arrangements is therefore nothing short of devastating. If we were already funded at or above the national average, I might be able to take it but we are already delivering excellence on a shoestring. There is nowhere else to cut. It will hurt; and it will fester; and it will infect and contaminate everything that we do. It’s easy to lead when things are going well and we have been very lucky. And I also know that it is in times of adversity when leaders really have to step up and show their worth. I’m just not sure that I want to. Our students and our teachers and our support staff and our families deserve better. It sounds petulant to complain “It’s not fair” but actually that is the reality: it’s simply not fair; it’s not even fairer.