Learning how to lead in challenging times: reflecting on how to get off to a good start in September

3 Aug

In a blink of an eye, I found myself at the end of my second half term as a deputy head working at my new school in Special Measures. The past seven weeks have been nothing short of a complete roller coaster! There have been times when I honestly thought I couldn’t do it and had to give myself a few minutes in the bathroom to shed a few private tears; but there’s also been moments of real joy and a sense of teamwork where I feel like we’re heading in the right direction. In the final week (on Sports Day of all days!) Ofsted returned to inspect us for Safeguarding and that was certainly our biggest test thus far. However, it was the perfect platform for us to all pull together and show what we can do. I was very proud of all my colleagues who supported each other on this stressful day and did all they could to show our school in its best light.

Now is the time to relax and enjoy the six weeks off but, as always, I find it difficult to completely switch off. More than ever, I feel a keen sense of needing to ensure that September gets off to a great start to give staff and students a sense that we’re building on the positive steps we made last term but also to rally the troops for another push forward as we implement some of the new ideas we explored before the break.

Acknowledging where we’ve gone wrong



Last post, I explored Mary Myatt’s chapter ‘On Creating Energy’ from her book High Challenge, Low Threat as I felt the priority then was to keep staff motivated to develop their practice despite the blow of the Ofsted judgement. At this point, we are in a different place; we have spent the past three months planning for September. One of the things that my school has been guilty of in the past is doing lots of busy work with different members of SLT pushing their own agendas but none of these projects joining up and contributing to a cohesive school development plan. Linked to this, all staff members have commented on their desire to do what’s asked of them but the vision and delivery being poorly communicated by SLT so they don’t know whether they’re coming or going. Mary Myatt explores the impact a clearly-defined plan has on staff’s perception of leadership:

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.

Clearly, this is a significant area for improvement by SLT so I am conscious of the need to 1) communicate the changes clearly and set them in a wider picture of the school’s development plan and 2) create enough capacity and support for teachers and middle leaders to effectively implement these changes.

Building capacity

Members of a community welcoming a new member.

As mentioned in my previous post, I was looking forward to appointing a group of Lead Learners whose role is to support heads of department in driving forward teaching and learning. I strongly believe that this is the best route to implementing long-lasting change rather than going for a top-down approach where SLT do it all. Although I may be responsible for teaching and learning, I do not have subject expertise across the curriculum; if I can work alongside my colleagues to facilitate discussion about evidence-informed practice, which they in turn translate into what that might look like in a Maths classroom or an Art studio, then the changes we make are less likely to feel gimmicky or a one size fits all model. I was delighted to appoint 10 Lead Learners last half term – they are a great bunch! We have the full range of subject specialisms covered and we have teachers who are recently qualified as well as those who have been teaching for at least a decade. Alongside the Lead Learners, I have scrapped traditional middle leader meetings and replaced them with fortnightly training sessions based on our school improvement plan. Giving heads of department and Lead Learners time to work together and discuss the needs of the department has made a real difference already and colleagues have commented that they appreciate this time to talk about curriculum and pedagogy instead of sitting passively as various information from SLT is shared with them, which could have been disseminated via email. I can’t wait for them to experience the professional conversations they are going to have when we start Lesson Study and coaching!

Deciding on our priorities

Priorities in Order

One thing I’ve learnt quickly (which led to the tears in the bathroom scenario) is that working in a school in Special Measures is so tough because sometimes you just don’t know what to tackle first then when you do start to fix something, another thing is uncovered and, before you know it, you’ve identified more problems than you knew you had before you started… Some days it’s hard to feel like you’re making a difference and more like you’re just surviving the week. I know this isn’t the most uplifting of messages but it’s the sad truth. You’ve got to be good at not letting the pressure get to you and keeping perspective. Moreover, you’ve got to tread a fine line between making others understand why things haven’t worked out but also giving people a safe space to vent and feel like they’re being listened to. This extract from Mary Myatt in her chapter ‘Reasons vs Excuses’ rings true:

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.

What was clear though is that we have two massive areas we needed to do a lot of work on and will need to carry on developing throughout next year. When I arrived at school, it was soon noticeable that very little time had been given over to curriculum planning. Some departments had schemes of work that hadn’t been updated in light of the changes at GCSE and A Level; worse still, some departments didn’t even have schemes of work and were using generic off the shelf packages that didn’t meet the needs of our diverse learners.

Instead of tweaking what we had, we agreed that this was the right time to scrap what we had and spend time thinking about the concept of progression across all three key stages in our subjects. Once heads of department had decided what progression looked like, we created curriculum maps for each subject; these have been included in our student planners for September so students and families have a clear understanding about what they will be learning. Once the curriculum maps were in place, we moved to looking at schemes of work. I didn’t want to impose a rigid scheme of work template; rather, there were areas that needed to be covered as we agreed these were central to helping our students achieve. Our new schemes of work cover: the ‘Big Question’ for the topic and linked learning questions; questions that will stimulate thinking and discussion; key academic vocabulary to teach; stimuli for introducing new knowledge; deliberate practice tasks linked to key concepts taught in the topic. Throughout our curriculum maps and schemes of work, we are building in time to revisit topics and ensuring students practise retrieving information over many months and not just in a six-week topic time frame.

As you can imagine, without having in place curriculum maps or schemes of work, assessment was an after-thought. How can you assess thoroughly if you don’t really know what you’re teaching? To put it bluntly, assessment was in a mess. As a starting point, we used the excellent blog series, Principles of Great Assessment from Phil Stock (@joeybagstock), which can be found at https://joeybagstock.wordpress.com/. I’m currently reading Daisy Christodoulou’s Making Good Progress and I’ve pre-ordered Robert Marzano’s latest book Making Classroom Assessments Reliable and Valid: How to Assess Student Learning to support discussions around improving our use of assessment in the new academic year. So far, we have moved to four common assessment points across years 7-13, which are carried out in formal exam conditions. We trialled this with KS3 and year 10 at the end of June and, although the consensus was that this common assessment week raised the profile of assessment and students took it seriously, it uncovered some serious weaknesses in the quality of assessments we create and how we moderate our judgements. But that is why it was important to trial it so that we can learn these lessons and not make the same mistakes at the end of October (our first common assessment point). Apart from the common assessment points in the calendar, I’ve worked alongside heads of department to design departmental feedback policies where teachers make use of a range of formative assessment approaches that work for their specific subject and heads of department decide how regularly they will use different feedback methods. Teachers are excited to trial their department feedback policy instead of trying to keep up with the previous unrealistic whole school making policy.

I am hopeful that school will feel like a different place come September. We’ve done a lot of work to create a coherent and evidenced-informed approach to curriculum, assessment and pedagogy. I can’t wait to get feedback from the students to see how they respond to these changes. This is just the start of our journey but I believe we’re heading in the right direction. We’re starting to feel like a team, working towards a clear goal. I’m sure there will be more tears along the way but it will be worth it in the end.


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