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Reflections of an Apprentice 2040 Visioner

Today’s first meeting of the SSAT Vision 2040 Group was a fascinating if sobering moment for me.  By 2040 I will be 77 years of age.  Despite what others think they might have in store for me, the one thing I can say with certainty is that I will be retired, probably for quite some time.  My own children have all been through the state education system and currently seem pretty well balanced and content young adults.  The challenge of thinking of 2040 is that my grandchildren, none currently born or on the immediate horizon, I am reliably informed, may also have been through or approaching the end of what is currently the secondary phase of education. Continue reading

Advice to New Senior Leaders

#SLTChat is providing a whole raft of great issues to blog on and I’ve picked up another one this weekend proposed by @ChrisHildrew.  He posed the question, “What single piece of advice would you offer to someone taking up a senior leadership post in September?”

SLTChat - Advice to New Senior Leaders

The chance of me limiting myself to one piece of advice is negligible but I do have some thoughts.  This February we attracted the largest and most outstanding field of applicants, for two Assistant Headships, that I have ever seen in my time at St. Mary’s.  In taking a number of candidates around the College, prior to the closing date for applications (by the way it is a really good idea to go and have a look at a school and meet the headteacher when you are applying for this type of post), I was asked various questions.  I tried to give them honest and frank answers so they could determine whether St. Mary’s was a place where they could be happy and make a contribution.  It was also important that I gave them some idea of the type of person we were looking for.  In the end we appointed five of the applicants, the governors often think it’s a BOGOF (Buy One Get One Free) offer when it comes to appointments.

Here are some thoughts if you are taking up a senior leadership post, this September, or hope to be taking one up in the coming years.  This is my six of the best pieces of advice I can offer.

Outstanding Teaching

Best TeacherYou must have credibility in the classroom.  Don’t make the mistake I did as a Headteacher of the three part lesson – arrive late, give it some tap, apologise and go early.  In the end I was doing more harm than good.  My symbolism had in fact become tokenism.  Staff forgave me as they realised that there were other issues I had to deal with at the time – they will not be as forgiving to others in or new to a senior leadership team.  Everyone will expect you to lead by example in the classroom.  Model the behaviours and the quality that you want from others.  Follow the systems and processes like any other member of staff just do it with the exceptional skill and talent you undoubtedly possess.

Be Present, Be a Presence
There is a price to pay for all of us as senior leaders and people will expect you to be there early and to stay after school.  It is no good pretending that you can arrive at the last minute and be off early – I’m not going to be dishonest and pretend to you that it is.  This isn’t a macho thing but just a matter of getting the job done.  Teachers in particular, who have full teaching timetables, may need to see you before the start of a school day or when classes have finished.  You need to be there for them.  The number of meetings you have will increase and you need to have thought of how you will mange this alongside other commitments as part of preparing for the job.

When in school make sure you are visible to students and if possible parents – the latter almost a daily requirement in primary schools but a bit more difficult in a secondary where students are happier for their parents to stay away.  Stand on corridors, chat to students at break, lunch time and start and end of days.  When I was first became a Headteacher I use to keep a tally chart of how often I stood on a corridor and how often I popped into classrooms.  For many years these were part of performance management measures for my senior staff.  Being a presence is important.

Head for Trouble, Don’t Create It
When various prospective Assistant Headteachers turned up for a tour I told them I was looking for someone who would “head for the gunfire”.  Sadly with events most recently in America but also in other countries I don’t think the phrase is appropriate any more but I’ll try to give a sense of what I meant by it.  Schools need people who make them tick like clockwork, at an operational level, day in and day out.  The Assistant Headteachers I was looking for would be people who just couldn’t help but get involved in and resolve an incident that could potentially disrupt the smooth running of the College.  They just simply wouldn’t be able to walk by.  Don’t walk past any potential trouble, get involved.  De-escalate the situation, discern what has happened and then consequences can follow.  As you tell classroom teachers, “follow up and follow through.”  Don’t rush to judgement as you will make a mistake in your haste and back tracking is a real pain even when it is right and necessary.

Overview & Detail
Life gets a bit more complex in the senior leadership team as you are expected to take into account a far wider whole school perspective.  You are now expected to see the dots (issues) but also connect them together into a coherent picture.  This is important as staff will now look to you to make sense of what is happening in school, be clear about the direction of travel and how the separate parts make a coherent whole.

dot to dot image

This is one of the most challenging but crucial parts of a senior leader’s role.  If you are to get everyone “into the same boat, all rowing in the same direction” than staff need a connection between the vision and their part in helping it be realised.  You stand at the critical point where you can connect the two.  Make sure you have this as clear as possible in your mind.

Publicly Support, Privately Challenge

As a headteacher I expect the total loyalty of my senior leaders.  This loyalty has two dimensions.  The first is, whilst happy to debate vigorously and at length a whole variety of issues, once you walk out of the SLT Meeting you must actively support and implement what has been decided, irrespective of whether you argued for or against it.  No half hearted engagement, no distancing yourself from the decision and no undermining the team.  If you think that is difficult the other dimension of loyalty is even more challenging – being honest with the headteacher if s/he is making her/himself look like a total wally or doing something that has had an unforeseen negative impact on the school.  This is tough but it goes with the job.  A Head may not immediately thank you for your honesty – ride out any momentary storm – but the ones that are worth working with will take a chance to reflect and recognise if s/he has got it wrong.  Your wise counsel and early warning will be valued.

This is similar when you work with teachers.  Don’t criticise anyone in public, stop gossip don’t add to it.  Teachers need public support both when they get it right, as they mostly do, but also when they make a mistake.  The honest and sometimes difficult conversation is a private matter.

Get the Ronseal Moment

For those not familiar with Ronseal, they make products that go in a tin that has a very simple description on the label.  A series of adverts have been run on television with a strap line, “Ronseal, it does what it says on the tin.”

I always talk with candidates at interview about the College and alert them to the Ronseal moment.  “St. Mary’s Catholic College, it’s like Ronseal, we do what it says on the tin.  You’ve applied to join a Catholic school and this is what we expect …”  It’s like the Blackpool rock analogy, no matter where you cut into the stick of rock you find the word Blackpool.  All good schools will have a root, a touchstone or a Ronseal moment that helps clearly define the ethos of the school.  This may require some unpacking for new staff but are you clear what the school is about?  You must be clear in your own mind what is at the core of the school’s ethos, what its driving force is.  Your actions as a senior leader will need to be in congruence with it.

If you have a new job for the coming academic year, good luck and I hope you enjoy it.

I’ve blogged before about “What Kind of Leaders Do You Want?” which may be of interest if you have found this post useful.

What Kind of Leaders Do You Want?

Quite some time ago I read a leadership book containing a letter from an army commander to some of his leaders.  The content of the letter has always stayed with me, it went something like this:

 “Gentlemen, you live in the greatest democracy in the World.  One day you may have to fight and even die to defend our democracy but don’t ever believe you work in one.”

The commander was absolutely clear about the type of leaders and followers required in the army.  Leaders are required to make a decision, at times quickly and under fire, and troops are expected to carry it out unquestioningly.  This is the battle field approach.

It set me thinking about what kind of leaders are required at St. Mary’s and whether I have ever been sufficiently explicit about it.  We run a number of internal leadership courses and over a period of two years a number of middle leaders and aspiring middle leaders gave presentations on “What Makes a Good Leader at St. Mary’s”.  It was interesting to see both the commonality and diversity of things that came up.


During these two years writing something on the kind of leaders required stayed on my “To Do List”, however, on a train journey back from Reading I wrote the statement below.  It was originally just for middle leaders but it soon became obvious that it applied equally to all leaders.  I must have been feeling quite poetic when I wrote it (unusual for me as my background is Science) so please excuse the flowery language if it is not to your taste, it is the content that really matters.


Rowing Boat

In essence they get everyone into the St. Mary’s boat, all rowing in the same direction!

Outstanding leaders act at the pivotal point of the College’s Catholic Mission ensuring that our vision and goals are implemented – minute by minute, day by day, week in and week out – through working effectively with people in their teams and beyond.  They lead others and conduct themselves, at a personal and professional level, within the Catholic ethos of St. Mary’s.  Holding those students with greatest needs “closest to their heart” they provide an educational option for the poor and disadvantaged we are called to serve.

Seeing the big picture, they engage with complex whole College issues and understand that our strength as a College lies in our connectedness and being “one body”.  They are able to bring a departmental or pastoral perspective to discussions and decision-making, where relevant, whilst seeing well beyond their individual team goals and aspirations.  Their words and actions show that they understand the whole is always more important than and takes a precedent over the individual parts.  We are interdependent, connected and no team is an island.

Operating both laterally and vertically to support and co-construct the future success of our College, outstanding leaders, alongside other middle and senior leaders, are a power house of innovation and organisation and act as standard bearers within the College.  They think creatively, are open to radical ideas and willing to seek mandates to act on them, enjoying solving problems before other people even realise there is one!

Their no excuses approach starts with themselves and extends to holding their teams and individuals accountable for high standards of learning and achievement, enriching relationships, personal development and the well being of all.  They have an “abundance mentality” believing that very high academic achievement, outstanding pastoral care and enriching faith and personal development are powerful allies.  Like the best parents they appreciate the need to find time for their colleagues, showing a unified public face whilst putting the needs of the students first.

Their personal and professional standards, passion for their subject, service and work ethic and ability to build enriching relationships act as an example to others within their team and beyond.  They inspire trust and respect from the staff they work with on a “day to day” basis.  Their significant influence is due to a personal and professional credibility with staff who value their input and appreciate that when a difficult situation arises they are the first to take responsibility and assume control of the situation.  They manage administration effectively ensuring things run smoothly and the job gets done.  Put simply they teach well, achieving better than expected progress with their classes, have excellent attendance, actively engage in promoting student and staff well-being and personal development and support students and staff on their faith journey.

Our outstanding leaders have a curiosity and desire for their own learning, supporting and using innovation as a source of learning in addition to other effective forms of CPD.  They encourage others within their team and beyond to do the same and have a profound pedagogical and pastoral understanding based upon models, principles and research as well as their own experience.  As powerful people-developers, the induction of staff new to the College, continuous professional development of colleagues and generation of new leaders are all matters of the highest importance and priority.  They invest time in coaching, knowing that it is a time investment that will be paid back many times over and appreciated by colleagues and the students who will benefit from it.

Highly emotionally intelligent, literate and resilient our outstanding leaders are able to perform effectively in difficult, pressurised situations taking their team with them through the challenging times.  They achieve this by explaining and emphasising the vision and goals; coaching colleagues to help develop their skills; involving staff in decision making; leading by example; putting an arm around someone’s shoulder or, on occasion, doing some straight talking.  They are adept at choosing the right leadership style for the context they find themselves in, often using a combination of these approaches as appropriate.  At difficult times they act as a “reservoir of hope and optimism”, maintaining high morale, positive relationships and a sense of togetherness in the team and more widely in the College as a whole.  They keep a focus on the goals to be achieved and ensuring a sense of well proportioned perspective by individuals.

Being an outstanding leader at St. Mary’s is a challenging role.

Let’s not pretend otherwise!

 The statement contains a number of key elements that I have reinforced below.

Outstanding Leaders


Leaders get everyone into the St. Mary’s boat in pursuit of the College’s stated Mission and Vision.  They realises and ensures everyone in the team understands that the whole is always more important than and takes precedence over the needs of the individual department.  We are interdependent, connected and no team is an island.


Leaders are persistent and insistent that policies and procedures are consistently, properly and fully implemented.  Within the authority given they lead and guide the staff in the team and further distributes leadership within it.  They are powerful people developers.


Leaders hold the team to account for high standards of learning and achievement, enriching relationships, personal development and the well being of all.  They have an “abundance mentality” believing that very high academic achievement, outstanding pastoral care and enriching faith and personal development are powerful allies.

Capacity Building – People Developers
Leaders maximise and fully engage with the resources available – people, technology, learning spaces, capitation – to build the capacity within their team that enables it to contribute to the delivery of the College’s stated Mission and Vision.

The “What Makes an Outstanding Leader at St. Mary’s” statement is now part of every leader’s job description and helps provide clarity about what is expected of them.  It is written from the perspective of a Catholic School (I think all elements are transferable but some of the language may change), deliberately sets the bar very high and has been useful in occasional conversation with leaders who have gone “off piste” and started doing their own thing.  The key is not whether you agree or disagree with the statement about outstanding leadership at St. Mary’s, it is whether you have a description for an outstanding leader in your own institution.  If we want “great leaders” in our schools we must be absolutely explicit about what “great” means.

If you have enjoyed this blog post, here is a link to one on “What Should We Look for in Senior Leaders” that converts the statement above (or at least it should) into a reference request that we use to gather information on applicants from their referees.

Liminal Leadership


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