The Interview - 'There isn't a typical day for me'

28th August 2009 at 01:00
Sir John Rowling co-runs education consultancy PiXL, which works with more than 70 schools in the South East by creating a network for leadership and helping them achieve their best results
  • How did you get into teaching?
    • I wanted to be a teacher ever since I was about 13 or 14. I was taught by a brilliant mathematician called Tom Cox who got me fired up. He was a fantastic role model. I did an MA after my maths degree and then went straight on to teach at the Royal Grammar School.

      • Did you have your sights on headship?
        • I just enjoyed whatever I was doing at the time and I didn't think much beyond that. Things happened to me as a consequence of what I was doing. I didn't think: "How can I get to be a headteacher?" In fact, for 10 years I never even looked in The TES for jobs because I was so engaged with the pupils in the school. But once I got into deputy headship, I knew I wanted to be a head. I've learnt a lot since. I wish I knew then what I know now.

          • What makes a good headteacher?
            • It's about leadership, not management. It's about empowering and envisioning other people. You can have a good school if you're a good manager, but you'll never have a great school unless you develop leadership talent. And I'm still trying to do that.

              • What made you go into consultancy as opposed to working with one school?
                • I was asked to by the Government. Nunthorpe School was listed on the Department for Children, Schools and Families' Leading Edge Scheme, so some DCSF members from Darlington came to see what we were doing.

                  When they heard that I was retiring they asked me to work with them on the IndependentState Schools Partnership scheme. On the one hand, I didn't want to leave my school, but on the other, I didn't want to stay five more years, which I would've had to do to see the current year through to sixth form. I thought it'd be best to give someone else the chance to do that.

                  • In summer 2008 more than 73 per cent of schools working with PiXL got their best results, some for the third or fourth year in a row. Why has it been so successful?
                    • There are three things that are important in bringing about change. Firstly, you've got to have a dissatisfaction with the status quo. If you're happy with the way things are, nothing will change. But it's important to build that in people without making them feel they're deskilled, or useless. The second thing is you have to have an attractive vision that fires you up. The third is having a systematic razor-sharp plan that is well thought through, built on sound, educational philosophy and planned systematically to bring about outcomes. It's getting to people's feelings about why they got into the business in the first place.

                      • Is there any one achievement that you're most proud of?
                        • I'm proud of all of them. Last year, we achieved nearly twice the London average (5 per cent increase) across 56 schools in London. That's significant and hard to do.

                          • Do you think there is a problem with young people today?
                            • When you read any history, you find that the generation always had a problem with young people. I think there's a bit of that today. Now there are some pupils who you'd need a miracle for because they're damaged in one way or another, but with the right leadership, with really good teachers who have the right attitude, pretty much any kid can be lifted.

                              • What's a typical day for you?
                                • There isn't a typical day. Both Richard Ford and I spend a lot of time in schools. We're not consultants who are far removed from the world of education, coming from ivory towers telling people what to do. We meet headteachers, senior leadership teams and staff. I meet pupils, go into classes, and we try to keep our feet on the ground.

                                  • Who has been your greatest influence?
                                    • In leadership terms, the written work by Michael Fullan from the University of Toronto has been very influential, particularly Leading in a Culture of Change. I have been influenced by lots of writers, but the people who inspire me the most are the people I work with now in PiXL.

                                      • If you were Schools Secretary for the day, what would you do?
                                        • I would try to inspire people. I think we have to think about how to get people empowered. John Cotter said there are four reasons that fail to get people inspired, one of them being: "We write memos instead of lighting fires," and that's the most important thing in my view. I would try to think of some ways that we could light the fires of the people who will make the difference.

                                          • What's the worst excuse you've ever heard?
                                            • We work on the principle that most things are possible, if you get past logistical obstacles. Many people give you logistical reasons why something can't be done or blame somebody else. There aren't many things that need to be excused logistically

                                              Curriculum vitae

                                              • 2008 - Founded PiXL, formerly the London Performance Collaborative project, with Richard Ford, previous head of Archbishop Tenison's CE High School in Croydon, after DCSF funding was removed
                                              • 2008 - Awarded visiting professorship at St Mary's University College, Twickenham
                                              • 2003-2008 - Headed the DCSF's Independent State Schools Partnership then moved to the London Performance Collaborative project
                                              • 1984-2003 - Nunthorpe School, Middlesbrough
                                              • 1974-1984 - Hirst High School, Ashington
                                              • 1964-1974 - Royal Grammar School, Newcastle. Maths teacher, then head of sixth form.

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