Reasons to be cheerful? Happier staff and students…

26th January 2018 at 00:00
If heads ‘go to work whistling’, they will foster a culture that inspires better learning, writes Lindsey Watt

December 2017 was my last Christmas as headteacher of Castleview. I retire next month. I ticked off the nativity, the last time I called over the tannoy to the janitor that Santa’s sleigh was on the roof, the ultimate staff Christmas hooley and the final time to be involved in collecting and distributing presents for children whose families face difficulties. The Castleview Christmas to-do list was a privilege to complete.

The arrival of my Christmas special birthday, when I became eligible for a bus pass, was a time for reflection as to how the post of headteacher has developed since I first became one in 1992, and to what the future might hold in this time of change.

I have had a blessed career, working for a supportive local authority, in seven schools in the city of Edinburgh where there is a compassionate camaraderie among headteachers.

On receiving the Robert Owen Award from education secretary John Swinney at the Scottish Learning Festival 2017, I said that I would accept the honour and try to use the generated publicity to change the public’s perception of what it is to be a headteacher – and to encourage other heads to “go to their work whistling”.

If the headteacher is cheerful, there is a greater chance that the school will be happy. I’m no Pollyanna. I have experienced challenging events. But I have always tried to demonstrate the Chumbawamba principle: when knocked down, I get back up again.

After the speech, I received many messages from teachers and headteachers, saying that they too had resolved to be more optimistic, resilient and joyful role models for their school families.

Since March 2017, five members of Castleview’s leadership team have moved on to other leadership posts: two to become depute headteachers, three to become heads.

At Edinburgh’s primary headteacher meetings, I sit amid several heads who once were members of my teaching team, which demonstrates my effective strategy of appointing team members who were far more capable than I was and then basking in their reflected glory.

If I had high expectations and aspirations for my pupils, I certainly applied this to staff. It is the job of a headteacher to nurture and encourage staff members to become future leaders and there should be no void left by their promotions to other schools. School leaders should ensure that aspirational, developing staff are in position, eager and ready to take their place.

Moving on

I leave my headteacher post to take on a role at Columba 1400, a Scottish leadership organisation supported by the Hunter Foundation and the Scottish government. They deliver leadership academies for headteachers, enabling them to shape educational change and transform the culture of their schools and learning communities.

Linked within the Scottish College for Educational Leadership framework, it is open to headteachers across Scotland. As I experienced when I was a participant in 2003, it can be life-changing, encouraging school leaders to review their commitment to and promotion of values-based leadership.

I wanted to be sure that I was in the best place to support all headteachers and recently I have trained as an associate assessor for Education Scotland. Previously, I had in jest referred to HMIE as “the dark side” – but after shadowing our school inspectors, I am impressed with their commitment to ensuring that headteachers and their teams have an amazing opportunity to shine a light on the good work of their schools.

The new inspection process is a chance for schools and Education Scotland to become partners in closing the attainment gap. May the force be with us.

I have also recognised that school leaders must be courageous to demonstrate how well their school delivers. They must not become overwhelmed by distracting external pressures, when the real driving force is delivering high-quality teaching and learning.

An exciting future awaits school leaders. The Scottish government has given strong commitment to developing a school and teacher-led education system, empowering our heads and their schools. Mr Swinney’s presentation of the Robert Owen Award to a Scottish primary headteacher gives recognition to the importance he attaches to their role. The introduction of the Headteachers’ Charter must enable heads the freedom to create a school family that suits the needs of their community. Columba 1400’s values of awareness – creativity, focus, integrity, perseverance and service – are a perfect starting point for school families to develop values sympathetic to their situation.

The media often presents a depressing, unrepresentative picture of education. Let’s promote a greater commitment to joy in Scottish education and across Scotland as a whole.

Repeatedly, Scotland tops the polls for the best place to live in the UK. The Scottish government’s commitment is that Scotland should not only be the best place to grow up but also the best place in which to learn.

Joyfulness is much underrated – yet without it clearly embedded in teaching and learning, how will we inspire the next generation?

We should all revisit Education Scotland’s How Good is Our School? report. Let us take a more positive view and think of leadership of change as joyful leadership of change.

At this time of transformation, let us grasp the opportunity to think imaginatively and with inspiration. We should encourage all involved in Scottish education to start each day as they mean to go on – whistling.

Lindsey Watt is headteacher at Castleview Primary School in Edinburgh. Last September, she became the first working teacher to win the Robert Owen Award for inspiring educators

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