“I have stayed in education because, quite simply … I love it. Every day brings something different and there is still so much more to do to continue building our school to offer the best quality provision for our pupils going forward. All the negatives, challenges and constraints are far outweighed by the positives and the rewards in seeing young people mature and develop toward meeting their aspirations and potential, and being a small part of that is brilliant.“
Headteacher of the Year in a Secondary School, 2013
Currently Headteacher at Sir Tom Finney Community High School, Preston, Lancashire
Winning the award was a huge surprise, particularly having read the summary biographies of the other heads in contention for the award. It was the first award announced and I will always remember as it was being announced thinking ‘that’s me’ and jumping up. At the age of 48, five years into my first headship I was awarded Headteacher of the year (2013) in a category that had never ever been won by a special school Headteacher. It was that point that I think I was most proud of at the time.
The impact really wasn’t so much on my career but more on the school. We were suddenly thrust into a bit of a spotlight both locally and nationally and had that ’15 minutes’ of fame moment with local press, radio and TV who wanted to visit school and interview me. It allowed the school and the staff and its pupils to have that kudos associated with gaining the award. I said in my interview on stage I couldn’t do my job without all those other people doing theirs as well and vice-versa. It really was a team effort.
Winning enhanced what I was already involved in and it cemented a renewed energy to ensure that the standards we had achieved in such a short space of time were not just maintained but continued to improve and in doing so keep delivering a breadth of opportunities for our pupil population.
THE JOB, CHANGES AND CHALLENGES
My career started in my mid 20s having previously worked in the construction industry. It was an extended holiday in central Africa that pointed me in the direction of teaching and having spoken with a friend in the profession it just seemed to be the right thing to do at the right time having gained some ‘life’ experiences.
I was mainstream trained but within a year had entered into special education and progressed into positions of middle management and then senior management over the course of the next 15 years across a range of different special schools both primary, secondary and all age, catering for the full range of SEND provision. An opportunity came for my first Headship in a newly amalgamated secondary special school in Preston. The school went from opening on day one in September 2008 as a new school in very old buildings to outstanding within 4 years. I was nominated for the award by staff at school the following year.
I didn’t really know what I wanted as a career and drifted into part time and then full-time work in the construction industry within office and then front-of-house management. After spending time in Africa, it was then I decided maybe teaching, I did a bit of volunteer work at a friend’s school and immediately fell in love with it. It was challenging, exciting, frustrating and rewarding all at the same time and it was then I knew this was what I wanted to do as a full-time career. So, it was back to university and the rest is history.
I don’t think my style has changed particularly, I was always forward-thinking and looking to the next thing in terms of developing my knowledge and practise. I was a bit like a sponge and very lucky to learn off many talented colleagues. If anything, I have learnt to slow down the pace a little and evaluate more before making decisions, but this may reflect how the profession has also changed in terms of what we are expected to do and to be accountable for.
In special schools the pastoral side has always a big part of the role and it has continued to be. Indeed, it has expanded, but as a profession in special education nurture, care and support for the ‘whole’ child and their family has always been a consideration to ensure an individual is ready to learn.
Social media has both its positive and negative points. On the one hand, it is fabulous for promoting the work of the pupils, the school, making contact and communication with families. On the other, the impact it has on pupil relationships, behaviour and wellbeing of some pupils can be very negative and far reaching. Our role is to teach our pupils how to engage with social media safely and to understand the pros and cons of what they say and do and the consequences that may follow. In fact, quite often it is about educating the parents and families as well.
My most memorable moment (aside from the award of course) was moving into our newly refurbished and new-build premises and the official opening. To be able to have the opportunity to design, develop and establish a ‘new’ school building to meet the needs of a very wide-ranging pupil population, that promotes a curriculum preparing our young people for their adulthood doesn’t happen very often. It was the culmination of a vision and plan for the school from its initial amalgamation to becoming outstanding to getting the state-of-the-art premises our pupils deserved.
However, within my career there have been many moments of pride, mainly relating to seeing the progress and development of some of the most vulnerable young people in our society. From Victoria being able to indicate ‘yes or no’ for the very first time because of the augmentative communication device we finally managed to get her to use – to those who have developed strategies to deal with their anger, frustration as and behaviours and gone on to succeed in college placements or the world of work.
In terms of advice, I’d recommend watching a YouTube clip called ‘animal school’ and I’d say never look back; ‘change’ is positive.
THE TEACHING PROFESSION
The profession has become more demanding, accountable and schools seem to be taking on more of the things other services used to provide. The ‘do more with less’ way of working appears to be the expectation. In one sense that isn’t a bad thing because it has made the profession increasingly professional and the ‘one stop shop’ approach can have many benefits, but it seems to be having an impact upon retention, recruitment and burn out of senior colleagues. From a SEND point of view there have been significant changes within legislation that have impacted upon our workload, and responsibility. Some for the good and some yet to be seen as having benefit for the individual pupils. The jury is still out! The other major change has been technology and the revolution that brings and there will be even more developments in the future which schools will have to adapt to and change with and learn. Our pupils are coming to school these days with more technical knowhow than many of the staff!
I have stayed in education because, quite simply … I love it. Every day brings something different and there is still so much more to do to continue building our school to offer the best quality provision for our pupils going forward. All the negatives, challenges and constraints are far outweighed by the positives and the rewards in seeing young people mature and develop toward meeting their aspirations and potential, and being a small part of that is brilliant.
We must make sure teachers and those who support them in the classroom feel valued are not left to feel isolated or vulnerable. That the support mechanisms allow for time to meet workload demands, allow time to develop professionally and reward those who go that extra mile. We must ensure teachers feel collaborated with and not in direct conflict with those who hold us accountable. We must promote the profession as being the most worthwhile, important and positive job anyone can do because the impact teachers have on individuals and society as a whole is lifelong.