Why I want to be a headteacher: a manifesto part 2 – my vision
I’ve worked under a Headteacher with an amazing vision. He was incapable of talking to students, appeared to have no interest in the day to day, and didn’t last long in the post.
I don’t think that the vision is the most important thing a Headteacher has in his or her armoury. In daily school life, managing a school so that students behave, teachers teach well and are afforded the opportunity to do so, and the school is orderly are more important qualities than a vision. A Headteacher who is solely a visionary needs an amazing team around him or her, or they are likely to be out on their ear pretty quick. The story of Torsten Friedag seemed to be one of those to me.
However, I suspect that a school is never going to be a great school without a Headteacher with a compelling vision. I have hence spent a lot of time thinking about my vision. I was asked what it was when I completed NPQH, and I gave a glib answer, but I wasn’t sure I believed it, so I’ve given it some thought. My answer then was close to what I write now, and now I’m a lot more sure.
My vision for my future school, if I am afforded the privilege of serving that community as Headteacher, will be context specific. It depends on the school, the community, the students and the place. This means that I will have to listen and observe in order to create a vision that can be distributed. I have in the past withdrawn from Headship interviews because the Governors have had a vision that I cannot sign up to and cannot align with my own values. So I recognise that my vision for the school I lead is not wholly transferable. Nonetheless, if a school appoints me, it will be appointing me in part because I have outlined my vision and they will feel it aligns with theirs. I will have explored the school and know that I can make a difference there. I will have chosen them and they will have chosen me.
So I thought I’d outline my vision briefly. It goes without saying that I could expand on this to ever increasing levels of detail, and it I hope from this long introduction that it is clear that this is a starting point.
We? Aligning the vision
One of the things that I have learnt from successful Headteachers is that it is not all about the Head. While there may be a tendency for those with bigger egos (and I have one of those) to aspire to Headship, it is important to recognise that this needs to be tempered in order that one may align the vision and values with stakeholders. In particular for me this means the governors and the staff.
I would include parents, the wider community and students, and I think we should listen carefully to these views. I am also acutely aware that all three groups can be wrong, and where I think their views are wrong it is important to explain where we are heading, and why, even if they disagree.
I once saw a newly appointed Head refuse to use the term “we” in talking about his school. He said “no, it’s ‘I’ – it’s my school”. While this sounds bizarre, it might make some sense if you see yourself as the kind of Headteacher Michael Wilshaw speaks about here. It was actually quite an inspiring speech. Nonetheless, I will be using the word “we” when talking about the direction of the school. Of course I will be central to shaping that vision, but I understand as I have said that I will need to listen and observe the school, its context and its community.
My vision: Success will be desirable, demanded and achievable.
A vision captured in a few words can be designed to cover a lack of substance. I tried to avoid this when I started exploring my vision but came up with this few words anyway. These few words fit with my view of what the school I lead will be aiming to do. It accurately depicts what I am about, and it is underpinned by my values.
One of the key points in the few words that encompass my vision is to explore “what do we mean by success?” After all, I’ve just said that it’s the central aim of a school under my Headship. Success to me means giving young people the necessary tools to make the next step in their lives.
This includes qualifications. My school will get good results, and do it with real, academic qualifications. We won’t pretend we’ve hit this measure by using qualifications that have little or no perceived value. We will have a challenging curriculum and then teach that curriculum so that students pass exams and are able to make the next steps in their lives academically. I don’t think any educational institution can claim to be a good one if it doesn’t aspire to get as many students as possible to university studying academic courses.
What else is ‘success’? I posit that it is a combination of being able to live Plato’s conception of ‘the good life’ and hence contribute to and change our community. I believe that our young people should be able to shape their vision of our world, and I believe schools have a role in establishing that their emerging visions are positive ones. So success includes service to the community. At its most basic, this can mean respecting public services, manifested by small things like behaving well on buses or taking litter home. We all know of schools that host community events, awards, and contribute significantly to public service. I have time for this version of citizenship (although I remain unconvinced on the merits of teaching citizenship discretely).
But it actually depends on where my Headship is.
For example, I withdrew (just before the final interview) from a Headship interview in Wiltshire where I had spoken to (via a presentation) some members of the community and told them I would place the school at the centre of the community if appointed, but that I expected them to help us too. I told an anecdote of the local hostelry (I was there the night before because candidates who got through to the final day had an evening meal with Governors there) where the owner had reported to me that a few weeks before some boys, bored, were sitting on the wall and absent mindedly digging up plants. She challenged them and had them replanting the plants. That, I said, was the kind of contribution I needed from our community. In this small town in Wiltshire, that seemed like an apt example. It might not have been in a big city.
Our curriculum will not cap aspiration, it will drive it. Our students will be encouraged, and hence expected to aspire to university and beyond as a mechanism to giving themselves the tools to live the good life and change the world. This means that we will ensure they have the drive to succeed. We will involve parents in raising these aspirations. We will, as staff, value knowledge as a precious good – as something that we are proud of, and something that facilitates the transformation of lives. In this, we will transmit to students the drive and determination to be successful and aspire highly.
The desirable aspect of my vision is central to closing the achievement gap, which I wrote about in my previous post. We must ensure that the poor students have not capped their aspiration, nor our school does so unintentionally.
Students who are not working hard enough will be challenged. They will also be punished. They are compromising the acquisition of knowledge, which as an educational institution, is criminal to our aims.
Students who can do better will be expected to do better. No excuses.
Staff who are not delivering lessons that enable students to be successful will be similarly challenged.
I believe in Accountability by Exposure – or transparency. We will know who the successful students are and we will celebrate academic success. We will know and celebrate those staff who deliver the results (I am not in favour of Appraisal or Performance Related Pay, but I will use them if they can help). We will create the conditions for teachers to teach to the best of their ability. We will get as close as we possibly can to making the following maxim true:
We ask that teachers plan and teach the best lessons they possibly can, and nothing else.
While we know this won’t be possible, we will strive for it and revisit it regularly. In exchange, we will demand success.
A few years ago I failed to get a Deputy Headship. I was told in feedback “I wasn’t convinced you could have the hard conversations”. I was annoyed with myself, as this is something I do, including following through with clear procedures where necessary (this is why I don’t think we need PRP or Appraisal – such procedures are plenty – but that’s another debate).
It is unprofessional for any colleague not to challenge students or colleagues if we do not live up to our high expectations. It is doubly so for the Head not to.
In the school I will lead, if colleagues are not capable of being successful, we will support them, coach them, train them, and ensure they are capable. But if they still can’t, or won’t, I will have no problem using formal measures to demand success. In my experience, this is thankfully rare.
Success will be achievable. Where our students are not making progress towards our shared aspirations, we will ensure we structure our curriculum, our staffing, our management and our resources – in short our school around ensuring students can be successful.
Now I need to find a school where my values and vision fit and mean that I can make a difference.
And convince the governors there as well.