Does your head in

A little over two years ago I sat in the most depressing meeting of my life.

I was in the meeting because it was about the future of my son’s school and I was, at the time, the vice-chair of the board of governors. Let me be candid, I was massively unqualified for this position. I’d signed up as a governor because the school was failing – staff turnover was sky-high, pupil numbers were dropping, parents were complaining, the school – once a happy and friendly place – seemed to be under a hovering cloud of doom, and I wanted to know why.

Some things I learned very quickly:

  1. If you’ve never worked in education then there’s a tonne of stuff involved in running a school that you know absolutely nothing about.
  2. Failing schools haemorrhage governors, because when OFSTED finally rock up to the front door and see that the place is dead it’s you that they’re going to ask for an explanation.
  3. Every other factor aside, if you join the governing body of a school that’s already failing then you won’t understand what’s going on or why it’s going wrong. The people who do understand – the long-term governors and the senior-leadership team – will be the ones who caused the problems, and they’ll be leaving or trying to keep you in the dark.

I was proposed as chair in my first governors meeting, because nobody else wanted to do it. I managed to refuse, thank god, and held off for 6 months before accepting the vice-chair position.

Hence, a year after first becoming a governor, I was in the meeting I mentioned. Sat next to me was the new headteacher, not yet in post, that I’d recruited for the school. She was about to become the 5th head, acting-head or interim head that I’d worked with in my year as a governor.

We were meeting with someone very senior from the local authority, to try to get the school back on track. He listened to our problems; pupil numbers were falling, which meant the school’s budget was also falling. The budget had previously been catastrophically mismanaged, departing staff hadn’t been replaced, while tens of thousands of pounds sloshed around in funds earmarked for pointless projects. The staff who remained were at the lowest point possible, previous under-performance had been overlooked because they were friendly with the last full-time head, long-term sickness was through the roof. Good teaching had not been demanded, taught or rewarded, meaning that bad teaching dominated the school, although the data had been, without any subtlety, massaged to hide the worst of it. Parents were in open revolt against the school, the PTA had collapsed, if OFSTED had inspected us that day we’d have been in special measures.

We told all of this to the local authority, and they said there was nothing they could do. They suggested we might be best off closing the school.

They said this as I sat next to the woman I knew had handed in her notice from her current job and who had agreed, eyes wide open, to come and take on our school.

I don’t know how she didn’t break down and cry. I damn near did.

The meeting finished. Life rolled on. The local authority did nothing. Nothing. Our new head teacher assumed her post and worked tirelessly for two years to turn the school around.

No, “turn the school around” is too small a phrase. If she’d had to rebuild it herself, brick by brick, it would have been less work than she’s put in.

She’s energised the staff, brought the teaching standard up to outstanding, implemented visionary plans on a shoestring budget, calmed parents, made hard decisions when they needed to be made, ensured that the data are exemplary in their accuracy and has recognised and rectified the deficiencies, from years of poor teaching, that they showed.

And she’s made the school a happy place again. It rings with optimism. You can’t walk through it when the children are there and not find yourself smiling or laughing at something that’s going on. You can’t read through the children’s books, or look at the school photos on their Twitter account, and not feel the love and attention that every child gets.

She didn’t break down and cry in that meeting, the most depressing I’ve ever sat in. She shed a few tears when, about 4 months into her tenure, OFSTED did visit, and rated the school as ‘Requires Improvements’…and then admitted that if their visit had been just a couple of months later, had given her just a few more weeks, then the school would have been ‘good’.

I was sitting next to her then as well, and I fully understand her frustration at being so close, and yet undone by OFSTED’s arbitrary schedule.

Then she got back on with doing her job.

How do you reward someone like that? What price do you put on someone who can shape the view of learning and education for hundreds of children? Someone who can make educaton something that they want, not something to be endured. Children who’ve benefited from her hard work will go on to a hundred different careers, each and every one of them facilitated by somebody too strong to be broken by a meeting that would have broken me like a dry twig.

The vast majority of her children will grow up to be tax-payers in this country and if they’re lucky, if they’re very, very lucky, their taxes will be paying for somebody as good as her.

She won’t get a pay rise this year.

Budgets are tight. Some people really resent that their tax is spent on teachers…but if the children of those people came to our school they’d still be loved, and taught brilliantly, and would benefit from every advantage that our head could possibly give them, and would, hopefully, turn out to be the kind of people who understand the difference between price and value.

3 thoughts on “Does your head in

  1. Great timing for this story as here in Australia a child right wing politician decided to get his name in the paper last week by whinging about the number of weeks holidays teachers get.

    I mean is there any doubt any doubt at all that teachers are the most underpaid profession? I mean they get paid a lot less than me and unlike me they have Student Debts and also unlike me their job actually makes a difference, thanks for this Andrew


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