It’s the beginning of September, 1999. It’s been quite a summer. I’ve graduated and qualified as a teacher, I’ve just got married and my wife and I have relocated to the North West. It’s almost the end of a millennium but it’s the start of my career and a new life.
It all begins in a vibrant place called St Thomas’, a large, multi-cultural, Church of England primary school in Blackburn, Lancashire. I know the school already – it’s where I completed my final teaching practice in the spring and where I’ve already learned so much. I’ll be spending the next two years as a Reception teacher. “A Reception teacher?” ask most people I meet, in a tone of surprise, curiosity or even suspicion. “It’s where the magic happens!” I reply emphatically, to everyone who asks.
At the helm of St Thomas’ is one of the kindest headteachers I’ll ever meet. She leads calmly but confidently, guided by wisdom and compassion. She’s called Kath Haworth. She’s given me a job even after I’ve flunked the local NQT pool interview. Her faith in me surprises me still. Kath cuts a diminutive figure. She has a spacious office and sits in an amusingly large, black leather chair. Over the next two years, if ever I find myself in her office, Kath will often wrap up our conversation by telling me that, one day, I’ll be sitting in her chair, making these decisions. Every time she says this, I thank her for her confidence in me. And I laugh.
It’s January, 2005. I’ve spent just over five years in my first school. I’ve served my apprenticeship and worked with some amazing people but I’ve got itchy feet. Kath retired a few years ago and, from my perspective at least, things have never been the same at St Thomas’. It’s time for a change and the new chapter begins a few miles away, at a smaller school with a very big heart: St James’. It’s back to Reception for me (I was ‘promoted’ to Year 2 for a while) but now I’m also team leader for the Early Years and Key Stage One. The slightly unusual detail about my career move is that this job was first offered to someone else. The preferred applicant accepted, then changed their mind and the post was offered to me. In the years to come, I’ll be regularly reminding my new boss that I was her second choice. It’s ok, she humours me every time.
I’ll spend the next five years at this truly special school. It’s a warm, friendly, family-centred place, with a passion which radiates from the headteacher, a fine and charismatic former nurse, called Sue. I’m nervous about starting a new job but Sue puts me at ease with her down to earth approach and her endless laughter. Sue barely knows me but she believes in me (even though I was second choice). I’m soon given the opportunity to make key decisions, to influence and to shape the school. It’s a privilege and I love it.
As I quickly discover, Sue and I will get along great. We’re different. She’s spontaneous, I’m not. She likes to make rapid decisions, I don’t. She’s mostly taught in Key Stage Two, I’ve mostly taught Year Two and Reception (It’s where the magic happens). We’re very similar too. We share a love of music and comedy. It helps enormously that we both love children. Sue plays guitar in assembly and she checks in on staff everyday. She oozes enthusiasm.
At St James’, I’ll learn about school improvement, people management and strategic change. I’ll learn about resolving conflict and about keeping children at the centre of decision making. I’ll be a teacher and team leader; later, I’ll become Assistant Head and, in sad circumstances, I’ll have a period as Acting Deputy Head. I’ll form some wonderful friendships here too. My leaving assembly features the songs Sunshine on Leith and Never Forget. After I move on, I will always miss this place – the people, the passion and the ethos. This is the benchmark.
It’s the end of February, 2011. I’m in the headteacher’s office, in an infant school in another part of Blackburn. I’m staring at the chair, which isn’t black or leather. It is mine though. I am the headteacher. It’s my first day in post, a million thoughts run through my mind but the thing I keep coming back to is a memory of Kath’s words. She said this would happen. I owe it to her to give it my best. I owe it to the children here too.
It’s the end of February, 2012. I’m in the director’s office at Children’s Services. I’ve been headteacher of Cedars Infant School for one year and I’ve been summoned by the local authority. Surely I haven’t blown it already? I haven’t blown it, actually. Quite the opposite. Our feeder junior school has been in difficult circumstances for some time. Academy trusts have taken an interest but the local authority would very much like to keep control. What do I think of our school expanding, taking over a second site and growing by three hundred pupils?
“How long have we got?” I ask.
“18 months!” comes the reply.
“What’s the risk?” I ask next.
“Oh, there are plenty of risks!” comes the ominous reply.
“Let’s do it!” I say, a little later.
It’s November, 2014. I’ve just taken a call from an HMI. We will be having a full Ofsted inspection tomorrow. Our three form entry, split-site school has only been operating for about a year. We’ve moved Heaven and Earth to get to this point. Inspection was inevitable but a bit more time would have been nice. Things get off to a very good start. The HMI believes in me. He believes in our team. He can see what we’ve achieved and he can see the passion in our vision. We can do this!
On the first afternoon of the inspection, my youngest daughter falls ill and is rushed to hospital. She’s seven months old. The scariest part of parenthood has coincided with the scariest part of headship. This is a pivotal moment for our school and, possibly, a defining moment in my career. More significantly, it’s a terrifying moment as a dad and the HMI doesn’t hesitate to tell me to leave. “I’ll be fine with your team,” he reassures me.
I miss much of the second day of inspection, including the outcome. My daughter is improving (and goes on to fully recover), much to our relief. When I’m able to process the news from school, it’s an utter joy to hear we have been judged ‘Good‘ in every area. I’m proud of our team’s achievements. There were some local heads who doubted my ability to accomplish this, pulling off a major expansion, then leading the biggest primary school in town. The HMI says I have demonstrated exceptional leadership skills. I won’t let it go to my head but those words will help counter my Imposter Syndrome, for a few months at least.
It’s the end of August, 2017. After 18 years living and working in the North West, we’ve relocated to rural Lincolnshire. We’ve moved with our four children, to be closer to our wider family. I’ll be taking up my second headship in a large primary school, in a small, traditional market town. On a personal level, things have got off to a tricky start. Our house sale has fallen through and our new chapter begins with a temporary spell in my in-laws’ house. We’ve enrolled our children in a school near a house that we were buying but have now lost. Sometimes life goes like this. We don’t know this yet but we are about to have the most testing two years of our adult lives.
My new school is a nice place which reminds me of my own primary school days. The staff are welcoming, the parents are friendly and the children polite. It’s a vast site, more like a campus, and the setting is delightful. (The sky here goes on forever too.) There’s an ‘Outstanding‘ label and a tangible air of expectation. In truth, the school has had a few turbulent years; I’m the fourth Headteacher in four years. As I will go on to find out, some things are not as they seem and many things are not as they should be. There’s work to be done.
It’s late January, 2019. It’s been a gruelling 16 months, at home and work. Our Blackburn house sale has just collapsed for the fifth time*. We’re still squashed in a small rented house, we’re running out of patience and hope, and we’re utterly exhausted. At school, I’ve hardly left the site since I was appointed but today I’m going to enjoy a day out. I need it desperately. I’m on a coach, heading to Sheffield Arena. I’m accompanying our school choir to a Young Voices concert – their first one ever. There’s an electric atmosphere on the journey. The children are rehearsing, singing their hearts out. I know some of the songs but none of the routines! No worries. I’ll wing it, not for the first time in my career.
It’s late morning on the same day. We’re on the A1, edging closer to Sheffield. The children are getting more excited by the minute, the staff suddenly less so. We’ve just taken a phone call from school. On the other line, back at base, my deputy is currently taking THE phone call. It’s been ten years since the school was inspected. Ten years! We knew Ofsted were due but, really, today of all days? The children disembark the coach at Blyth services, for a short break. I wave them all goodbye. My concert is over and now I’m heading for an altogether different performance. I need to get back to school and to my newly appointed deputy head (who has been holding the fort magnificently on this fateful day). Before the inspection of my life, I’m in for the taxi ride of my life, with a maverick driver who, I sense, has just left Stunt School.
A little over 30 hours later, my governors, senior colleagues and I learn that out school Requires Improvement. Initially, of course, it comes as a disappointment. It’s the first RI outcome of my career (19 years/5 inspections) and it might well be regarded as a fall from grace for the school. But it is a fair judgement, it is the right judgement and it will be a mandate for change. In truth, this grading actually represents significant improvement from my starting point. This moment marks the beginning of Phase Two.
It’s late March, 2020. We’re really beginning to feel momentum with our school improvement work. There have been inordinate challenges but also hugely positive changes in staffing, in culture and in practice. There’s a great deal to be done still but everything is about to change. A global pandemic is emerging. We’ve just learned from the Prime Minister, in an address to the nation, that the entire country is being locked down. School, as we know it, is closing.
It’s February, 2021 and I’ve just completed ten years of headship. There have been wonderful highs: a successful expansion; delightful children; two ‘Good‘ inspections and the recruitment of great people. There have been difficult lows, including, most tragically, the death of a pupil. The first nine years of headship were the hardest, until the tenth one, which was off the scale impossible.
In the last year, the world has changed and the UK has been ravaged. A virus has stopped us in our tracks and we’ve all had to take stock. For the last eleven months, schools have been places of solace, in a time of uncertainty and fear. Support staff, teachers and leaders have been local heroes (ignore the press and the social media trolls). It’s unequivocal. As a profession, we have reimagined the very concept of education. As settings, we’ve served, we’ve cared, we’ve protected and we’ve pioneered. This is what schools do.
Earlier in my career, a retiring headteacher told me that school leadership is a rollercoaster ride. It certainly is. It’s The Big One. The climbs are steep, the track is unpredictable and there are moments of over-whelming fear. It can be really lonely, even with brilliant people around you. It’s exhilarating too, it’s often funny and it’s full of surprises. At its very best, it is life affirming.
It’s mid-August, 1991. It’s been a long summer. I’ve just received my GCSE results. They’re ok but I could have done better. I’m in the headmaster’s office. We briefly talk about my options for the future. With these results, Mr Shrimpton tells me, I don’t have to return for sixth form. I’m taken aback. He stops short of saying the words but he’s disappointed in me. He doesn’t particularly think I’m up to doing A-levels. I’m sorry that he feels this way but I will be going back for sixth form, actually. I won’t be defined by these grades and this moment. I will prove him wrong.
It’s almost thirty years later.
And what is it that I do?
I conduct the orchestra.
I ride the rollercoaster.
I’m a magician, of course.
I’m a headteacher.
It’s an honour.
With very special thanks to Kath, who believed in me, Sue, who nurtured me, and all those who have supported me along the way.
Headteacher Steve B @75ThunderRoad
*After two years, and on the sixth attempt, we finally sold our house and moved in to our new home.
Never give up!
14 thoughts on “The Shaping of a Headteacher”
Steve this is a passionate and ensiteful view of the roller coaster that is teaching a d Headship.
Happy 10 years…..♥️👍
You are the modern day Gervase Phinn.
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Thank you so much, Adele! I’m glad you enjoyed reading it.
A lovely read. I remember parts of it like it was yesterday. The bit about it being lonely even when you have a good team around you made me well up. So very true. And not a reflection on the team, just the enormity of the responsibility.
Thanks for your kind words, Dan.
I think the loneliness is perhaps the hardest part of all.
Wow Steve, thank you for sharing. I remember you from St James’ school. That was such an enjoyable read and I wish you every happiness for the future.
Thank you, Bev. That’s very kind. All the best to you too.
Perfect description of yours and Sue’s different working styles. Seems like yesterday. Happy memories and yes St James’ is truly special (even though you were second choice!).
P.S. I knew the lonely comment would get Dan.
Much love to you all at St James’.
A truly inspiring insight and read, thank you for sharing, Kath was a outstanding headteacher and friend to all, as I am sure you are too.
Wishing you and your family all the very best for the future
Thank you, Jarina!
Hope you like your little photo appearance!
Thanks for reading and for your comments.
And thanks for your hard work and support at St Thomas’s. x
Thanks for sharing. What a wonderfully inspiring and ‘real’ picture of your headship journey. Sharing with our Acting head 😊. Good luck for the next chapter.
Thank you for your kind comments, and for sharing!
Wishing you all the best for your career.
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A wonderful read. I started my first Headship this September. A rollercoaster sums it up nicely.
Thank you, Claire. I hope your headship is going well. It won’t always be like this (though it will always be a rollercoaster!). Look after yourself.