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21 November 2022

The Monday Briefing: A Human Body

The Monday Briefing: A Human Body

I recall very fondly my time as a Head of History at Waddesdon C of E School from 2008-2012. It was during that role, I’m sure, that I made most progress towards becoming the leader that I am now. The school had something truly magical about it. A thoroughly embedded culture of ‘dignity and respect’ pervaded the institution. Staff were happy, driven and collegiate, whilst also being aspirational. Parents were supportive. It became so enjoyable and rewarding that it didn’t really feel like work. Only at Ealing have I got anywhere near to replicating this feeling since.

I had the great fortune of being seconded to the Senior Leadership Team there for a full term, and I learned a huge amount - not only about the requirements necessary for an effective and well-functioning group setting the direction of the school, but also about myself. It was the time where I decided that, deep down, I had the necessary qualities to lead an educational setting. It became a case, for me, of striving towards that goal from that point onwards.

I remember well speaking with a member of staff I deeply respected prior to my taking on the secondment. Ness had just gone through the same process, and was, then, the Head of Year for my form group. She was a pastoral middle manager rather than an academic one, but she was every bit an excellent practitioner, teaching English. She was also incredibly perceptive. She made a wonderful analogy about the SLT she had just shadowed.

Ness likened the team to a human body, and one which functioned at an incredibly high level. At that time, Waddesdon had a Headteacher, Deputy Headteacher and two Assistant Headteachers. The way which these staff complimented each other ensured that the school itself was a success - not just outlining a compelling and ambitious vision but making it happen through a consistent approach administered on a daily basis.

Peter, the Headteacher, was every bit the ‘soul’ of the school. His moral compass was set firmly in alignment with Waddesdon. HIs judgement was guided by strongly set Christian values, and he commanded the immediate respect of the entire community. Matthew, the Deputy Headteacher, was very much the ‘brain’ of the school. His innate ability to strategically plan well in advance, to see problems long before they arose, and have a strategy with which to tackle them, was extremely impressive. Sue, one of the Assistant Headteachers, a kind and caring DSL who oversaw pastoral care at the school was the ‘heart’ of the institution. Compassionate and devoted to her role, students knew that if they needed someone to talk to about any problem, large or small, they could approach her. Finally, Ben, another Assistant Headteacher, who managed behaviour, was very much the ‘hands’ of the team. He didn’t mind doing the dirty work, dealing with the problems and getting things done. He often had to tackle the sorts of issues that no one else dared to, and relished these opportunities.

When these aspects all worked in harmony - and they almost always did - the school ran incredibly well. I’ve often reflected on this team as a benchmark.

I’ve seen SLTs during my career who have failed miserably in getting close to such a standard.

A few scenarios stick in my mind: the SLT who would have meetings during the school day, declaring themselves unavailable during these times, no matter how behaviour unravelled around the school. This put undue stress on teaching staff and heads of year who had to handle some extremely serious issues without adequate backup. Whilst SLT briefings at Waddesdon were always scheduled for 8am or so, and always finished before registration for students commenced, prioritising presence and support when teaching and learning was ongoing, this practice was not adopted at another of my schools. I know that this had an impact on the levels of respect which staff and students held for the SLT - in fact, my abiding memory of them was of their sitting in a room enjoying Christmas Dinner, all to themselves, while staff worked tirelessly to tackle some poor behaviour up and down the corridors during the last week of term. The ‘Us and Them’ mentality which they enacted was more at home in 18th century France than it was in a 21st century secondary school.

Another example which I can recall from my career is where a Head grew frustrated with the SLT around him, and, rather than developing new strategies to get the best from them as individuals, and, in turn, find collective productivity, he decided to keep those staff involved which he felt he could work with cohesively, giving the SLT a new name. When I taught Year 13s about how Lenin narrowed the Sovnarkom in Bolshevik Russia to the Politburo, this instantly came to mind. Pragmatic and ruthless it may have been, but it hardly equates to good leadership.

At Ealing, the leadership team is a team of two, though as the student numbers grow, it’s likely that we’ll need to expand this pairing to three. I still look upon my appointment of Laura, the Vice Principal of the College, while I was still Principal-in-waiting, as one of my best decisions. 

In many ways, I feel that I embody many aspects of the parts I mentioned earlier in the blog to varying levels - the soul, the brain, the heart and the hands - but those that I can’t quite find complete mastery of at any point - I guess one could say I have quite a toughness at certain points (not that I lack compassion or lack empathy), is when Laura can always be called on to bring fresh impetus.

It’s important to stress that no one has all of the answers - it’s why dictatorships don’t work - and that’s why quality of the leadership team often correlates directly with the quality of the school. 

Does everyone within it shine? Do they complement each other? Do they bring about the very best in each other?

The sum of all constituent parts should create something which no one individual can ever produce. 

That’s what we aim to do at Ealing, where shared responsibilities lead to shared improvements.

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