Taking the step up to the SLT

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SecEd is a supporter of the Future Leaders programme. Here, Jessica West details her journey from middle to senior leadership via the initiative and discusses some of the challenges she has faced along the way.

I’ll wager there’s not a teacher in the country who sees through the festive period without stationery making an appearance. Whether Santa brings us red pens, whether we are first in the sales queue for smiley-faced stickers, or whether we got a new PowerPoint clicker under our Christmas tree (digital stationery), we all love a shiny new bit of school kit to start the year.

But what else is new as we enter the new year? “What’s new?” is a helpful challenge to the more negative question that creeps in, particularly towards the end of a long term: “What now?!”

In schools, there is always something new; the pace at which policy alone changes is dizzying, and sometimes daunting. But there is no better time to embrace a new challenge than at the start of a new year.

Five years ago, that new challenge for me was Future Leaders. I had recently moved to London from Cardiff and was enjoying a middle leadership role, but I felt I had more to give, and couldn’t quite find the opportunity. I needed something entirely new.

The Future Leaders programme was not an ordinary day-long course that offered CPD on something generic. Its mission lined up with my personal values: to improve the life chances of children through its work with schools facing challenging circumstances.

Future Leaders was the first training package I had come across that wanted my commitment to it as much as it wanted to commit to me. It required bravery, it demanded investment and it encouraged confidence.

I completed the online application and waited. With trepidation, I went to the assessment day, and with a growing sense of excitement, I went through the matching process to secure a placement at Dunraven School in Lambeth as an associate assistant principal.

At that time, Dunraven was a local authority-run mixed comprehensive secondary school. The measure of free school meals was 28 per cent and rising fast with each new intake (that’s what we were measuring then – we are now 53 per cent Pupil Premium), the proportion of students with SEN and English as an additional language were both above national averages. 

Attainment was solidly good and the commitment to a broad and balanced curriculum saw the school well positioned to progress. I was really excited to be joining the talented leadership team. That was when it dawned on me. What was new? Everything.

I did not know my new school, my new staff, my new students and I certainly didn’t know my new role. I had a nice shiny pencil case and a lovely new planner but I also had a new sense of rising panic and self-doubt – could I really do this? 

Starting at a new school, particularly as a new senior leadership team member, is always going to be incredibly challenging – but the two weeks I had spent training in the summer at the Future Leaders residential “Foundations” course had prepared me well.

I had learnt about managing expectations, building credibility and all the hard graft it would take to deliver at senior leadership level.

I was really lucky to be joining such a supportive team, already well on the way to securing better life chances for the children of the Dunraven community, but Future Leaders had honed my analytical skills to help me establish how I could be of best use to the school – how I could make maximum impact for our learners quickly and sustainably. 

The first few months spun past at alarming pace – though not without some challenges. The first few weeks were undeniably tough; I experienced a real culture shock in moving from a middle leadership role where I had established relationships with colleagues and would be asked numerous questions daily, to a new role where no-one knew me. 

I had expected to be run off my feet, but nobody came to me. I would teach my socks off in the day, be at every duty post before, during and after school, make myself highly visible to support behaviour in the hallways at lesson changeover – but by 4pm each day I had cleared my emails, and nobody was knocking at my door. 

I had a crisis of confidence in week two of term – maybe nobody was asking for my support because they didn’t think I had anything to offer.

But this is just one of the many challenges of starting a new school. I had to work to gain the trust of my new colleagues, and that would take time and effort. As I persevered, I began to make some headway. 

My in-box began to fill before lunchtime, people “just happened to be passing and wondered...” – I remember the day my desk phone rang for the first time – I nearly had a heart attack as I had thought it wasn’t connected! 

Of course, there were more hurdles. Some could be solved fairly quickly – for example by investing in some serious outdoor clothing to cope with the sheer number of duties done at senior team level.

Others were harder. For example, I faced the new challenge of line managing a head of year. I had not had direct experience of working in pastoral leadership myself, but I was able to draw on the experience of other Future Leaders participants to ensure that not only was my practice good, but that I felt confident in delivering it. 

I could exchange ideas and see sample resources, such as a meeting agenda or a data analysis framework. I also talked things through with my personal coach, provided through Future Leaders, and this proved invaluable. My personal coach continues to be available when I need support. His visits have afforded me the chance for bespoke reflection which has enabled me to challenge myself regularly.

I continue to attend networking and training events, and to benefit from the support of other Future Leaders through the network’s online portal. 

At the end of my Future Leaders residency year I became assistant principal at Dunraven and, more recently, deputy principal. 

Seeking the expertise of my colleagues at school and my support network at Future Leaders was key to preparing myself for both roles. 

Since I joined Dunraven, we have gone through academy conversion, secured and occupied a Building Schools for the Future building, developed to become an all-through school and secured an Ofsted grading of “outstanding” in all categories. 

I am so proud of our community – my colleagues, our students, our families and our wider support networks. I am clear that my contribution is only one tiny fraction in this achievement but I am also clear that it is a contribution I was able to make because of that decision five years ago to apply for the Future Leaders programme.

My Christmas list this year is once again chock-full with stationery requests and novelty sticky notes – but what’s new for me as we enter 2015? 

Well, the next challenge is securing the right headship to allow me to continue to make a contribution to the life chances of young people facing challenging contexts – that’s the commitment I’ve made both to myself and to Future Leaders.

  • Jessica West is deputy principal at Dunraven School in south London.

Future Leaders
Future Leaders is a development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools. To apply or nominate, visit www.future-leaders.org.uk. Future Leaders is also recruiting for Talented Leaders, a programme to place exceptional leaders into headship in the areas that need them most. Visit register.future-leaders.org.uk


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