The Interview - 'Trust your instincts every time'

5th June 2009 at 01:00
Simon Thompson, head of Notley High School in Braintree, Essex, has recently seen his school go from good to outstanding
  • What led you to teaching?
    • I took my degree in physics at the University of Edinburgh, having been brought up in North Wales, where my parents still live. It seemed like I was heading for a career in research science and I was more interested in people. Teaching seemed like a people job, so I signed up for it and I have to say I loved it.

      • How was your first year in the job?
        • Brilliant. But like a lot of people, my biggest challenge was getting to grips with the subject at a level that students could understand.

          • At what point did you think `I want to be a headteacher'?
            • If I am honest - from the moment that I started. I was very ambitious. I could see it was the role where you could bring about the most influence and change. So I set out to follow a traditional curriculum path to headship. I suppose it was a bit of a Michael Heseltine back-of-the- envelope moment - I knew I wanted to get to headship by the age of 40. And I did it at 38. I think it's all about planning. I advise staff who have ambitions to plan. I'm always amazed that people haven't set out their career plans. But we are all different.

              • What did you learn from the heads you worked for?
                • A lot. David Franklin at Chelmer Valley High School in Essex could not have been more supportive, helpful and developmental. He gave me every opportunity to grow and was both a mentor and coach to me and others. I could not have been more fortunate than to work with David. But also all the heads at the schools that I worked at have had great strengths. I have been lucky. I learnt different things from each.

                  • So what did you learn about leadership?
                    • Well, David is fantastic on devolved leadership. I have tried to emulate that. It is all about having great people working on the team. I am no control freak - so I try to devolve decision-making to others. At least I think I am not. Others may have a different take on that.

                      I think headship is about taking the strategic decisions. My key role is to work with the adults in the school developing how they work with the youngsters. I have a strong leadership team. Thanks to the great team and staff here we did brilliantly in our recent Ofsted inspection, going from good to outstanding. That only happens through teamwork.

                      • What is next for you?
                        • I love this school and every year brings new challenges. We are building a state-of-the-art sixth form centre with the other schools in the town, on our site. This has fulfilled my ambition to be head of a school with a sixth form. My next challenge has come to me. It has been a point of principle to make this a whole-town project. I am proud of what we have achieved.

                          • What is your stamp on the school?
                            • Again it is probably for others to say, but I saw my mission as taking the school from good to outstanding. And that was all about getting the right people on board. I try to foster an open, consultative approach, but of course in the end the head has to take the judgment. It has to be one you can live with because it's your responsibility. So I will listen to others, but in the end I have to believe in the decision. There are plenty of people who will give you advice, but they do not have to live with the results of any bad decision.

                              Ultimately I try to treat people in the way that I hope they would treat me. I am lucky that former heads took a punt on me, so likewise I am willing to let people have a go. Mistakes are bound to be made - it wouldn't be a school if they weren't. I don't believe in jumping on people when it goes wrong. Just try to learn and move on. I also try to judge people by quality and not quantity of years in the post. Trust your instincts first and last.

                              • What really satisfies you about your work?
                                • Going from good to great - or outstanding - and seeing youngsters at GCSE results time getting the grades that they didn't expect. Making real progress, often against the odds. That's what it is all about.

                                  • What would you do if you were Secretary of State for the day?
                                    • I would even up resources between schools and make sure that the funding that goes to some schools, like academies, goes to all and is not held back somewhere in the system. That way there would be a level playing field. Good heads know their schools and should be allowed to make decisions that directly impact on the school and not have to worry about jumping through hoops to get the funding. If it were possible I would reverse the Blair government's biggest educational error in my view and bring back the grant-maintained schools. That was a brilliant opportunity for heads and schools and we haven't quite got back there.

                                      • The worst excuse you hear?
                                        • I hate hearing youngsters on results day blaming everyone but themselves for their failings. They blame their school, teachers, exams and parents. In public they rarely admit to their own faults. A little bit more responsibility from us all would help the entire school system

                                          Curriculum vitae

                                          2004 - Headteacher, Notley High School, Braintree, Essex

                                          1998-2004 - Deputy headteacher, Chelmer Valley High School, Chelmsford, Essex

                                          1994-1998 - Head of science, Nobel School, Stevenage, Hertfordshire

                                          1991-1994 - Head of physics, Bishop's Stortford High School, Hertfordshire

                                          1989-1991 - Teacher of science and mathematics, Leventhorpe School, Sawbridgeworth, Hertfordshire.

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