The First Term

In the hiatus between Christmas and New Year, there is a pivotal point that exists, permitting a moment of reflection. It comes just after the noise of the past term has abated and just before thoughts and preparation for the new term take hold with renewed vigour. Granted, we have the social milieu that surrounds us at this time of year and the much needed personal, family time is the most significant focus. Yet, if we want to stop and take a look around once in a while, then this is as good time as any.

It is in that moment that I find myself. At the start of September I left the independent schools sector after 23 years, 10 as a Head, and took up a role in the state-funded sector as the Principal of a Free School. The move has meant adjusting my own preconceptions about involvement in public education whilst facing the challenge of applying 20+ years in teaching and school leadership in the private sector.

I admit apprehension. Questions troubled me in the months beforehand: what would be required to make the transition from one role to another, from a Sussex country prep school to an urban Hertfordshire Free School? How would I get to grips with the regulatory challenges that appear to swamp schools? And what is the truth behind the media hubbub that has coloured the perception of free schools, let alone created such negativity about the lot of state education in England? However, in answering these questions through the term, I am left with an overwhelming sense of contentment. I have been able to rise to the challenge (so far!) and the myths and biases that I had possessed have been so very securely dispelled and dismissed.

So through reflection at this point in the school year, the pathways of the past 16 weeks can be looked upon from a convenient perspective. These are the ‘lower foothills’ of the term as a whole; the summit will be reached later in July! The experience has renewed my interest in and passion for what schools can be. The opportunities have shown me clearly that commitment to a leadership style enabling and empowering colleagues actually does work.

So, up to this point, these lesson I have learned:

Relationships work. Communities are built on a sense of belonging; on recognising that we are collectively part of something that is greater than ourselves. I make no apology for believing that this must lie at the heart of excellent schools. The cynical among us may call it internal marketing or PR, but a child and their family need to feel that they belong to a place, a group, a community that has their interests at heart and values their contribution. Building relationships, and more importantly sustaining them, was my first task on arrival in September and will remain a key to further success. Whether these relationships encourage participation or gain feedback, in permits an understanding of the people in your organisation and how to reach them. Even, and especially, the more reticent.

Governance matters. Excellence in governance is about being well informed but mindful of who makes key decisions and has the most public accountability; who has to lead staff, parents and children on a daily basis – and that’s not only the Head. It is about possessing a humanity and compassion for the people, the human beings, in an organisation and it is being knowledgeable about the evidence – in all its forms – and being clear on the narrative. Finally, it is about knowing the leaders and responding to their needs with guidance and good counsel.

Teamship & Leadership by turns. By and large colleagues know what they’re doing. They are grown ups, professional people with a vision for what they want to achieve, whether in the classroom, their department or the school as a whole. As a Head you own the vision for the whole organisation and you ensure values are shared; you articulate “why” and you can show “how” but the “what” is up to your colleagues. They are the ones at the chalk face so need the support, training and awareness to put the vision in to practice through the values that you all share. Therefore knowing when to take a step back and let others lead, to trust their skills (developing or secure), results in a greater sense of cohesion and confidence. Allowing colleagues to show you how they interpret the vision and values you have established can be an incredibly powerful force for a truly collaborative school system.

Schools are about children. Strangely, in my experience, an occasionally overlooked fact! Regardless of socio-economics, location, professional status, source of income or educational background, parents all essentially want the same successful outcomes for their children: to be happy, well-educated and a decent member of the community. Of course this is extremely complex and much ink, digital or otherwise, has been spent on trying to define the meaning of education. However, what is patently clear is the question that should drive any school’s development: “so what?” The impact of any initiative, CPD, leadership approach or development plan has to have at its heart the impact on the community of children. And this is true regardless of how a school is funded, whether from public or private sources. The key is accountability.

As we move into the Spring Term, we have a clearer sense of identity and purpose. We have agreed and shared values and we have a critical and transparent view on the progress made by the children. I am now looking forward to putting it all together and building the cohesion that our sense of purpose enables.


Published by Neil Jones

Free School Principal, writing on leadership in schools. Education anorak, a fan of the learning potential in the social web and of Leyton Orient FC.

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