Headship – a passion for education

I wrote this book straight after retiring. I had amazingly completed thirty six years in secondary teaching. I started as a classroom teacher in Biology, became Head of Department, Head of Science and Senior Teacher. I then moved on to Deputy Head and spent my last full year as Head.

This was quite strange really. I had never been ambitious and teaching had started as a means for me to earn a living and support my family while I did my own thing writing, gigging and enjoying myself. I found I loved teaching, I loved the students and it gave me an outlet for my idealism and creativity.

By the end I had spent nineteen years in Senior Management, had helped drive the school to three successive Outstanding Ofsted’s and created a school that was run on my idealistic vision, was a joy to teach and be taught in and was the sort of place I was incredibly proud of. It was all highly successful.

The principles of Open, Caring, Friendly were the same ideals I based my life on and what I had taken from the writers, musicians, artists, friends and teachers who had inspired me.

I wanted to get it all down on paper so that other educationalists could see the type of education that worked as an antidote to the jaundiced old-fashioned view of education touted by messers Gove and co.

This is an extract. I hope you like it:

Headship – A passion for Education

by

Opher

Chapter 33 – Headship the perfect storm and other disasters

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

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. Much as I loved it there was no denying that work was a big impediment when it came to having time for my creative endeavours. I yearned for a more Bohemian lifestyle. I had also had to fight the whole of my life 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. My wife could never get her head round this. 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 the kids 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, the Head 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,’ Liz admonished me. ‘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 the present Head. 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 the Head about bringing in some major changes and drawn up plans for the introduction of vertical tutoring and the disbandment and restructuring of the curriculum 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 a bit fraught. 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 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 didn’t and hadn’t. I checked with the website and found that I had just missed the deadline to get on the course before the interviews. I applied for the next course which began in June.

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 be willing to accept the position subject to being accepted on the course. It was the best I could do.

They accepted my application. There were no objections from County and I proceeded.

My references from the Head and my fellow deputy were incredible. They brought tears to my eyes.

My work record at the school was impressive. The number of initiatives I had successfully brought in and seen bedded in 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.

They had trouble seeing me standing on the stage at public forums looking like a Headmaster. I had trouble seeing myself that way. This was made worse by the fact that these were precisely the attributes the present Head 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 new image complete with hairstyle and shiny shoes. 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 you on all aspects of your philosophy, achievements and intentions though panel after panel. You had to repeatedly perform. 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.

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

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

I waited at home with Liz on tenterhooks as we waited the result.

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 was no excuse. I had a free rein. There was no-one to mull over my ideas and give them the yea or nay. I was 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 enormous. 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. That is not always the best players.’

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

Headship, if you strive for excellence, is about risk taking and quirky individuality. Playing safe creates mediocrity.

I didn’t know if I could do it. The responsibility was 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 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 are going through the motions. They grow to hate the job and can’t wait to get out. They had so much more to offer and they owed it to themselves as well as the kids 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 of even the even most consummate performers. Many great comedians and musicians would get themselves in a complete state before they went on stage, throwing up and becoming complete nervous wrecks. Then they’d walk out on stage and be the epitome of relaxed self-assurance.

Even giving morning briefing was a nightmare for me. 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 finish your life with regrets.

As we got into the Summer term I began preparing for taking over.

I was told there were a few concerns regarding my application. Seemingly county had objected because I was not on the NPQH.

I thought little of it because 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.

Out of nowhere, three weeks before the end of term, I was informed that as County had 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 appalled.

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 we got an Ofsted inspection in the last few weeks. 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 the Head to leave and it cleared the way for me. I no longer had to expect an inspection for a while. It gave me time to do my thing and get it right. The downside was that the union were unwilling to back me. I had to reapply for my job.

County provided me with no mentorship, training programme or support. Neither was I allocated a fund to facilitate this.

There were huge knock-on effects:

My first task in September was to inform the staff that I was not Head, 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 take my former Deputy’s role as I might have to drop back into that role 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.

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 show the staff that I was not ducking work. I was determined to set an example. I was determined that no member of staff, and there were some whose workload was prestigious, would work harder than me.

I certainly achieved that in my first year. I was regularly doing 80 hour weeks with no lunch or breaks.

Ambitiously, and much to the chagrin of the bulk of the staff, we had brought in a five period day to replace 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.

This major development had been introduced with full staff consultation though the whole process had been messed about with because of my situation and the Ofsted inspection. 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 time 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 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 worsening their conditions, it was definitely better for the students and certainly better for 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. Then we certainly would not have got our subsequent Outstanding Ofsted. These Outstanding Ofsted inspections were essential for the survival of the school.

The staff were not looking at the big picture. They just wanted things to be the same as they had been before. They were railing at the workload. 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 integrate them. It looked brilliant but was quite complicated. It had meant a lot of change and a lot of staff training.

Staff do not like change.

You could not have conceived of introducing as much change all in one dollop.

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.

The first week could not have gone much worse leaving the staff 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 being unable to sleep.

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

 

Fortunately we got the ICT Management system back up and running and that settled down. My one remaining 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 pulled it together.

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

Somehow I got through the Headship interviews. This time they were so much more fraught. This time I had nothing to gain; I could only lose. My nerves were shot to pieces, workload was unbelievable and my stress levels off the chart. I had to go in there and perform.

I knew the governors were receiving reports of staff unrest. That didn’t help. The more vociferous were making their views known. It was also obvious that there was a strong candidate who was excellent. She would push me all the way. Even my Deputy was taken with her.

I had to put everything to one side, stand up and perform; I had to be calm, lucid, passionate and display the vision, management skills and Leadership that had got me the position in the first place.

There was no way that I did as well but I did enough to scrape through. By half term I was appointed. My name finally went up on the door to my study and was carved into the oaken panels in the Hall.

I was at last official.

The worst was yet to come.

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2 thoughts on “Headship – a passion for education

  1. Hello Sir – how are you? Absolutely delighted to see you have written so many books – you continue to inspire! I’ve ordered and now received ‘A Passion for Education’ and can’t wait to read it. Do you have a copy of ‘Swade’ in which you play a newsreader? I couldn’t keep the camera steady for the giddy excitement of filming your cameo! Happy days. I’ll send you a copy if you’d like? Thanks for always giving me [and all of us] your time and enthusiasm. I’m in London now, married and promoting movies. My Bro is still up north, Grimsby, managing his own Halfords store and indulging in fitness! All the very best, Oliver

    • Hi Oli,
      Great to hear from you. Less of the sir! That always sat uneasily with me. Thanks for buying that book of mine. I hope you enjoy it. Leave a review on Amazon – nobody does.
      I remember that filming. It was fun. I don’t have a copy of Swade but I would love one. email me on opher@hotmail.co.uk and I’ll give you the address.
      It was a pleasure ‘teaching’ (I use the term loosely – I always saw it as mutually sharing) you and all the others. Teaching is such a privilege. I’ve been retired four years now and I miss it.
      What movies are you promoting?
      Nice to hear that you are married and doing OK. That’s always nice.
      Thanks so much for getting in contact – give my regards to your brother. I hope you enjoy the book and get something out of it! All the best!

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