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When the Challenge Looks Overwhelming

The first Blackpool Challenge Meeting of the year has come and gone and it felt a little bit sombre.   Things didn’t go that well, at a secondary level, last year and this year was a little bit worse.  Hit by turbulence in iGCSE English and the change in the higher tier Edexcel GCSE Maths paper some schools, like others up and down the country, have suffered.  The pressure increases.

Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you no man ask for
Under pressure that brings a building down
Splits a family in two
Puts people on streets …

It’s the terror of knowing
What the world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming ‘Let me out’


For St. Mary’s a more able year group, just below average attainment on intake as opposed to last year’s statistically below average, produced a much welcomed improvement in 5+A*-CEM.  Statistically they should have but the bacon still needs to be brought home.  St. Cuthbert’s improved yet again with a 21% point improvement in L4+ RWM in two years, 14% this year, and a number of indicators above national levels.  Christ the King continued to perform well with a hugely challenging intake and again has a number of indicators above national.  Credit goes to the children, young people and staff who achieved these results, as achieved they must be.  Particularly welcome was some improved and in places very impressive progress data with the bar being raised and the pupil premium gap closed or eradicated.  Whilst there is still much to do it wasn’t a bad year.

I know other school leaders and teachers who won’t be feeling the same.  This is the time of year where accountability is acutely felt in the staff room and in some schools review processes brings a heightened level of anxietyIn difficult moments it is time for head down, look out and give up – you’ve two options.

Head Down, Look Out & Give Up

Accountability is such these days that following one set of disappointing or poor results a teacher of leader’s head can go down and s/he begins to doubt themselves.  Disappointment for the students leads to worry about the future for the school, department or an individual’s future career.  This worry, if not managed, becomes an emotional rollercoaster with the danger that mental health issues – anxiety, stress and depression – lead to one or more individuals heading downhill, sadly too often unnoticed.  This is to no-one’s benefit.  Staff well-being in challenging schools needs to be of high value and highly valued.  I worry it can all too often get lost in the plethora of demands made on and in these schools.

Photo Credit: Katie Landry via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Katie Landry via Flickr cc

It may be time to look out for a new school.  You’re not a bad person nor are you a quitter.  Sometimes after many decades or a few years the whole attritional nature of working in a challenging school or area can become overwhelming.  You don’t seem to be making an impact, you’re tired of the relentless negativity or you simply want your life back, in fairness, you’ve done your bit All schools have their challenges but they are of a different nature and scale in the most deprived communities.

Sadly, too many staff are giving up or being given up on.  In some challenging schools and areas you lose colleagues too quickly and too often.  It’s a tragic waste to talent and sometimes people’s professional lives dissipate in one year’s performance table headline figure.

Or Head Down, Look Out & Give Up

There is another option, when faced with disappointing outcomes you need to get your head down and thinking hat on I mean really start thinking deep and wide about what you are seeing.  Is there a pattern of underperformance across years evidenced in students’ outcomes or just a one year blip?  Don’t over react and avoid knee jerk blame games.  Headline figures can grab your attention – 5+A*-CEM or L4+RWM – but what about progress or achievement data?  Don’t try to find an excuse but cohorts are different and so attainment doesn’t always show the full picture.  Digging beneath the data to find out what the issue is, is half way to solving the problem.  There is sometimes a lack of careful analysis followed by highly targeted and effective action.  Instead there is blunderbuss panicked approach of doing everything, looking busy and eventually having little impact.  Determine a few areas which will have the greatest impact, then head down and get on with it.  Resilience will be crucial.

Photo Credit: Tom Hall via Flickr cc

Photo Credit: Tom Hall via Flickr cc

Look out for inspiration, support and ideas.  Getting involved in the SSAT System Redesign taught me so much professionally.  Shoot for the stars and even if you miss by a million miles you’re still in the stratosphere.  There are some people doing amazing things, their thinkingand aspirations appear without limits.  In 2007 Professor David Hargreaves, Sue Williamson and Kai Vacher pulled together a group of leaders from ten schools.  The now Sir David Carter (John Cabot), Sir Michael Wilkins & Julie Slater (Outwood Grange), Sir Dexter Hunt & Christine Quinn (Ninestiles), Derek Wise RIP (Cramlington), Peter Rubery (Fallibroome High School), John King (Gable Hall School), Derek Adam (Homewood School), Steve Baker (Lipson Community College) and Dave Harris (Serlby Park).  The tenth school was St. Mary’s, Blackpool and yours truly.  The game of spot the imposter in the room never took very long.  I learnt so much and now try to visit a few schools every year to talk about the great work they are doing.  It’s also why I read blogs.  When you’re in a challenging situation with your head down you can lose the wider perspective both in terms of what good really looks like but also what it is possible to do.  The bunker mentality that you need to succeed, “The World is against us but let’s pull together and show them” can all too often become “What can you do with these kids” if you’re not careful.  See no limits in visioning and then head as far as you can in the reality of a zero sum game.

If you’re going to improve I think you might have to give up doing so much.  The same effort has less impact if you spread yourself across too many things.  My greatest criticism of my own leadership (though others may well add to the list) is I tried to introduce too many things or do too many things.  I’m much more selective in what I commit myself or the academies to.  I’m not sure whether it’s the rather belated onset of some wisdom or just a product of age.  When you do too much thinking and actions become confused and muddled.

OFSTED Have Failed Blackpool

This is quite literal with the local authority being graded as not effective and half the secondary schools as inadequate.  I often think that the impact has been more chaos rather than improved things.  A school goes into a category, gets taken over by a new sponsor with all that entails and four terms later the new academy is graded inadequate again.  You can easily end up getting angry, I’ve lost colleagues as a consequence of inspection but to my knowledge no HMI have lost their jobs.  A new relationship is needed, Ofsted has to be responsible for improving the system.  If not they are essentially sat on Easy Street and we can’t afford passengers.

Blackpool doesn’t need more inspection it needs more improvement.

 It won’t happen but it would be very interesting to see the inspection resource become an improvement resource.  Blackpool Challenge has the huge job of getting everything aligned and focussed on the children – better outcomes and improved life chances the goal.

Blackpool Challenge logo

I’m sorry if you’ve had a tough summer results wise but please don’t rush to judgementremember head down, look out and give up.  The improvement journey is about long hard miles.  Make sure you have a sense of enjoyment, achievement and fulfilment about the miles travelled to date as you move onto the next stage.



7 thoughts on “When the Challenge Looks Overwhelming

  1. As an ex-Blackpool school student and a school leader, I find it incredibly hard to see that so many youngsters in Blackpool are being failed in their school. This was a really interesting read Stephen and I think you should be very proud about what you and the other school leaders are attempting to do with Blackpool Challenge. I truly hope that it becomes as successful as London Challenge. With a group of like minded leaders, that believe that every child deserves to have an outstanding education, and will accept no excuses, I have no doubt that in less than 5 years we will struggle to find a school in Blackpool which is less than good. Good Luck to you all!

    Posted by Lee Waring | September 13, 2015, 8:34 am
  2. We had our plummet last year and my ‘speech’ to staff was very much what you have said. We either had to say ‘oh sh*t’ & panic or say ‘bring it on’ , collectively roll up our sleeves and get on with it. All credit to a couple of staff who took the decision to realise the fight wasn’t for them & decided to move on. We have opened up our doors to others to support us and all staff have been into other schools to magpie ideas. We have had a no holds barred look at ourselves & dumped a lot of stuff we were just ‘doing’. Staff well-being has been a high priority & there have been significant changes from top to bottom. We were threatened by LA, I have only shared a minimal amount of those meetings with staff, no-one needs to hear the kind of language they were using & it still makes me shudder & drains the blood from my face. We have worked (excuse my language) bl**dy hard, had a decent Ofsted team who recognised immense cohort issues and a school moving forward rapidly and a 35% increase in results meant a summer where I was able to sleep through the night. The LA, true to form, are ‘happier’ but have highlighted where we lack in 4b-ness. New tests, scaled scores, increased deprivation and no levels are yet more for us to contend with so the ‘bring it on’ motto is still very much in our minds.

    Posted by Dorastar | September 13, 2015, 8:38 am
  3. “If you’re going to improve I think you might have to give up doing so much.”

    These are words that all leaders should have on the top of theory “to do” and “delegation” lists. Simply creating a long list of improvements/initiatives and passing these down the line expecting them to be achieved is usually a recipe for disaster. For me, it is when schools try to make changes in every aspect of the school in order to try to meet every Ofsted sentence and paragraph that things become overwhelming. Leaders often expect staff to develop SMART obectives but rarely apply the same standards to themselves I find.


    “Shoot for the stars and even if you miss by a million miles you’re still in the stratosphere.”

    This sort of has face validity, but unfortunately does not stand up to scrutiny. If you aim for our nearest star and miss by a million miles you will not be in the stratasphere of either earth or the star you are aiming for.

    If you aim for a star and miss by a million miles you will have succeeded because that would be an extraordinarily acccurate effort.

    The idea that if one develops completely unreasonable expectations for performance then learners and educators will accomplish more than if reasonable expectations had been used is I think misguided.

    I believe the first quote above is simply a restatement of the second.

    Anyone who shoots for the stars and ends up in the stratosphere has really not done awfully well if they used enough resources (emotional and other) to get to the stars. Shooting for the stars is perhaps the reason so many teachers suffer stress, breakdown and a feeling of failure.

    An excellent post, inviting reflection. As always.

    Thank you

    Posted by Brian | September 13, 2015, 1:37 pm


  1. Pingback: ORRsome blogposts September 2015 | high heels and high notes - September 30, 2015

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