First headship: Inclusion, curriculum & staff development

Written by: Elliot Pearce | Published:

Andrew Deen stepped into his first headship role in June. He spoke to Elliot Pearce about the professional journey he took to get to this point – and maps-out his priorities for delivering school improvement in a challenging context

Having left school with no A levels and a self-proclaimed lack of discipline, Andrew Deen began work on a building site, working his way through the ranks of an electrical engineering company. He was offered the chance to take on a degree in engineering, and quickly discovered a capability for academic work, leading to an about-turn and an English literature Bachelor’s.

“I wrote a letter to Birmingham City University explaining my situation, outlining why I thought I was a good candidate and telling them why I would be successful for them, and they took me on.”

To fund his degree, he worked nights cleaning hotel rooms. But it was during a Master’s in critical theory and cultural studies at the University of Nottingham that Andrew was introduced to the classroom environment, volunteering in challenging schools in the local area.

He explained: “My plan was to then study and go on to do a PhD in a particular area of critical theory. But I thought I could make a greater contribution to the communities by working with students at secondary level, and I just felt energised and enthusiastic about working with young people and shaping their lives.”

Fast forward 11 years and Andrew has held leadership positions in three schools and in September he entered his first headship position at Landau Forte Academy Amington in Tamworth.

Andrew completed the NPQH through Ambition Institute’s Headship Programme, which has helped him to prepare for the role. As a graduate school of education helping educators serving schools in challenging contexts, Ambition Institute has supported Andrew to establish his improvement plan for Landau Forte.

He has started by making immediate changes to tackle the some of the key problems – problems which will likely resonate with headteachers across the country: staff development, curriculum, and the creation of a positive learning environment.

Andrew notably tries to pull away from the spotlight. He not only pitches himself as a leader to be followed, he is focused on staff development for his whole team and prioritising the creation of learning pathways for his staff.

He explained: “It’s about effectively energising leaders at all levels. To do that, there has to be an effective method of training, development and support, otherwise people cannot be empowered to carry out their roles successfully.

“It is also about providing the team with the headspace and the thinking time to produce successful outcomes. It is about knowing every individual in the organisation and making it your job to develop them as leaders, to enable them to achieve their goals.”

By encouraging his team to improve, backed with sturdy support and development opportunities, Andrew is able to address key points of his school plan, while simultaneously allowing staff to develop their own expertise.

“I’ll never ask a colleague to complete a task for the sake of bureaucracy. I will always ensure there is a development point for the individual,” he continued.

“For example, I will allow my senior leadership team to experience a range of roles across the school. Last year my deputy head was responsible for teaching and learning, this year she is responsible for overview of external exclusions, alternative provision and attendance, and I am providing the training and support for that individual. When people are learning, and they are excited, they produce much better results.

“Development like this enables staff to know how they, as individual elements of an improving team, contribute to the organisation. I can then provide them with the training and support to be successful.”

A further point of focus within Andrew’s school improvement plan is curriculum. He believes it is essential to craft a bespoke curriculum for his school and the surrounding community as a whole.

“You only serve your community when the school provides the skills, knowledge and expertise to inspire your students to think beyond the school gates.

“So for me it’s about raising the aspirations of the community, it’s about looking at the opportunities within this community and beyond, and making sure my curriculum is appropriate for all students to engage positively in modern British society and the wider world beyond.”

In order to deliver on this vision for the curriculum, Andrew is addressing one of the most contentious issues within contemporary education: alternative provision – the PRUs, alternative provision academies and free schools that children enter when they have been excluded from school or have medical issues that prevent them from entering mainstream education.

Government statistics show that in 2018, a total of 16,732 students attended PRUs across the UK, with a further 22,848 in other forms of alternative provision.

But alternative provision has faced criticism, and Department of Education data from 2017 reveals that only 4.5 per cent of children who attended alternative provision facilities achieved grades 9-4 in English and mathematics at GCSE.

Andrew made the decision to disband his school’s on-site alternative provision unit, and begin reintroducing children into mainstream education.

“It was inhibiting the life chances of maybe 10 to 12 young people. I’ve immediately closed that down and reintegrated them into the mainstream education system. And the reason I’ve done that is because I can’t be principal of any institution that isn’t an inclusive institution.”

To tackle issues that these pupils may face when they return to the classroom, Andrew has adapted the school curriculum, developed a re-introduction pathway, and created work experience opportunities.

“The children have access to the Prince’s Trust scheme. And I’ve provided them with work experience with what they see as their chosen vocation. So I’ve provided a pathway within the mainstream curriculum that doesn’t segregate them, and allows them to be part of our community as we move forward.”

In light of the new Ofsted framework and its focus on curriculum intent, Andrew has developed skills-focused, preparatory content, and a structure that demonstrates a curriculum with a clear end-goal.

This curriculum looks to prioritise skills development alongside building academic knowledge. Andrew attributes this choice of direction to his cross-sector background, and his drive to “make good people” who will thrive in post-16 working world.

He has initiated this process by creating a community-backed “life-skills passport”, that covers topics from home maintenance to finance.

He explained: “I’ve got the opportunity here to teach kids essential skills, for example rewiring a plug, sewing on a button, opening a bank account, or completing a bike safety awareness course. I have 20 or 30 activities that I want my students, in years 7 and 8 in particular, to have achieved before they enter key stage 4.

“I believe if you make good people they will naturally become good learners. And the way you make good people, is by enabling them to function in the real world.”

This notion of creating a school environment that reflects the outside world is visible throughout different stages of Andrew’s school improvement plan, particularly in the sense of community he is generating in shared spaces. In an approach that stands in contrast to a recent government announcement championing more traditional discipline policies, he looks to define a unique environment that empowers students in their place of learning.

“For example, I want them to feel the restaurant is a shared space between children and adults. Our staff eat with the kids, because it’s a shared experience.”

Another behaviour policy where Andrew is forging his own path concerns the use of mobile phones. He wants to provide students with greater responsibility and autonomy, and believes mobile phones can help create independence, and promote discourse.

“That shared space has a sense of maturity and responsibility. What I see in the restaurant is some students on their phone, obviously; some students engaged in discussion; some students looking up information on their phones to aid a discussion; some communicating with parents and family members. That’s the world, and who am I to say that shouldn’t happen. What I feel is it empowers students to appreciate the classroom is a place of learning, and the restaurant is a place of recreation.”

Andrew admits he sees a lot of himself in the children of his academy, and he feels this will only be conducive to his goal of creating a learning environment that provides equal opportunities for the children in his community.

“When I was growing up, my friends and I didn’t realise how much of a competition the world is. And only later on, we took up the challenge. We were not going to let humble beginnings hold us back.

“That’s what gives me the drive. That vision of contributing positively to areas of high deprivation and enabling not just the children, but the whole community, to raise our collective aspirations”.

  • Elliot Pearce is a creative and digital associate at Ambition Institute, a graduate school for teachers, school leaders and system leaders, serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Visit www.ambition.org.uk


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