'School leaders have become the instigators of our own downfall'

6th March 2017 at 15:45
Headship in the current climate
Heads have bought into the 'results means success' rhetoric, chased bigger and better Ofsted gradings and become distracted from our core role, argues one leading headteacher

At times, like most school leaders, I can be an arrogant fool. I open my mouth and two minutes later my mind decides to engage.

Usually it is too late. I am at my worst when reality pours shivering certainty down my back and leaves me vulnerable, grasping at solutions.

This week the cold hard facts of key stage 1 data (which I desperately tell anyone who doesn't ask, "I inherited!") came to call.

They kicked open my door and sat at my table, flashing their Begbie from Trainspotting stare: "Ye ken ah was coming? Whit ye bin daein' these lest few years?"

I would be a liar if I said I was not threatened or scared. Right now, in this climate of headship, super-high KS1 data coming into Years 5 or 6 is comparable to childhood beasts lurking beneath the bed, eyes quietly burning, or Freddy Krueger scraping his blades down the school corridor as you struggle to stay awake.

The inevitable fact that my days are more numbered than I would like comes rushing forth like the "dolly zoom" in Jaws.

I made a comment, a flippant and silly throwaway remark, in a senior leadership team meeting this week about the sanity of taking a job on knowing how high the KS1 data was.

I made a feeble joke which indicated that "I regretted the choice I had made"... half in jest and half as a plea for pity – like a lame dog looking for comfort or a cold and frail old man desperately searching for shelter. The arrogance of a man who thought that he could turn everything to gold crumbling away before his eyes.

I often say to new heads that your second year is the toughest. I was wrong, right now every year is your toughest.

I was once full of optimism and hope about what I did and what I could do. My KS1 data could easily be 10 other problems. I could quickly list many reasons why I might lose my job this summer, and Lord Nash was right about why a business mentality is needed in schools.

So, who is to blame for this current climate? Who has made headship such a toxic pill to swallow?

It must be the government? I am the first to be critical of mad and bad policy or ill-thought-out strategy, but the Department For Education gets off on this one (boo!).

Yes, the bar has been raised and expectations are very high but deep down I know that this is right. I expect us to keep challenging what is possible. Though, we need to stop thinking that test results are the best indicator of a good education. That we can measure what is best for our children via tougher timed tests. That is a folly.

So, I look to Ofsted. "Surely it must be Ofsted's fault?" I hear you cry. Again, I find little blame here.

Yes, grading schools is an issue. I remember, almost five years ago, when I first met Sean Harford (then deputy to Ofsted's national director), stating that schools should either be "good enough" or "not good enough". I really meant it then and it has some traction now.

This was after getting an "outstanding" grading. I never bought a sign or a banner but when schools get that grade they totally buy into the hype (I know I (shamefully) did for a while).

I think that we need to evolve; we are better than cheap headlines and sexy banners, aren't we?

The reverse is shame and damnation. I am horrified by some of the headlines I have read in recent Ofsteds where, after a day or two, massive sweeping leadership statements are made and careers can be destroyed. I already have my script prepared for Ofsted: if it steps on one goddamn myth, I am going to war!

Ofsted is in danger of undoing some incredible progress over these past few years, which would be such a shame. In my school support work I only hear negative stories; sometimes they are justified, too often they seem harsh and subjective.

'We must shoulder the blame'

So who is to blame?

I blame school leaders. Me, you, them and us.

We have created, nurtured and coerced the conditions that have brewed this perfect storm.

We have bought into the "results mean success" rhetoric; we have chased bigger and better Ofsted gradings; we felt good when the school up the road got graded lower than us: we the leaders have become the instigators of our own downfall.

We have bought into business ethics and pretended that our subjective view is the right one due to our leadership standing.

We have lost something collectively and become distracted from our core role: we were once teachers.

We have looked the other way as education has changed without rhyme or reason. We are divided by status, pay and a multitude of definitions of what our moral purpose really is.

This is not school leadership. This is the business of the education beast, in full swing. We only have school leaders to blame for this.

Maybe we are getting what we truly deserve.

What I hope is that it is not too late for some sense of integrity and out-of-vogue "moral backbone" to shine through. The profession must challenge the allure of six-figure salaries, knighthoods and Ofsted banners - and get back to the roots of being a headteacher: understanding what it is like to be a teacher. 

Brian Walton is headteacher of Brookside Academy in Somerset. He tweets as @Oldprimaryhead1

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