Leadership - How a cry from the heart led to a red-letter day

12th June 2015 at 01:00
Educating Essex head's blog prompts visit by Nicky Morgan

When Vic Goddard penned an open letter to the education secretary, pouring out the frustrations and fears that come with being a headteacher, he had no idea of the reaction it would provoke.

Nor did the reality television star and principal of Passmores Academy, Harlow, expect Nicky Morgan to rush to take up his invitation to try one of the school's now famous lattes. But last Thursday, only a week after the Educating Essex head had published his online letter, she arrived with cameras in tow to speak to him.

In his letter, Mr Goddard bares his soul about the daily stresses he faces and the pressures of being a headteacher in the current climate. He speaks of his ulcers and anxieties about losing "the job that I love" if his school doesn't meet the government's floor targets.

His honesty generated a huge reaction on social media - and a visit from the secretary of state.

The timing wasn't ideal, what with exams, admission appeals and the small matter of an Ofsted visit to one of the primary schools under Passmores' sponsorship. Nevertheless, Ms Morgan was led to a Year 7 English class where students were working in groups discussing Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Not a single child looked up to notice the education secretary in their midst, but Mr Goddard had Ms Morgan where he wanted her.

"I know certain parts of the political establishment aren't fans of group work," he said, smiling, "so I thought we'd start here."

Standing at the front was "the excellent" English teacher Stephanie Hill, whom Mr Goddard had to hire from Australia. "It says something that you can't hire an English teacher in the home of Shakespeare," the principal said pointedly.

Not only that, but Ms Morgan's policies did not appear to tackle the problems schools were facing now, he added.

A mile in someone's shoes

"I know she hears what we are saying, but whether she understands it, I don't know," Mr Goddard said after speaking privately with the minister. "Wednesday has become headteachers' new Friday, because if they get to the end of Wednesday they know Ofsted won't be coming."

Sitting in his office trying unsuccessfully to keep cool in the intermittent breeze of a fan, Mr Goddard explained: "Until you walk a mile in someone else's shoes, it's difficult to really understand. She won't understand the relentless pressure we feel."

The principal used his time with Ms Morgan to urge her to act as headteachers' protector. "The 2015 headteacher standards say that heads must be the guardians of the nation's schools," he said. "I want her to be the guardian of the guardians, and a champion of our education system."

The education secretary told TES that she did understand the pressures on heads and their staff, which was why she had taken up Mr Goddard's offer of a coffee.

"Of course I appreciate it; I talk to headteachers all the time," she said. "I hear from headteachers all the time. My brother is a teacher, my mother-in-law is a retired teacher, so of course I understand the pressures."

Ms Morgan later added: "My duty is to support the excellent headteachers. I do my best whenever I am giving an interview. I always say: `There are excellent schools and excellent teachers up and down the country.' Of course, that never gets reported. What gets reported is that I am going to take people on and bash people over the head.

"But I am also very conscious that I am there for the students and their parents as well."

The problems facing schools, Ms Morgan said, were being exacerbated by the mainstream media. The negative reporting of education and the language used by the press was "putting people off" from joining the profession.

"I have been very careful about the language I've used this week, which has been all about working with schools - particularly those where the results aren't as good as we want them to be and [where] children aren't being stretched," she said.

Mr Goddard believes that if those words fail to translate into action, then headteachers will have a duty to act.

"It's about being brave and standing up for what we believe in," he said. "There are enough brave heads out there. I want to organise a little public disorder - but in a headteacherly way. I think if we do that, we will see some change."

Why Nic met Vic: excerpts from the letter

  • "I work in and for the system you helped create. I do so with every ounce of energy I have, as can be witnessed by how much I have slept this week and how many ulcers I have."
  • "My job as headteacher is to shield my community from these worries: the stick-on grin, the up and at 'em demeanour. Believe me, I work hard at those things."
  • "I can let you know first-hand in a non-blobenemy-of-promise way exactly how challenging [being a headteacher] is right now."

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