The ‘12-year old headteacher’ saving her school

Is youth any barrier to leading a school? Emma Seith meets the woman known locally as ‘the 12-year-old headteacher’ who, after just four years of teaching, stepped up to help turn around the performance of her primary
10th January 2020, 12:04am
Meet The '12-year-old' Headteacher
Emma Seith


The ‘12-year old headteacher’ saving her school

At the age of 25, Emma Turnbull, who had been teaching for just four years, applied to become the headteacher of the primary school in which she was then working. She did not hold out much hope of being appointed, but she loved the school and, having worked closely with the head for two years, had developed a clear vision of how to improve it.

At Boddam School, near Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, there was also no career ladder to climb, other than making the jump to headteacher. With a roll of just 130 pupils, there were no principal teacher or depute head posts.

"I wasn't even expecting to get an interview because of how young I was and how early in my career I was," she recalls. "But when I did get that chance, I was determined - I had been given a chance I wasn't expecting so I just made the most of it."

Turnbull got the job and took up the post in November 2016. Two months later, she was in the classroom of the P7 class teacher after school, shooting the breeze and chatting about how the day had gone, when a phone call was routed to the room. It was her line manager at Aberdeenshire Council: the school was going to be inspected.

Turnbull - whose affectionate nickname locally is "the 12-year-old headteacher" - remembers the knot that formed in her stomach when she heard the news. Lest it became clear to her colleague what the call was about, she was only able to give one-word answers on the phone. She didn't want to set the hares running - not yet.

One word sums up what she felt in that moment, says Turnbull: disbelief.

"I knew [inspection] would happen at some point - I just never thought it would be when it was," she says.

"To start with, it was just disbelief: how on earth could this be happening?"

The inspection had come too soon. Turnbull had a vision for the school, but there had been no time to put it in place.

The inspection did not go well and the school was rated "weak" for learning, teaching and assessment, and raising attainment and achievement; it was rated "satisfactory" for leadership of change, and for ensuring wellbeing, equality and inclusion.

However, as difficult as that period was, Turnbull believes it provided the impetus for the progress she and her staff subsequently made, going from a "weak" inspection rating to a successful reinspection within just 40 school weeks.

It is a story of transformation that the inspectorate, Education Scotland, is keen for other schools to hear: Turnbull spoke about her experience at the Scottish Learning Festival last September and in 2018, a year in which she also addressed the Standing International Conference of Inspectorates.

In recent times, Education Scotland has tried to change the image of inspection from something that is done to schools, to a process that is done with them. They want inspection to be seen as supportive, not something to be feared. But, given that inspections still result in ratings, many teachers and heads continue to perceive them as something to dread.

'Negative stories travel'

Greg Dempster has been the general secretary of primary school leaders' body AHDS for the past 15 years. He says that over the period - despite the efforts of Education Scotland to change the way the process is perceived - inspection has remained a daunting and stressful experience for heads.

"When you have someone coming in from outside to tell you whether you are doing well or badly, and they are going to publish a report about it, people are always going to be anxious and nervous," says Dempster. "The negative stories about inspection travel a lot more easily than the positive ones."

Short-notice inspections were trialled in Scotland several years ago but were never widely introduced. Dempster would like them to become the norm, taking the notice period ahead of inspection - which he says heads consider to be most stressful part of the process - down from over two weeks to just two days.

Really, though, he would prefer the focus of inspection to completely change so that it is no longer on individual schools, but instead on the capacity of education authorities, "to know and support their schools on an ongoing basis".

"Council quality-support systems should be the focus because that's going to have more of a systemic impact than looking at individual schools on an irregular basis," he says.

When Boddam was inspected in 2017, it had been at least a decade since the school's previous inspection, says Turnbull.

In 2018, Tes Scotland revealed that some Scottish schools had not been inspected for 16 years and more than a fifth of all schools had not seen an inspector for a decade.

The revelation prompted some tough questions about whether inspection was worth doing at all if it was so infrequent. However, up-to-date figures obtained by Tes Scotland show that both the number of inspectors and inspections has risen in recent years: 252 inspections were carried out in 2018-19 - the highest number since 2010-11, when the total was 279. Just 141 inspections were carried out in 2014-15 and 182 in 2017-18.

However, even with this higher rate of inspection, most schools are still unlikely to be inspected more than once every 10 years.

Education Scotland says the benefits of inspection include providing schools with a clear sense of direction, increasing the pace of change in existing improvement work and boosting staff confidence in their professional skills. Turnbull would certainly echo all of this - although she was not always so confident that her first inspection would be a good thing. At the time, she had huge concerns, even fearing that the inspectors might question the council's decision to appoint someone so young, and that her headship might be over before she had really got going.

She also talks about a sense of impending doom ahead of the publication of inspectors' findings. Ultimately, however, Turnbull received only a few inquiries from concerned parents, and they were willing to accept her words of reassurance.

"I do distinctly remember Aileen Monaghan [the lead inspector] trying to tell me I would look back and see this as a positive and really important part of our journey, but at the time I just did not believe her," she says. "I just could not see how I would ever see it as a good thing to happen. But I definitely do now because it gave me such clear targets.

"There was also a clear timeframe: we knew they would be back again in 15 months. And because Education Scotland are the people telling you this needs to be done, it empowers you - the top people are saying this needs to be done, so we need to do it."

Turnbull believes she and her staff would have made the necessary improvements anyway - she is full of praise for them and their commitment to the school - but the inspection process focused their minds and got them there faster.

Shared understanding

It is a story that should make other schools prick up their ears and take notice, given the latest Scottish government figures show that about half of the schools inspected over a three-year period also struggled to get above a "satisfactory" rating for learning, teaching and assessment, and raising attainment and achievement. Between August 2016 and June 2019, the National Improvement Framework - which monitors the performance of the education system - recorded that, of the 363 schools inspected, just over half (54 and 53 per cent respectively) managed to achieve ratings of "good" or better for these indicators.

For Turnbull, it was a case of finding big areas of improvement that would address lots of areas of feedback: "The focus was on proving to the inspectors that we could make the changes, but I was clear we were not doing it for the inspectors. Yes, we wanted to show them, but really we were making these improvements for the children. It was about keeping that at the centre."

One of the key changes - which Turnbull describes as the "basis of what we built our improvement on" - was creating a shared understanding in the school of what good learning and teaching looked like among staff, after the inspectors had found the quality of teaching across the school to be "inconsistent and variable".

After consulting with pupils, the school then summarised the key features of a good-quality lesson so that they fitted onto one sheet of A4 paper. The advice encourages teachers to, among other things, discuss prior learning with their pupils; tell them what success looks like; make effective use of technology; and use feedback and real-world contexts.

"We talk about good learning and teaching, and there's often an assumption everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet," says Turnbull. "But we needed to get a good level of consistency across the school and have everyone understanding, from nursery to P7, what the core effective ways of learning and teaching are."

The school was also told that expectations of learners were not "consistently high", and that staff needed to ensure tasks and activities were "differentiated effectively". To this end, the school introduced "chilli challenges" to make sure that the pace and challenge in lessons was right; now, children can select tasks that are easy (one chilli), medium (two chillies) or hard (three chillies - the vindaloo tasks and activities), although teachers will intervene if they think the child is getting the level wrong.

Activity carousels were also introduced in response to the observation that children were not "involved actively in their own learning" and that lessons were "often too teacher-led". Now, when children are learning about something, they get to engage with it in four different ways and move around various stations, where they tackle a series of tasks on the same theme. At Boddam, one of the stations will usually involve technology.

The school has also taken action to ensure that children experience a broad curriculum. Learning and teaching now runs on six-week cycles, at the end of which teachers will assess their pupils' progress, although there is also an expectation that assessment is ongoing.

When inspectors came back in 2018, Turnbull says she took a "you said, we did" approach, and continued to be open and honest about where the need for improvement lay. She points out that trying to hide the faults just makes it look like you do not know your school. Ultimately, the inspectors concluded that the school had made "good progress", and they disengaged, saying they were confident that it had the capacity to improve.

Now, at the ripe old age of 29, Turnbull has also taken on the acting headship of Dales Park School in Peterhead, although this will end after the Christmas holidays when the new head takes over.

Might it be that the headteacher shortage leads to more opportunities for ambitious young teachers like her to step into leadership roles? Turnbull thinks it will and that there are advantages to coming into the role early. She has no dependants, she points out, and plenty of energy for the notoriously long hours headteachers have to work. However, for someone who rose so rapidly, after three years leading Boddam, Turnbull shows no signs of having itchy feet and wanting to move on to the next challenge.

"It would be a big decision to move on because the staff and the community feel like family," she says. "At the moment, I'm definitely settled where I am."

Emma Seith is a reporter at Tes Scotland. She tweets @Emma_Seith

This article originally appeared in the 10 January 2020 issue under the headline "The kids are alright - at headship"

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