Headship: Avoiding the tripwires

Written by: Colin McLean | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Headteacher Paul Gray speaks to Colin McLean about the lessons he has learned from headship during a tough period for his school

When Paul Gray was interviewed for the headship of Poole High School in 2015 the school had a good rating.

By the time he started in the role that autumn term the 1,900 pupil 11 to 19 school had been visited by Ofsted and had received a requires improvement judgement.

It was a blow but the judgement actually provided Paul and his team with the “crystal clarity” they needed to determine exactly how they would tackle the challenge of getting the school out of category.

“In a way it was helpful,” he explained. “The judgement actually turned out to be a contributory factor to what has been a really interesting journey for us.”

Paul and his team brought the school to a good rating by December 2016 and soon after the school celebrated some “amazing” GCSE results which were well above the national average.

Paul says that he has drawn some key lessons out of the experience of those months. Here they are:

Be realistic

“There will be 1,000 tripwires to prevent you from your primary purpose. There is only one place where the school really improves, and that’s by focusing on what’s happening in the classroom. You need to ask: ‘How much of my time do I devote to the continuous improvement of the teaching behaviours of my colleagues in my classroom?’”

Judge your priorities well

“It is so easy to pursue an area of activity that feels like school improvement but actually has little relevance to it. To paraphrase Professor John Hattie, ‘the important is continuously cannibalised by the urgent’.

“I always try to ask myself where my energies have been drawn this day or this week and whether I am using time on areas that are removed from changing practice for the better in the classroom. Small changes can allow you to ensure a focus on classroom practice.

“For example, we all share our calendars so if there are any gaps in my diary I can join teaching colleagues for a work scrutiny or maybe a ‘mocksted’. It’s about keeping the dialogue alive and having a continuous sense of vigilance. It’s good to catch someone doing something well and then telling them.”

Pay attention to the ‘soft’ side

“Keeping in touch with outstanding practitioners in other schools is so important because it opens your eyes to other perspectives. In a previous school I made a commitment to visit every good or outstanding school in the local authority. In one outstanding school I noticed how a couple of the leadership team referred to this ‘soft-hard paradox’. It was a reference to investing in the care of staff and balancing this with an unrelenting application of approaches that have the most impact on quality teaching.”
Ingredients of outstanding schools

“You can tell you are in a successful school if you recognise the four main ingredients identified by Sir Tim Brighouse: teachers talk about teaching, teachers observe each other’s practice, teachers plan, organise and evaluate their work together rather than separately, and teachers teach each other. I always keep these characteristics in mind.”

Try some self-scrutiny

“I think it’s useful to ask yourself some key questions as you go along. Is your level of safeguarding merely Ofsted-compliant or do you have genuine vigilance? Is your performance management focused constantly on performance and development or is it merely a snapshot?

“Do you include your governors in deep thinking about big decisions, both operational and strategic? Do you know the specific aspects of the least consistent teachers’ practice? And are you looking after yourself? I think it is so important to become disciplined about your own care. If you have done nothing recently to address your wellbeing and have nothing planned imminently then you won’t do your students justice.”

  • Colin McLean is executive chairman of Best Practice Network, a national provider of professional development, training and school improvement.

Further information

Paul Gray shared his perspectives with aspiring heads as part of Best Practice Network’s programme of head-led school improvement webinars. Registrations for the April 27 webinar, on motivating and retaining staff, are open via http://bit.ly/2o3eQGE. Details on future webinars are available via schoolimprovement@bestpracticenet.co.uk


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