TV head wants to help 'disappeared' school leaders

James Pope, whose former school was put into special measures during filming for a television show, says leaders with good track records are being 'kicked out'

John Roberts

James Pope

A headteacher whose former school failed an Ofsted inspection on primetime TV wants to start a movement of “disappeared” school leaders who have been driven from the profession.

James Pope said he was launching Heads Up to both support school leaders who have been “kicked out for one perceived failure” and to ensure their experience is not lost to the education system.

Mr Pope aims to bring together 250 school leaders who have either been driven out of the profession, or who feel under pressure, to debate how things could be done differently.

He told Tes that school leaders were being driven out or put under unsustainable pressure by a system that "demands and celebrates instant school improvement" .

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He said this meant schools were losing good leaders and others were being asked act against their own ethics in order to achieve results.

Now Mr Pope is looking to bring together what he describes as “disappeared heads” following his own experience of having his leadership rated as inadequate.

His lowest point in school leadership was captured on the BBC’s School series as Marlwood School, in South Gloucestershire, went into special measures.

The school was given this Ofsted report in July 2017. Pope resigned a year later, four months before the programme aired. He now runs an education consultancy.

He said: “The story was going to be, 'How do you take a school like mine – where we were faced with having to save ridiculous amounts of money – and still improve it?'

“Everybody in the community knew the school was improving – it was happening. But then Ofsted came and said the school was crap, put it in special measures and said it was inadequate, and then that of course changed the narrative arc of the TV programme.

A 'perfect storm'

“From that point of view, it was a perfect storm," Mr Pope said.

He added: “What the TV programme picked up was the human cost, the fall out from the Ofsted judgement. The hardest thing I have had to do was walk across to an assembly with the pupils to tell them that Ofsted had found us to be inadequate, because it is felt by the whole school community."

Mr Pope said when the programme was aired he was inundated with messages of support and people sharing similar stories. 

“ I was just appalled at the scale of this across the system. The number of people who got in touch and said either they were being pushed to behave in certain ways, or they felt vulnerable or indeed they had already left the system. The idea for Heads Up snowballed out of that.”

Mr Pope said he did not think Ofsted was the problem, but rather the way the school accountability system works.

Last week a group of former and current heads met in Liverpool to start Heads Up and talk about their experiences of having left school leadership, or considered leaving, because of these pressures.  

Mr Pope said: “The TV programme has given me a platform, and what I am saying is there are hundreds of people stood behind me who you as an audience can’t see. 

“The system is losing people. Some find a way back in, some might work on the periphery of the system and some disappear altogether, but ultimately we are talking about people who the system has already invested in massively in terms of training and support.

'You make a perceived mistake on a particular metric and you are gone'

"Most of those people have already got a really good track record in schools but then you make a mistake, or rather a perceived mistake on a particular metric and you are gone. I just don’t think we can afford to do that.”

Mr Pope said he plans to organise a Heads Up conference to take place next year. 

He says the idea is to put together a movement of school leaders who "might otherwise not know how many people are out there in the same situation as them".

The group would also look to make positive recommendations about how to improve the education system. 

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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