Perspectives on School Leadership: Working Together in Surrey

“Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow,’ his name is today.”
Gabriela Mistral

Nothing is as important as improving the quality of teaching and learning in our schools.

After 20 months since we first went into lockdown it was fantastic to be able to meet with so many colleagues from schools across Surrey firstly at the Schools Sustainability and Resilience conference and also the Secondary Heads ‘conference.

Sometimes it is only when you can restart doing something after an enforced break, do you really appreciate how important somethings really are.

Whilst the two conferences had very different objectives, I have been reflecting that there was a common theme in both – the importance of community and the central role that leaders play in forming, shaping and leading those communities for the benefit of the children and young people in their care. This was beautifully summed up by Baroness Shami Chakrabarti when she said that heads are ‘Community Leaders as well as School Leaders’.

Thanks to Paul Foster, Headteacher at Warlingham School for the fantastic illustrations created during the conference.@pjf_paul

After 20 months since we first went into lockdown it was fantastic to be able to meet with so many colleagues from schools across Surrey firstly at the Schools Sustainability and Resilience conference and also the Secondary Heads’ conference.

Sometimes it is only when you can restart doing something after an enforced break, do you really appreciate how important somethings really are.

Whilst the two conferences had very different objectives, I have been reflecting that there was a common theme in both – the importance of community and the central role that leaders play in forming, shaping and leading those communities for the benefit of the children and young people in their care. This was beautifully summed up by Baroness Shami Chakrabarti when she said that heads are ‘Community Leaders as well as School Leaders’.

For me there were a few key takeaways from the two conferences – not necessarily new but worth being reminded of as we settle into this school year. Nothing is as important as improving the quality of teaching and learning in our schools.

I think that everyone acknowledges that the pandemic has exacerbated disadvantaged and vulnerable learner gaps. On Friday at the Secondary Heads’ conference, John Tomsett suggested that the only way that we can address this is by placing the improvement of the quality of teaching and learning as the single most important thing that a school leader can do.

‘A happy, healthy, motivated, highly-trained, expert staff (who turn up, day-in, day-out) is the thing which is most likely to help students make good progress in their learning. To that end, schools should put staff first. We know that great teaching is the only thing which will make a school truly great. It’s that simple.’

Creating a culture for truly great teaching and enabling curriculum development must be something that a head places at the centre of their work and must not be distracted from that mission. Lee Selby HMI, reminded colleagues at both conferences that with the resumption of routine Ofsted inspections the key focus is on the curriculum – the WHAT, the HOW and the IMPACT. If we get the curriculum and teaching and learning right, a school is fulfilling its core purpose and so prepared for Ofsted.

Middle leaders are crucial but need support and training.

But improving the quality of teaching and learning and curriculum development does not happen by chance and middle leaders are key to this. Laura McInerney shared with secondary heads statistics from TeacherTapp which showed that the stress levels of middle leaders during the pandemic were second only to the stress levels of headteachers. She appealed to heads to ‘protect middle leaders’. They are the bastions of curriculum development, the leaders of professional development and the central place for subject knowledge. John Tomsett urged heads to ring-fence middle leaders’ curriculum time – in his school his subject leaders had 71 hours a year of ring-fenced curriculum development – and to train middle leaders to lead improvements in teaching and learning in their subjects.

Inclusion is at the heart of all our work.

‘What is an inclusive school?’ ‘Are our schools as inclusive as we think they are?’ ‘What is within our sphere of influence to change?’ ‘How do we lead a culture of inclusion?’ These were some of the questions that heads considered in the session led by Alex Russell, Chair of the Inclusion Round Table and myself.

We have come a long way in moving towards a diverse, inclusive and more equal society but the statistics are stark and show how far we still have to go. Alex is clear that inclusion needs to permeate everything and is about changing our culture and behaviours.

This is not comfortable work but without it we will not create a school where everyone feels they ‘belong’. Some of the statistics are stark. But, what is encouraging is that over 50 heads are part of the Inclusion Round Table, prepared to give time, collaborate and actively find solutions to making a more inclusive Surrey school system.

Leadership is not always comfortable or easy but schools thrive on strong leadership.

We have seen what a remarkable job school leaders have done with their teams over the last 20 months; holding together their communities, continuing to deliver high quality education whilst dealing with increasing COVID cases and actually keeping the critical show on the road. As we saw on Wednesday at the Schools Resilience and Sustainability conference many school leaders have some difficult decisions to make in the near future about their structures and how they work. This creates some real uncertainty for many colleagues and schools at a time when they are also wanting to focus on their core business of curriculum development and improving the quality of teaching and learning.

But we have lived with uncertainty over the last year and a half and as Laura McInerney said to secondary heads ‘ Uncertainty is painful but the opposite of certainty isn’t certainty ….its community’. Look at what we have achieved. I also think it’s important to remember that we can be part of more than one community and that collaboration has never been more important – as Maggie Farrar reflected on Wednesday ‘The power of networking and partnership in a Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic and Ambiguous (VUCA) world.’ However, I would also urge leaders in the exploration of sustainable structures not to lose the focus on their core purpose – keep John Tomsett’s words in mind!

No one says that leadership is easy but the ‘unwarranted optimism’ and ‘endless intellectual’ curiosity of strong leaders will shine through. Jon Coles, CEO of United Learning the biggest academy trust in the country, started the secondary heads’ conference with the challenging statement ‘This is the most important year of our lives.’ I think he is probably right but with the ‘confident, creative and compassionate leadership’ that I see across our schools I think we are in a strong position to work with others to strengthen the sector, keep our focus on what matters, choose and create our own future whilst taking our share of responsibility for others, and ultimately improve opportunities for all children.

Maria Dawes

September 2021

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