Diary of a Headteacher: Are we too focused on outcomes?

Written by: Diary of a Headteacher | Published:
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Are we, as schools and school leaders, too focused on outcomes – both in terms of examinations as well as the day-to-day challenges of leadership?

Over the past decade we have become increasingly obsessed with outcomes in education. At the business end of a young person’s compulsory education there are GCSEs and then A levels or their equivalent.

These outcomes open doors of opportunity for our students and as teachers and leaders we are charged with ensuring they achieve the highest grades possible.

I haven’t met many school leaders who have low aspirations or expectations of their students, but I have encountered leaders who have lost sight of why they joined the profession. Too easily have we been swept up into the lure of climbing onto the next rung of the performance tables ladder. Too frequently have we let the outcomes that non-educationalists have designed drive our behaviour. And for too long have we allowed our schools to become focused on numbers and percentages at the expense of human beings.

The introduction of league tables, an array of ever-changing accountability measures, and a toxic high-stakes culture has plagued the profession and, in the view of many, created an environment that is cut-throat, hostile and rife with fear.

As a headteacher it is my job to make sure everyone in my school has the conditions in which they can thrive. I must model behaviours and make decisions that are not driven solely by exam outcomes.

The conditions in which students can learn and thrive and teachers teach are paramount. Senior leaders need to ensure behaviour is good in the first instance. Teachers need to have any unnecessary workload stripped away so they can focus on planning effective lessons and use responsive teaching to provide students with feedback. And all people in the school must operate within the school values, treating everyone with respect In very simple terms, these are the basic ingredients of what makes an effective school.

However, far too often I see a plethora of initiatives or interventions that distract teachers and leaders from this core purpose.

We must remember, too, that outcomes mean so much more than just exams. We can refer to destination outcomes and the immeasurable outcomes that pertain to the holistic development of young people.

There are also outcomes for us as professionals. In the same way that I believe we can become overly focused on exam outcomes at the expense of the process (teaching), we can also suffer from this tunnel vision regarding leadership outcomes.

I see so many school leaders beating themselves up regarding the way in which unpredictable situations arise and are dealt with in the school day. In these instances, more often than not, the leader has become focused on the outcome when, in many ways, the outcome is out of their control.

The result, which I have witnessed often, is a detrimental effect on the confidence of school leaders and, in extreme cases, on their mental health and wellbeing. If we want schools to function effectively, we need our teachers and leaders firing on all cylinders and therefore it is very important to help them deal with unpredictable situations effectively.

Schools are unpredictable environments and this unpredictability can cause stress and cloud our decision-making. An aspect of leadership I have been trying to develop with my team recently is to arrive at the realisation that every day there will be something that happens in school that we cannot control.

We get thrown “curve balls” from all directions and if we accept the reality – that we cannot control many of the complex cases that drop on our desks – we can then take steps to ensure that we deal with each situation calmly, objectively, sensitively and with empathy and understanding.

If our behaviours, reactions and decisions are based upon these principles then we can go home each evening satisfied that we have dealt with a complex situation in the right way, with high levels of morality and within the values of the school. We might not always achieve the outcome we want, but we mustn’t dwell overly on this; there may be lessons to learn, but learning is a crucial aspect of leadership and of life.

As school leaders we take on huge levels of responsibility but we must look after ourselves if we are to positively affect those around us, and we can do this by adjusting our mindset and attitude towards outcomes.

  • SecEd’s Diary of a Headteacher is written by two different headteachers. The author of this entry is a headteacher, in his fifth year of headship, at a secondary school in the Midlands.


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