Leadership - It's never too late to learn new tricks

18th July 2014 at 01:00
Sometimes it pays to take a risk and pull a fresh way of thinking out of the hat

I am a headteacher of a certain age. By that, I mean that I am a year away from retirement. Time to wind down, congratulate myself on a job well done and ensure that my legacy is lasting, you might think.

Not for me. Instead, I travelled to an island in the middle of the South Atlantic, where I learned a valuable lesson: visiting schools that are different from your own provides invaluable insights for school leaders, whatever stage you have reached in your career.

I work at Queensmill, a special school in London that caters for students with autism. It is a busy and vibrant place that is always looking at new ways of doing things, always debating, always researching. It is not, therefore, as if we are an inward-looking school in need of external insights.

But, equally, I would not have spent the last year of my teaching career coasting into retirement: Queensmill continues to progress apace. Every member of staff works at full stretch to ensure outstanding practice on the ground while constantly seeking to develop and improve. I was not in need of an adventure to occupy idle hours.

Step into the unknown

So why, at the end of a long career, did I decide to take a risk? The answer is autism. I agreed to travel to St Helena for three weeks to advise schools on the island on their provision for autistic students.

But there was more to it than that: there was value in the trip for me and for the island's schools, but there was also value for my own school and students.

It was salutary to see how the needs of children with severe and complex autism can be met with fewer material things to hand. It was a reminder of what can be achieved without the plentiful resources that many schools, including Queensmill, enjoy. There can be no excuse for autism provision not being as good as it should be.

The trip also helped me to better understand the mistakes that occur and the problems that exist in education when it comes to autism. Teaching at Queensmill, with all our resources, it is easy to forget the conditions under which others work.

I have always known of our students' affinity with the natural world, but never has this been brought home to me as vividly as it was in St Helena: here was the clearest possible evidence that the stresses of autism could be calmed by instant access to a green and pleasant land. Something about nature, greenery and the wind in the trees seems to speaks directly to the autistic brain, saying: "Don't worry. It will all be OK."

London, with all its noise and bustle, is a very difficult environment for our pupils. I might not have realised this so clearly had I not travelled to St Helena. Interestingly, a week after I returned, Queensmill's deputy headteacher took seven of our students on a camping trip. The pictures of our normally anxious pupils gazing rapturously at a campfire at dusk will remain with me for ever.

The trip taught me to value everything I have learned at Queensmill. I was anxious about working solo, far from the security of my specialist colleagues who so often help me to solve problems. However, I realised with great gratitude during my time on St Helena that the knowledge stays in your head. With the support of the island's like-minded and willing teachers, I carried on problem-solving. It was a fantastic demonstration of why sharing best practice with other schools is so important.

My message to other leaders is that you may well be in charge of a successful school but you always have new things to learn. Removing yourself from your comfort zone and putting yourself in a setting as different from your own as possible will improve you as a leader and improve your school, too.

Take a risk: go and see something different.

Jude Ragan is headteacher of Queensmill School in London. Read more about her trip to St Helena on the TES Professional blog

What else?

A study reveals how rugby can help autistic children to mingle more easily with their mainstream peers.

Read practical advice on teaching pupils with autism, whatever the age group or setting.

Try a teacher's tips for making language a pleasure and not a pain for autistic pupils.


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