This One’s Optimistic

The music video for Radiohead’s “No Surprises” features a single close-up shot of Thom Yorke, their frontman, inside a deep sea diving style domed helmet. During the video, the lyrics of the song slowly scroll upwards, mirrored and reflected off the dome.

Following the first verse, the helmet begins to fill with water. Yorke continues to sing whilst trying to lift his head above the rising water level. Once the bubble completely fills, Yorke appears to be motionless for over a minute.

At this point, the water is released and Yorke resumes singing.

“You have turned me into this. Just wish that it was bulletproof”

In September 2018, I began my first headship.

I had the chance to do so whilst continuing to work with a brilliant Executive Principal in Ruth Robinson who did and will continue to challenge and support me. I’d also continue to have the challenge and support of what’s now the biggest Multi-Academy Trust in the country and all of the expertise that brings with it – from the CEO, Sir Jon Coles, and Director of Academies, Dame Sally Coates to the Regional Directors who have been exceptionally successful Headteachers or held very senior positions in Ofsted.

In taking the step into headship, with this level of support and professional challenge, I found myself in a very privileged position indeed.

I’d had a fortuitous sequence of years building up to this point.

I’d had the chance to work with some great people as Head of English, Literacy Consultant, Assistant and Vice Principal. I held the knowledge I’d built up from each of these roles and all of those people.

I’d been fortunate to work with and observe some of the most amazingly skilled teachers alongside students they cared for deeply.

I’d been lucky enough to attend training led by Paul Bambrick Santoyo and Doug Lemov, who (and this seems a little surreal now) had visited the school I’d been working at, as had Bruno Reddy, Harry Fletcher Wood, Matt Hood and David Didau.

I’d seen education at its best and at its worst.

I’d been in schools where smart leaders who had humility and a hunger to see all of their students do well had developed fantastic leadership teams and I had worked with leaders who hadn’t a clue what they were doing so no one else did either. I’d been in schools where there was a strong culture, where routines were embedded and where behaviour was exceptional as well as schools where there was a culture of every teacher for themselves so behaviour was dire. I’d seen intelligent curricular planning and worked with emotionally and intellectually smart teachers and I’d worked with teachers who were lost and demoralized in the midst of planning everything from scratch with almost no help.

“If you think that you’re strong enough. If you think you belong enough. If you think that you’re strong enough. If you think you belong enough.”

The school I inherited as headteacher had already gone through a substantial cultural change. From the point of becoming an academy in 2014 it had turned behaviour around. Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, had visited and said that, “huge progress has been made” – that it was a school where children were improving their life chances.

Attainment had, as a result, also improved. Sir David Carter who was Regional Schools Commissioner for the south west and went on to be National Schools Commissioner visited the school when it had almost doubled the percentage of students achieving 5 passes at GCSE in a single year.

He said, “Students and staff have delivered some amazing GCSE results this year. This places the academy as one of the three most improved schools in the South West which is a brilliant achievement for everyone here.”

Everyone was very proud.

A number of fundamental challenges remained:

  • Though there had been a marked and welcome improvement in attainment, the Progress 8 measure highlighted just how much higher attainment should be.
  • The curriculum at the school had narrowed. Provision for subjects outside the EBacc suite had been reduced substantially.
  • This narrowing of the curriculum and the resultant reduction in staffing in sport, the arts and design had also caused a reduction in the school’s extra-curricular provision.
  • The focus on academic attainment had caused a reduction in focus on the personal development of students.
  • Students and the whole community needed even more to buy into – a clear school set of values, a strong tutor system, house system, student leadership opportunities.

Attainment was good but the heart of the school was not fully fighting fit.

I’d read Dame Sally Coates Headstrong, Vic Goddard’s The Best Job in the World, Jill Berry’s Making the Leap and Paul Bambrick’s Leverage Leadership. I was also two thirds of the way through my NPQH so thought I had a good idea about what my “first hundred days” as a headteacher would be like.

Alongside getting to know the staff team, the students and the community, I knew that development in these key areas would be priorities for my first year in post and beyond.

Having worked with others to put together an ambitious improvement plan and broken this down term by term I reached Christmas of the first year feeling like we’d been moving well in the right direction. We’d set off with a much stronger focus on progress, improved curriculum planning, broadened the curriculum offer, introduced a clearer model of teaching based on Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction and Teach Like a Champion, brought in a structured PSHE programme, re-introduced a house system, held new competitions and set up our refreshed extra-curricular programme.

On the night of our staff Christmas party I didn’t drink as I was driving but I was keen to celebrate what had been achieved so far. I knew we hadn’t got everything right. I was concerned about the progress of the students for whom we received pupil premium funding and the work ethic of our high prior attaining boys, but I did feel really positive as I arrived home for the weekend.

The next day, I found myself in hospital for the first of three visits that academic year.

“I wanna live, breathe. I wanna be part of the human race. I wanna live, breathe. I wanna be part of the human race, race, race, race.”

I didn’t sleep at all that night. The pain was utterly excruciating. I thought something evil was inside me and wanted someone else to take it out.

Quickly please.

For some reason I’d imagined that, if I were ever to call for an ambulance, it would be for someone else, and that if I ever needed an ambulance someone would call for it for me. At two thirty in the morning, my delirious logic told me that, if I were well enough to call for an ambulance then I couldn’t possibly be unwell enough to need one. Instead, I called 111, thinking they might tell me I needed to call for an ambulance. Please.

Instead, they told me to see if I could wait it out til the morning then visit the local hospital in the next town along.

Following a night of zero sleep, a painful journey to the community hospital, a quick check up followed by a journey on to another larger hospital, an x-ray, a scan, care from some fantastic NHS staff, and a couple of nights on the ward, I was told I had gall stones – something which, as soon as you find out you have, you also discover everyone else has had too.

A couple more nights in hospital, a round of antibiotics, the disappointment of missing the school Christmas dinner, Christmas show, Christmas jumper day and Christmas Festival all saw me through to Christmas. I made it in for the last couple of days of term having done all I could to work with my SLT to run the school remotely via a mobile phone.

I had a wait on for an operation, but planned to stay healthy and hit the ground running in the new year.

“If I could be who you wanted.If I could be who you wanted all the time.”

Hospital visit #2 happened on New Year’s Day 2019.

The pain was back, but this time it was accompanied by a cough which clearly meant business.

I was initially seen by two junior surgeons who decided it was flu. I knew it wasn’t flu.

“Is it possible it isn’t flu and that it’s the gall stones?”

“No. It’s definitely flu.”

“But the pain is the same and this time it’s on both sides. Could it be the gallstones. And it’s this side too. Isn’t that where my appendix is?”

“No. It’s flu.”

“Yes. It’s flu. And anyway, it’s never three things. It’s always just one thing which sometimes makes you think you have other things.”

“Ok. But I definitely think I have the other things.”

The scan I had showed I had the other things and that it was pneumonia rather than the flu. A triptych of conditions: pneumonia, appendicitis and gall stones. The junior surgeons were lovely but shocked. It’s never three things at once.

Another physically and psychologically painful sequence of weeks away from school dosed up on more antibiotics and pain killers and a low fat diet and it was back on the mobile phone.

You can try the best you can, but there’s no doubt it’s incredibly difficult to run a school properly from a mobile phone.

“Fitter happier more productive comfortable not drinking too much”

Hospital visit #3 followed more extremely familiar pain in the spring. This time, thankfully, they decided to operate to take out the evil things from inside of me.

At this point, the water is released and Yorke resumes singing.

That’s right isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Well no. Not quite yet.

“Nice dream, nice dream, nice dream.”

Despite getting back into school from Easter to the end of the academic year and, thanks to the efforts of students, their families and our staff, securing the best results a cohort had achieved at the school, this was actually the bit where the bubble completely fills and Yorke appears to be motionless for over a minute.

September arrived and people were saying to me, “I expect you’re looking forward to having a normal year at school aren’t you?”

For the next six months I delighted in the normality. Normal shows, normal mock exams, normal clubs, normal lessons and even a normal Christmas.

Nobody used the words lockdown, mask, sanitizer, asynchronous, isolation or bubble. We just had normal words for normal times.

Sometime around December though, people started talking about a rapidly spreading virus in China and the possibility of a pandemic. Sometime around January, the virus spread to the UK. Sometime around March, the virus was in our town near our school, near our students and their families.

In all this time we carried on as normal, with assemblies and lessons and interventions with Year 11 and sports and shows and trips, but the bubble was filling up with the water forcing normality out.

“Here we are with our running and confusion. And I don’t see no confusion anywhere.”

In the week beginning 9th March 2020 there were still plenty of ordinary, quite normal things going on. The weekend before had been our SLT conference. It’s over this weekend that we map out our Improvement Plan for the academic year ahead. We set out an ambitious roadmap to take the school on the next step of its journey developing our curriculum and assessment practices, reshaping our teaching model and strengthening our house system, tutor time, extra-curricular programme, and PSHE provision.

There had been further talk of the virus at the conference over coffee and cake. It felt like it was moving closer to home. There was a rumour about the local Costa drive through. The hotel we were in was opposite the local Costa drive through.

Other countries were closing schools.

Could that happen here? Shouldn’t that be happening here? Would we be closing?

By Thursday 12th there was talk of Boris Johnson closing schools. It was the day of the Year 9 Options Evening and a trip to see An Inspector Calls in Cardiff. I called an additional staff briefing that afternoon after making it clear it was nothing to do with an Ofsted inspector calling. At that point, there was very little news other than to say that news seemed imminent – the intention was to reassure the team.

Over the coming days, these briefings became increasingly important as more news came through. By 17th March, shielding and social distancing had emerged, we were giving out exercise books and sending students home left, right and centre but keeping the school open. By 19th March, it was clear the school was almost entirely closing, but we were yet to tell the students. By 20th March we were closed and had sent our Year 11 cohort home – at that stage not knowing precisely what would happen to them but being sure we would support them come what may.

Since then we have:

  • “Closed”, but not closed. Twice.
  • Learnt how to be stronger teams on Teams and then even stronger teams off of Teams.
  • Opened for our most vulnerable students when we were “closed”, but not closed.
  • Learnt that guidance can turn on a sixpence quicker than a 1970s football player.
  • Learnt what 2 metres actually looks like.
  • Learnt how to rank order and do CAGs and rank order again and then do CAGs again.
  • Learnt what an algorithm is – even if we’re not a maths or a science or a computer science teacher.
  • Learnt what an algorithm can do to a CAG and that it would beat a CAG in top trumps.
  • Learnt how to do virtual assemblies and virtual open evenings and virtual open days and virtual staffrooms and virtual parents evenings and virtual awards assemblies and virtual teaching but we could do virtually anything anyway.
  • Redefined what a bubble is and then come to hate the word bubble even more than we wanted to evict Bubble from Big Brother.
  • Learnt how to be teachers with trolleys without being off our trollies.
  • Staggered on after staggered lunchtimes.
  • Learnt the difference between synchronous and asynchronous learning and then realised that we’d muddled them up.
  • Set up a testing centre.
  • Hoped for a return to testing meaning exams and not testing which means shoving a swab down your throat and up your nose

Next up: reopening for the second time. 8th March 2021.

In two weeks time we have our 2021 SLT conference. There’ll be no conference suite at a hotel opposite the Costa drive through but there will be additional an new members joining the leadership team and another seriously ambitious improvement plan ready to drive our school further along on its journey to excellence.

“When I’m at the pearly gates. This’ll be on my videotape. My videotape.”

In her book “Making the Leap” Dr Jill Berry argues there may be a difference between the leader you hope to be, the leader the school needs and the leader the school will allow you to be. An alertness to these three things can be helpful in making the transition into headship.

I’d never been a head before, but I have had to be keenly aware of these things over the past two and a half years.

I have survived being stuck inside a metaphorical diving helmet as the lyrics of the song slowly scroll upwards, mirrored and reflected off the dome.

I’m optimistic that the 8th March 2021 is when the water is released and Yorke resumes singing.

Anything is possible. I’m optimistic.

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