Last June, we swapped our professional lives and saw each other's schools from the inside – King Edward VI School, a comprehensive in Bury St Edmunds, and Bedales, an independent boarding school in Hampshire.
A year on, having run a joint leadership conference (Liberating Leaders) in partnership with TES, we reflect on what we have learnt through five lessons for anyone thinking about working with a school in the “other” sector.
- You have more to learn than you think We both went into this project with a sense of bemused curiosity. There’s always something interesting to see when you visit another school. But neither of us had quite expected the insights we would glean into that mysterious scaffolding that forms a school’s ethos and values. We assumed we would be looking at something quite different. In fact, it was the similarities that struck us, as the stereotypes fell away.
- Involve both students and teachers The best bits of our jobs each day always involve students. During Keith’s visit to Suffolk, student leaders talked energetically to him about the upcoming general election. At Bedales, Geoff sat on a sunlit terrace at the rear of the headmaster’s house, sipping tea with students who had just used Keith’s kitchen to rustle up impromptu pancakes. That’s why we put students at the heart of the joint leadership conference. By involving an invigorating mix of school, business and student leaders, we found that all participants learnt more.
- Ensure the project (and your partnership) is one of equality Go into the partner school ready to look and learn. The experience was a reminder that schools are schools, teachers are teachers, and young people just that, whatever choices their parents may have made about their education. Our shared mission, we realised, was to help two great groups of students to get the best opportunities from the life that lies before them.
- Trusting and liking your fellow head is key The casual corridor hellos rather than the set-piece meetings, the walk-and-talk round our respective schools – these built our friendship. They gave opportunities for chat rather than analysis, and paved the way for the deeper stuff – the challenging questions, the exploration of approaches, and the realisation of why we do things the way we do.
- Relish the distinctiveness of each other’s schools That word “distinctiveness” kept resurfacing during our conversations. Coming from different contexts, we brought fresh eyes to what we saw. We gleaned what was distinctive in each of our schools. In a system that often pushes us towards bland conformism, what we liked most about our schools was what made them stand out. A sense of feisty independence and a celebration of distinctiveness is probably what we both gained most, and it’s what we put centre-stage at the Liberating Leaders conference.
Sir Michael Wilshaw said there needs to be more mavericks in the system. We had been deeming it “independence of spirit”, but, yes, he’s right. Let’s have more mavericks.
Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School and Keith Budge is headmaster of Bedales School.