High Challenge, Low Threat: thoughts on stepping up to deputy head

3 Apr

Last month, I read Mary Myatt’s book High Challenge, Low Threat, in preparation for my role as deputy head in a new school. I wanted to read her book as having met Mary and heard her present at several conferences, I find her to be intelligent, thoughtful and the most human of Ofsted inspectors I’ve ever encountered!

It’s been four and a half years since I started as an assistant head at Elthorne Park High School. If only this book had been about then, I probably wouldn’t have made so many rookie mistakes. What is so brilliant about Mary’s book is how she draws upon her wealth of experience and shares it without the need for a range of eduspeak acronyms. She articulates clearly what leaders can do to create a supportive climate and culture for excellent learning to take place.

Without doubt, my new job is going to be taking me out of my comfort zone. The school has some challenges it needs to face and, being the newbie once again, I am going to have to work hard to prove to everyone in the school community that I can contribute to the school’s journey of improvement. I am excited but also extremely nervous. The stakes are so much higher now and I want to get off to a good start. My remit at my new school is similar to the one I had when I started at Elthorne – to develop the quality of teaching and learning and create an effective CPD model – but I will also be responsible for how these tie into whole school quality assurance procedures and appraisal.

Reading through the book, 10 principles struck me as being important for the job I’m about to undertake.

Radical Candour


In high functioning settings people want to be held to account for their work. But they don’t want to feel like Muppets. No one want to be made to feel like a Muppet. However, top leaders understand that everyone wants to get better at what they do… But we don’t do this on our own. We need people who are able to analyse what we are doing well so that we can do more of it and talk us through how things might be better.’ P.17

In schools with big challenges to address, it would be all too easy to go down a high-stakes accountability model with paper trails and monitoring everyone within an inch of their lives… but that is not the best way to get teachers to come on board and work together to address the challenges. Holding people to account is about clearly communicating the vision and speaking with colleagues about how they are implementing the vision around school. We also need to be careful not to fall into a deficit model, where senior leaders spend more time highlighting things that are wrong and not enough time highlighting things that are working well. The structure of line management meetings with middle leaders needs careful thought so that teaching and learning remains the core discussion point. Everything needs to be brought back to what impact curriculum, teaching and assessment are having on student outcomes.

Management by wondering around


Thoughtful leaders know that behind every piece of data there is a bigger story of information, which comes from a wider context. Top leaders know where there is strong practice in their settings. They know where students are getting a good deal. Particularly those who are disadvantaged. And they affirm this by being around school. They know that their presence is there to reinforce high standards of behaviour, courtesy and respect. That the school’s values and ethos are being lived out on a daily basis. They have established a culture where it is acceptable to walk into any classroom at any time. They have made it clear and colleagues know that they do this primarily to support and celebrate. There is never any intention of catching people out, only moving practice on.’ P.20

When I was interviewed for my new job, I was asked which members of staff have most influenced my thoughts on leadership and teaching. Without hesitation, I named one of my previous deputy heads; he would make it his mission to stalk the corridors every day and would think the day had not been a success unless he’d popped his head into every classroom. As a newly qualified teacher, I welcomed his visits as I felt safe to let him know if the lesson wasn’t going well and I needed some extra support and I looked forward to highlighting students whose learning needed celebrating. Starting at my new school, my priority is to ‘take the temperature’ of the classrooms and get beyond the data spreadsheets. I can only do this by being highly visible, being inquisitive and being a supportive presence to teachers.



The most valuable resource which leaders have are their colleagues. So they express gratitude to them. The say thank you, and often. But the thanks are not cheap, off-the-cuff platitudes. They are deep and heartfelt and they come from noticing. Noticing is one of the most powerful things that thoughtful leaders do. They notice the small stuff, the things that make a person tick, the small triumphs and gains. And they know when it is appropriate to express those thanks in public and when to do it quietly.’ P.27

Feeling valued is so important. I’m sure we’ve all worked in places where we’ve gone the extra mile and not been thanked. Of course, we don’t stop going the extra mile because we want the best for our students but it can touch a nerve when it seems that no one is noticing the extra effort we’re putting in. I believe that creating open, friendly and trusting relationships is the most important thing a leader can do. If you think someone cares about you and has got to know you as a person first, teacher second, then you’re more inclined to want to work with them. One of the things I’ve scheduled in for the first six weeks of my new job is to carry out joint learning walks with the heads of subject. Of course, this will help me diagnose the strengths and areas for improvement of staff but, equally important is the opportunity for heads of subject to tell me the story of their department and flesh out the people behind the staff acronyms.

The Essentials


In schools which have adopted essentialism principles, their school development plans describe no more than three overarching priorities. Because they know that otherwise colleagues will not be able to keep focus on the main things which need to be done. There is simplicity and power in returning to our main goals. People working in schools where there is clarity report not only greater focus, but a sense of security in knowing that the major item in meetings is strongly linked to the major goal for overall school improvement, and that they are all clear about what their contribution needs to be.’ P.40

When people ask me what I think is the difference between a good and outstanding school, I always return to the same two points: clarity and cohesion. What can happen all too easily is different members of SLT pushing their own agenda and, before you know it, the vision becomes overcomplicated and overwhelming. I am absolutely committed to making sure all my responsibilities link and there is cohesion between teaching and learning priorities, CPD delivery and appraisal targets. Our priorities are to have a relentless focus on raising the level of challenge in lessons, thus leading to accelerating learning. All T&L decisions will be based upon high quality ‘gold standard’ research rather than fads or gimmicks.

Making a mess

Messy learning

Clever leaders understand that learning is messy. It involves hard work, making mistakes, having another go. It involves scribbling out, reworking and redrafting. It involves debate and discussion. It involves unpacking and deconstructing. And none of this is neat. But the goal is to bring it to a satisfying resolution. Above all, they know that it is underpinned by a discipline and coherent aims. They know that learning does not take place in neat gobbet-sized lessons, that the arc of learning something takes more than an hour, that it needs to be revisited. But all these are held within a structure and a framework which allow for this messy deliberation to take place.’ P.57

I am a firm believer in embedding lesson routines to free up more time for students to learn. Every time a teacher has to explain why certain tasks are happening in their classroom is a moment where students are not focusing 100% on their learning. Once students understand what is expected of them and the bigger picture of learning, learning will accelerate. That is not to say that every lesson will look the same across a school – far from it. Departments are encouraged to take the whole school teaching and learning framework and personalise it for their own departments. At my new school, I have introduced 4 phases of learning: hook and connect; explore and discuss; apply and practise; reflect and review. However, there is significant room within the phases of learning for teachers to experiment with innovative practice.

Evidence to tell a big story


Sensible leaders know that they can use selected evidence to tell a big story. This saves them a heap of time and their colleagues too. Why would anyone need, or feel that they need, to keep track of everything? The logic of this is that we would spend half our time doing things and the rest of the time clocking that we had done something, somewhere. Top leaders know that this is bonkers.’ P.78

I am not a fan of paperwork for paperwork’s sake. I have worked with some leaders who have been open in saying that the more folders they had filled up with paper, the more they felt they were achieving something. I’m in the middle of packing up my office and it’s become a bit of a joke how few folders I have gathered over the four and a half years I’ve been there. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been monitoring and evaluating areas I am responsible for; rather, I prefer to make one template fit for purpose so that it can be used for a range of quality assurance procedures. When I start my new job, one thing I am going to be advocating is the use of Google Drive to capture the evidence as it makes quality assurance transparent as middle and senior leaders can collaborate on the same document and it is ‘live’ as every edit is saved in the cloud. No need for multiple versions of the same document sitting dormant on the network.

The paradox of safety


When people feel safe they are prepared to move out of their comfort zones. They know that the world won’t fall apart and that while they will be held to account, they will not be humiliated. If they are put down, they are likely to put others down. The culture of coaching and the culture of contempt flows from the top. The coaching culture creates a safe space which allows for discomfort. But the discomfort isn’t crippling, it is recognised as part of growth. Whereas the culture of contempt shuts down the wider concerns for an organisation and means that people work to protect themselves.’ P.95

Culture is everything. No change to practice can be sustained unless the culture is in place first. There may be some quick wins that can happen with a top-down approach, where staff are compliant rather than curious. But they don’t last. The most effective change happens when colleagues recognise every teacher has a duty to develop their practice and welcome discussion and feedback. A vital part of the CPD model that I have worked on at Elthorne is developing a coaching culture, where everyone is coached – including the head. At my new school, I will remind staff of Dylan Wiliam’s well-known mantra: ‘Every teacher needs to improve, not because they are not good enough, but because they can be even better.’

The leadership of inclusion


The balance of providing support and expecting a child to offer something is the line where transformation takes place. It is part of the human psyche to take pride, to feel positive when asked for an opinion, to be asked to contribute…. Top leaders support their children through this. They give them as much responsibility as they are capable of and then they stand back and are prepared to be surprised.’ P.107

You can tell a lot about a school by the way students speak about their school to others. The first school I worked in was a fantastic example of how all the students felt they belonged to something much bigger than them. It was not enough for the students to work hard; they had to make a wider contribution to the school. There were no exceptions made: all students had to commit to the principle that they showed their pride for the school through the actions they undertook. The idea of the school being the hub of the local community was shared with students, time and time again. At my new school, part of raising the bar and level of challenge will start in the classroom but extend beyond it to all aspects of school life so that students take pride in their school and recognise the part they play in making it a great place to come and learn.

On creating energy

Creating energy

Talking with colleagues in schools, many say that they are overworked and overwhelmed. When we discuss the difference between feeling overwhelmed and feeling energised, the difference usually relates to whether they see the purpose in what they are doing. When information, data and numbers are collected and nothing appears to happen to them, it can feel pointless. Because it often is. But the energy shifts from negative to positive when colleagues ask why is this needed, what will happen to it, where will this improve practice?’ p.127

One of the great things about joining a new school is you get to come in with a fresh pair of eyes. You are expected to ask questions, to share different ways of thinking and make changes where they are needed. Yet, is there the space for experience, long-standing members of a school to do this without being labelled as awkward or troublesome? Well, in the best schools that are confident in the direction they are taking, they encourage staff to ask the difficult questions to check that what they are doing is actually worth it. But when schools face tough times, it can seem overwhelming to hear criticism from staff, even if it is constructive feedback. The temptation is to ignore the concerns of the doubters but we do this at our peril. If staff cared enough to make time to share their concerns, then they should be shown enough respect by engaging with them and seeing if changes do need to be made to what is expected of staff.

Reasons vs excuses


A reasons culture supports ongoing improvement. It is the kind of narrative which says: ‘This didn’t go as well as it might. What are we going to do differently? How can we support these children to catch up? What have we learnt? How are we going to be better as a result of this?’ This is the polar opposite of an excuses culture, which places responsibility and blame elsewhere and washes its hands. The legitimate reasons use setbacks as a springboard for renewed improvement. The excuses result in complacency and eventually a downward spiral. Because no one is taking responsibility.’ P.130

As a perfectionist, I absolutely hate it when things go wrong! I know – not very growth mindset of me… but as soon as the initial emotional reaction to things going wrong subsides, my next question is ‘Why?’ And by ‘Why?’, I don’t mean ‘Whose fault is it?’. Rather, I’m interested in what happened that we weren’t prepared for or what didn’t we take into consideration when making decisions. This is completely different to making excuses for things going wrong. In schools, which are under significant pressure, it is easy to play the blame game instead of trying to learn from what happened and striving to do better the next time. However, improvements will happen more quickly if colleagues feel they are working in a trusting, supportive environment where everyone is working towards a common goal. I know I am going to have several tough conversations in the first few weeks of my new job and I will be asking colleagues to search for reasons and solutions and encourage them to put the excuses to the side.

As I leave my school behind and focus my attention on my new school, it is a combination of sadness and excitement I’m feeling. I will miss my school dearly but it’s time for a new challenge. Over the next few months, I’ll be blogging about my experience of being a deputy head in a new school. Thanks to all the deputies and heads who have shared their wisdom with me. I will be drawing upon it in the coming months. Wish me luck!

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