I started work at Cottenham Village College in South Cambridgeshire on Thursday 3rd September as Headteacher. I could not be happier with the school and staff I’ve inherited, and I look forward to meeting the kids tomorrow (Monday). It’s a good school with many strengths that I would be happy for my children to attend, but can still be even better.
My new Leadership Team asked me for a written record of the words I’d said to the staff, partly to hold us to account for them. Then, at a conference I attended on Saturday, lots of people asked me what I’d said and how it had been.
I have no idea what the right thing to say is, so I just said what I thought and broadly what I’d said in my interview to get the post. I didn’t use a powerpoint.
In the interests of holding myself to account, here is what I said, edited to remove anything that is necessary to remove and removing names:
First Day Back
Firstly a welcome back from me and a thank you for the welcome. I hope you all had a great holiday and are fully rested. I have had 18 years of not sleeping on the last night of the summer holidays – there’s always a so and so after a night’s sleep or lack of sleep like last night that says they’ve slept fine isn’t there – anyway this year it was the last 5 nights I couldn’t sleep for, so I must be nervous.
Please accept my apologies if I forget your names. I will do my best to learn them and address you by them. Please correct me if I get them wrong. Just for clarity, please call me Stuart. I expect most of you will anyway, but I know that sometimes people can feel like they have to be overly formal with the head.
There is loads I want to say and won’t have time to, so take this as an incomplete bunch of things to get us started. The first thing to reassure you of is that there are no massive changes to begin today. I don’t know the school well enough to pronounce things. What I am going to do is let you know where my thoughts are, share a bit of my vision, and outline what might be some of our priorities this year. I should take about 20 minutes and then I have something I’d like you to fill in (nb a questionnaire of several pages, in depth).
I want to convey my huge congratulations on the GCSE results this year. There are pupils’ lives that have been changed as a result of your hard work. The results are stunning, and a real platform for us to move forward. They are a really powerful base.
Someone at my last school asked me if I wished the results weren’t so good ‘because then you could look really good if they improve’. I genuinely answered that no, I’m really pleased for three reasons: First, how can you wish for young people not to achieve as highly as possible? Second, I’m pleased that the huge amount of work has been effective and I’m delighted for staff and students. I said that thirdly I was pleased because I’d be joining a school on the up, with a degree of confidence we can tap into and hopefully improve still further for all pupils. Genuine congratulations.
The Executive Principal talked earlier about being able to do it with all cohorts, and I think that’s right. We need to ensure we are on top of and lack tolerance for underachievement throughout the school. I do think we’ve a way to go before we get there with all students. I want to say this on the disadvantaged pupils as well – we don’t need to do anything special for disadvantaged kids – they are not a different species, but we do need to be intolerant of underachievement and do the things that work, because they affect disadvantaged kids positively and disproportionately. If we address underachievement wherever it raises its head, doing things that work for pupils who are underachieving, we will be dealing with the gap between disadvantaged students and their peers.
I’m really pleased to be here. I was delighted to be appointed as Headteacher of the Village College. I had been looking for the right school to lead for some time. I’ll explain what my experience of CVC has been so far in a few minutes, but suffice to say I think we have the potential to be a world class school. This is an easy thing for me to say, and one you’ll probably expect me to say, but I would genuinely not have applied or taken the job if that lofty aim wasn’t possible, and I’ll try to describe why and how in detail over the next few weeks and months. At the moment I’m going to say that I want this school to be one where success is desirable, demanded and achievable. Success – including academic results, prepared to make a difference in the world (including service), knowledgable. Desirable – that we meet aspirations (students have huge aspirations, we don’t usually have to raise them but if we need to we will) by setting expectations high, Demanded – that we professionally hold each other to account, and Achievable – that we are inclusive and support students who can’t, rather than won’t – we don’t lower the expectations on achievement or behaviour. We won’t dumb down qualifications or play games to rise the league tables.
I think all pupils are entitled to an academic education up to 16 with experiences to rival the most selective of private schools – not that I think private schools have everything right.
I also want to say here that I really value the work of our sixth form and feel like there’s a lot I have to learn there. It’s an area I really want to understand and it serves a really important role in the local area, but I’d be making it up if I said I was immersed in how it works (NB: the sixth form is largely vocational and has a niche cohort).
I am a maths teacher. I love teaching maths, though I have a philosophy degree – and please don’t get me wrong, I think subject knowledge is vitally important – so given my degree I am a walking contradiction. I have asked to teach this year as I think it is important for Heads to teach, and I know the previous head did, but not all headteachers do.
I come from a school in North East London, in one of the most deprived wards in the country. I have always taught maths in London and very much enjoyed it. While we don’t have the same level of challenge in terms of deprivation here, I recognise and have heard of the challenge of getting our most deprived pupils to achieve, and recognise that this is no less challenging here than it is in London – and could be said to be moreso given the funding. I also recognise that the challenges of ensuring pupils make progress, especially from low starting points, to high aspirations is one that is common to all schools.
When I applied for the job at Cottenham, I reflected on why I’d become a teacher. I’m absolutely convinced of the power of education to transform lives, and hence communities and the nation. It is also to allow us to be free both to experience the world and to change it. I like to talk about what Michael Oakeshott called the conversation of mankind.
As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.
I think the purpose of education is to pass on the conversation of mankind. If you stick me in a chemistry laboratory and tell me I’m free, I’m really not. I can’t do anything. But if you induct me into the conversation that has developed in the discipline of chemistry. If you allow me the knowledge to understand that conversation, then you stick me in a chemistry laboratory, I’m truly free not just to participate, but to undermine or to further that conversation.
This applies to chemistry, but it also applies to democracy, and education is the induction; the route into young people really changing the world and shaping it in their vision.
My impressions of Cottenham during my interview, and my several visits have been that staff work hard. I don’t say this lightly – I’ve seen it. I also want to say that I don’t take it for granted. Workload is the elephant in the room in schools, and while I don’t have a solution, I can say I will be cognisant of it. I can’t promise that if I ask you to do something I’ll always try to ask you to stop doing something else, but I can promise that I will consider this. In fact, we did discuss combining two documents in an SLT meeting in the holidays for this very purpose.
My impressions of Cottenham – We have great kids, who are really proud of Cottenham. They and the staff enjoy working here, and that makes the college really pleasant to be in. The pupils I have spoken to have only had positive words for the staff and most of the school.
My impressions of Cottenham – There is a real focus on teaching here – I’ve read a newsletter, I’ve heard about this teaching and learning conference today that we are going to take part in, we don’t grade lessons. I welcome all of these things.
My impression of Cottenham – I’ve found SLT to be open to ideas and committed to the school. They really want the school to improve significantly and are open to how we do this. I have already met with each member of SLT, and we have outlined some possible accountabilities. We will confirm these as soon as we’ve nailed them and I know some colleagues are worried about their line management arrangements – please embrace whatever happens. However, we are also going to take the view that we all lead on everything – i.e. we will do our best to make sure that none of us says ‘well that’s not my job, please see x’. If we need to discuss it, we will ensure we do and get back to you.
Sometimes, on my visits, I think I saw less focus in lessons than I would like – not across the whole school, but on occasion. For example, I arrived at a classroom door once and a pupil was sitting on a desk at the back of the room and he said ‘Ello’ loudly. Some of the other pupils laughed. The fact that he wasn’t focussed on his work, and that he found another excuse not to, and some others felt they could join in, made me uncomfortable. If it happens on Monday they’ll be hauled out. I’m not one for tolerating low level disruptive behaviour, and I’ll tell the pupils about this. SLT will be in classrooms and asking ‘is everything to your satisfaction?’ – please tell us if it isn’t and allow us to take pupils out of the room on the very rare occasions it might be necessary. If we take them out, we won’t return them that lesson without your permission – please get on with teaching.
Basically, I want the pupils to work at least as hard as the teachers.
Here I asked whether pupils were expected to put planners on desks for every lesson. It was an inconsistent expectation, so we made it one across the school from that moment.
On my very first visit, I saw the occasional student using mobile phones in lessons inappropriately and a whole class using them appropriately. I understand the issues, but this is a big deal for me. When we came round for interview, I was told by a year 8 student that she let her standards slip until she was reminded and kept her phone in her pocket rather than in her bag as expected. Recent research from the LSE has shown the link between a ban on mobile phones and attainment, and there’s a reason – phones are addictive and a distraction, and kids are social beings. I’m inclined to ban them, completely, but I’m not sure how we’d look after them yet. I do understand the issues regarding mobile technology, and with a mobile tech strategy I could imagine including them (eg quizzing and testing), but I’m not convinced on any research or convinced by Bring Your Own Device. I welcome your feedback.
The kids have almost universally asked for a new uniform, as did parents at the new Year 7 event I attended. Now this might be a case of those who want change bringing it up. I think the smarter the uniform, the smarter it sells us, and it says something more about our purpose. I’d like to see our kids as smart as possible. So this is an issue we will have a look at this year. However, whatever our uniform is, I’d like to see us all enforce it relentlessly and rigorously. Please can we all lead on this. I know Heads of Year will support, and SLT will take a hard line where we need to intervene. This is a part of sweating the small stuff which I would like us all to do day in, day out – and SLT will support where you are enforcing expectations.
I like the supportive and collaborative culture here, though some of you have told me that communication could be improved further. We will look into this. I know the assistant headteacher has done some work on the overload of emails you receive and is trying to come up with a policy to limit this.
I want to tell you that I am not interested in catching people out. I do want people to be accountable, chiefly for the progress of their pupils. I do want to observe all teachers in the first term. I’m going to start with SLT. I’m not grading, and while I am feeding back I know there is a limited amount I can tell within an hour so I will be asking you to fill in the gaps and tell me about your practice. I don’t want bells and whistles lessons – I want what you normally do. If that is bells and whistles, fine. If the kids are writing for an hour, fine. I do not want you to do anything abnormal. If you want to give me a plan, that’s fine. If you just want to give me some context that’s also fine. I do want to know how the school is, and I will share with you all my findings – not of individuals – when I’ve seen everyone.
There is, then, some way to go. We have different cohorts coming through in comparison to last year’s year 11. There are some improvements necessary with internal data, and we must be able to transform the lives of all of our students to give them opportunities. I want us to be focussed on progress. The days of C/D borderline being all that mattered in maths and English are behind us. I welcome Progress 8 – it aligns with my vision and I hope our emerging vision of (a) an academic curriculum for all (b) every child’s progress counting and (c) every subject counting. I’m sure we’ll talk about this more in coming weeks and months.
On that, I’m a fan of subjects and subject knowledge. We know that it’s a key element of ensuring progress and it’s important that we put that at the forefront of our development. Professor Michael Young of the IOE wrote an excellent piece in a recent edition of the controversial magazine Spiked about this.
RS Peters, philosopher of education from the 1950s and 60s, commented on the understandable emphasis on the child meant that new (then) methods of teaching were concerned too much with the manner and insufficiently with the matter of education. In other words, teaching was insufficiently attentive to questions about what was learned.
I’m not saying the manner never matters, but I am saying if you’ve been teaching about the same amount of time as me in the UK that we’ve spent years on generic pedagogy at the expense of subject expertise. I argue that what is being learned is of primary importance. It is OK to tell pupils what they need to know. I feel a little ridiculous saying this, but we as educators with a little experience have been through an era where we were told it was best for pupils to discover things themselves and work things out for themselves. I think that cognitive psychology (Kirschner, Sweller and Clark paper I’ll mention in the teachmeet later and Daniel Willingham’s simplified but brilliant book on what cognitive science can tell us) have debunked this. It’s OK to tell them what they need to know. What’s most important is that we instruct pupils well and get them to think about the knowledge we want them to have.
Associated with this is the curriculum. This can mean many things to many people. It means the subjects we study, and I’ve talked about being unapologetically academic, and it means what students study within those subjects. It appears to me, from my acquaintance with the school, that this could be an important area of development over the next year. We must sequence our curriculum coherently – ensuring that we know what pupils are expected to know in each subject in each year. If we can really say that we have a curriculum where we know what pupils should know (and do) then we can start to look at assessment and engage with the big debate over post-levels assessment in a meaningful way.
I’m also a big one for evidence in education. I don’t think it replaces teacher agency and us deciding what happens in schools, but it does stop us going down ridiculous routes as our profession has in the past. If someone mentions research, it’s worth asking ‘what research’ and I think our profession has a way to go before being truly evidence informed. I am attending @ResearchEd this weekend and I understand some other colleagues are as well. I’m really wary of fads – those initiatives that are either foisted on us from on high or we embrace because we think there are quick wins. I expect us to look out for them and try not to make the mistakes of embracing them. I don’t think there are shortcuts – and I think that goes for school improvement in the same way that it goes for pupils’ achievement.
A couple of small things:
OFSTED – they’re coming as the executive principal said. It’s important that this affects leaders first, and senior leaders the most. All I want teachers and support staff to do is their jobs. For teachers, mark, plan, and teach the best lessons possible, know your accurate data and what you’re doing for the kids, but I want you to know that anyway whether OFSTED are coming or not. We are not driven by OFSTED. I’m sure I’ll mention it at times and I’m not going to ban the word, but colleagues, stop me if I keep going on about it and stop me if I ever say we’re doing something because of OFSTED.
A quick one about the way I work. First, I expect you to be able to approach any member of the Leadership Team about anything. But if you need me, you can just walk in if the door is open. If you need a longer period of time, please just book a meeting in.
If it’s closed, I will be either in a meeting of some description, or not there, or getting changed or something. Please do make an appointment.
Possible priorities for this year, to summarise
Behaviour – tighten up + presence of SLT – kids working as hard as the staff
Curriculum – what do we want pupils to know (and be able to do) – identify this and ensure the curriculum supports academic standards
Disadvantaged pupils achievement – being intolerant of underachievement
Development of middle leadership in order to deliver on the ground
For me to listen!
There are things I have not spoken about – parents/ attendance/ etc – we’ll come to all that – for now we must sweat the small stuff.
One of the things I will say is that I am sure that some of the impressions I’ve gained are wrong in some way. I would like us to all be open to the idea that some of our ideas about the best way to educate might be wrong. It’s a debate, informed by experience and evidence that we need to engage in. I will keep an open mind and listen. I’m asking that we all do the same.
In that spirit, I’m going to meet with Heads of Faculties alongside line managers so we can collectively learn what our current data is showing us.
I’d also like to know from colleagues who were here last year about your impression of the school. We will publish this to all, anonymously, to give us all an idea of where we are and to hear your perspective. Please fill the extensive questionnaire in.
I’m really excited about this year and it’s a pleasure to be starting work with all of you. Let’s have a really great year.