The Power of Big Relationships

What better day to post a blog about “relationships” than on February 14th, St Valentine’s Day? Don’t worry: there are no love poems or red roses henceforth, just a good dose of research, neuroscience and common sense.

In any organisation, success relies so much on its staff. The phrase “you’re only as good as your team” or even “you’re only a strong as your weakest link” spring to mind. But surely that organisation has a moral obligation to invest in its staff to ensure their success? Surely that is mutually beneficial: staff success = organisational success.

In his book Leadership Plain and Simple, Steve Radcliffe said:

Basically, to get things done, we first generate possibilities and ideas of what could be. We then choose certain opportunities and priorities that we’ll plan to focus on. And then we’ll take actions inside those opportunities. And this leads to results.

2012, P55.

But there is something that is missing from the formula above. All of those components rely on one crucial element: relationships. You have to have relationships big enough to get the job done. And by ‘big enough’, Radcliffe means ‘strong enough’ or ‘good enough’.

If it were represented as a model, it would look like this:

James Kerr supports this idea; in his book Legacy he says:

High performing teams promote a culture of honesty, authenticity and safe conflict.

2013, P126

As a busy leader, it is easy to overlook this seemingly “fluffy” aspect of leadership. Who has time to spend on building relationships? How do you go about that in an INSET?

But one thing the last 12 months has taught me as a leader is the fundamental importance of spending time establishing, cultivating, broadening and deepening relationships. After all, who could have predicted that so many teams – who ordinarily worked in close proximity to each other – would be working remotely, adding a layer of complexity to relationships we had never experienced before.

Be under no illusion, relationships take time to establish, mature and take root. It is not a process that happens once and is done. It is an ongoing process that needs constant revisiting and refining.

In order to engage people, you need a relationship with them. If people feel listened to by you, feel that their opinion matters to you, believe that you actively want them involved, and get acknowledged by you, then you’ll be going a long way to engage them.

The more time you invest in nurturing the relationship, the bigger the relationship will become. This will then transform from engagement to delivery.

Radcliffe observes that leaders build big relationships but he also says that leaders make big requests.

This is where some leaders tend to shy away. How can they make a big request if they have no relationship? I’m not talking about the standard requests that come with the job – say a Phase Leader asking a member of their team for a piece of data – I’m talking more about the big requests linked to whole school improvement or change; the big requests that require full engagement and 100% commitment; the big requests that require colleagues to be in #LeaderMode and @OurBest.

Given the year of challenges we have been faced with – with particular reference to remote working – I am glad that I spent much of my first year as Deputy establishing, growing and cultivating Big Relationships with leaders at all levels. This investment in time has paid dividends over the last 12 months.

During one meeting, a colleague likened Lockdown 1.0 to “having one of your senses removed” (Smith, 2020) and I could not agree more. Usually, on a daily basis, we have hundreds of conversations with colleagues – most “corridor conversations” or incidental exchanges, others more planned and deliberate. During these exchanges, we are privvy to expression – both facial and body language – tone of voice, pace, speed and inflection. We are also aware of (or can be made aware of ) the context of the conversation and how it fit’s into the Big Picture.

When working remotely this was removed. We had to rely on the relationships we had built with each other prior to Lockdown.

For some leaders, spending time building relationships may sound a bit “soft” or “a waste of time” but in their book Neuroscience for Leadership: Harnessing the brain gain advantage Swart, Chrisholm and Brown pose the question why is the soft stuff so hard?

The quotation that begins the chapter captures the tone of this blog thus far:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

John Donne

They suggest that “whilst it is generally agreed that the hard stuff is what can be measured, definitions of the soft stuff are legion, from brand design through emotional intelligence, to talent development, engagement, innovation and “people issues”. (2015, P76)

Douglas R Conant, the former CEO of Campbell Soups, writing in Strategy and Business defined the soft stuff as: “problems of intention, understanding, communication and interpersonal effectiveness.” (2015, P76) My initial thoughts were that all Conant just defined are tabled, discussed, and developed during the period of forming Big Relationships.

Swart et al then made me consider Big Relationships from a different angle: one of neuroscience. Is our brain wired in a particular way that makes forming Big Relationships easier or more challenging? Does the balance of hormones affect our ability to establish, develop and cultivate Big Relationships? I was completely engaged.

Communication: the fundamental tool of leadership.

Mike Myatt summarised in Forbes magazine: “It is simply impossible to become a great leader without being a great communicator.” And I agree. Communication is foundational to all relationships – personal, professional, with pupils or with adults – and permeates relationships at all levels.

Humans communicate with their whole body, with intentional as well as non-intentional movements, with stance and stillness, with both what is actioned and what is not. At levels below our conscious awareness our brain is using its automatic ability to assign intent to a whole range of signals from other people to which our conscious brain, with its limited processing capacity, does not always pay attention.

This is called Theory of Mind (ToM). Having a Theory of Mind means that we can distinguish between our self and others, understand that other people’s behaviours are driven by their goals and beliefs, not ours, and that our knowledge and perspective is different to everyone else’s. (P79)

As Gallese says, “Most of the time, our understanding of social situations is immediate, automatic and reflex-like.” This again confirms the need to invest time building the automaticity of relationships, given that under current circumstances – as I said earlier – that “sense” can be taken away.

When I talk about leadership, I refer to leadership at all levels: from a class teacher’s view point, Sue Cowley wrote: “The more effective a teacher is at interacting – at communicating knowledge, attitudes, expectations and so on – the more likely it is that the pupils will learn and behave.”

In summary, Swart et at neatly summarise The Power of Relationship:

“Leadership communication, in order to be effective, needs to build a relationship between people. We are more likely to be influenced by someone with whom you have a relationship of trust, and with whom you share some beliefs. A trusted leader who communicates with integrity can develop relationships of trust with people in their organisation, even with those whom they have never met. Those relationships can, in turn, become the basis for changing beliefs, attitudes and behaviours.” (2015, P84)

For me, on my mission to be an authentic leader, the “soft stuff” is definitely the place to start. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t have high expectations and won’t hold people to account. Far from it. I would even go as far as to say with the “soft stuff” established and embedded, the stuff will become less hard.

Consider yourself as a leader: where do you spend most of your time? Working on “the hard stuff”? Would this be easier if we front loaded our leadership paying attention to “soft stuff”? How does this fit with your values as a leader? Who in your support network is best to assist with this?

To close, take some time to reflect on this: Rita Pierson – in her TED Talk Every Kid Needs a Champion – said “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” Can the same be said for us as leaders?

A Deputy Head’s Reflections on Working From Home.

Back in September 2019, during a Senior Leadership Team meeting, my boss floated the idea of having a day-and-a-half working from home every half term. At the time, after a little bit of thought, the SLT unanimously agreed that it would be a great way for us to have some “catch up time” or some dedicated time to work – uninterrupted – on our area of responsibility. We joked about this being an opportunity for us to get our home offices renovated… except, for me it wasn’t a joke: new desk, new plants, new layout. I went for it. And on top of that, there was the need for new tech: a new webcam, ring-light and microphone! It was costly but looked great!

Little did we know what 2020 would have in store for us and how the decision to work from home could potentially be taken out of our hands and made for us.

In March 2020, myself and the Head worked out rota after rota after rota to make sure that staff had a fair and proportionate amount of time working in school and working from home. It was a nightmare for me; as everyone who knows me will attest – I absolutely HATE creating a timetable. It throws me into the depths of “Just Surviving” so, playing to everyone strengths, the Head took this one onboard and did a great job of creating an easy-to-read, colour co-ordinated spreadsheet. Phew. At this point, the Head and I only had the odd day working from home, which was initially… nice… provided some space to “crack on” and get stuff done, but being in school seemed more natural – “where we were needed”. There comes a security with being in a familiar surrounding. However, when at home, you’re always on call, which limits what you do.

For the majority of Lockdown 1.0, however, I was in school. In my comfort zone. Happy. Busy. (Very busy). Productive.

Fast forward to Lockdown 3.0 and after an initial period of wondering whether there would be a repeat of the rigmarole of putting together a timetable and rota again, things settled quickly and most teaching and learning staff opted to remain in school where they had access to their support network, their classroom and their resources. Sensible. Those who were able to work from home did so. We made the situation work for us.

The same applied to SLT. We were in. Supporting as much as we could, whilst maintaining Bubble Integrity and social distance. Things were going well. Week 1 (after the children being in school on Monday and then not on the Tuesday) went smoothly. We felt much more prepared this time around, with robust systems and procedures honed and refined from Lockdown 1.0, that kicked in straight away.

I personally felt more assured with our Device Loan Scheme roll out, which, this time, included SIM cards with free data. It was a positive week, which ended well. No disasters. Until Sunday evening when we got The Call. (And no, I don’t mean the OFSTED Call.) A member of staff had tested positive. This was not a new scenario: we’d had to close a Bubble before, like many schools up and down the county… however, this time, the impact on me personally would be greater. I was required to self-isolate for 10 days, also.

I was gutted. It was what I had dreaded. Being forced to stay at home and work remotely. So what was the difference between this and the previous working from home arrangements? Choice. I had no choice this time.

After getting over the initial disdain, Monday arrived and I joined our virtual staff briefing. Seeing everyone at school suddenly made me feel two very unpleasant things:

  1. That I was missing out. Everyone was at school except me. (This actually wasn’t the case, but in my mind it was).
  2. That I was letting the team down. Everyone was having to work harder now because I wasn’t there. (Again, this wasn’t the case, but it felt like it.)

After getting used to this “new”, new way of working, I cracked on with my tasks. Doing as much as I could:

  • Picking up safeguarding reports.
  • Calling parents.
  • Checking in on staff working from home.

These daily tasks forged the basis of my routine and became the bedrock of my work day.

Then I referred back to what we initially agreed about the working from home “days” – catch up on stuff and concentrate on my areas of responsibility.

So the rest of Monday and Tuesday saw me catch myself up with staff development and training, reading the latest research and adapting my planned strategy to suit the shift in the landscape for the year ahead.

Great stuff. At 4:15pm, I Zoomed the rest of the staff team for our Virtual Staff Meeting – the first in our Spring Series on Writing. This one was going to be a good one because it was about the future vision for writing and was entitled “I have a Dream.” I’m in straight away. It was passionately led by our writing lead supported by our Associate Headteacher, and had everyone engaged and interacting. Beautiful. When it ended, I was reenergised and kept going with my work on professional development. Before I knew it, I looked up from my kitchen table (why not the newly refurbished office, I hear you ask? Well my partner has been working from home since March 2020 so has bagsied the office… yes… I renovate it, and don’t get to enjoy it!) and the time is almost 10pm. I started work at 7:30am! How time flies! I logged off and moseyed the few meters from the kitchen to the lounge. Actually, it wasn’t too bad… was it…?

The Wednesday arrived.

Following a poor night’s sleep, limited exercise and having not left the house since Sunday, I was at an all time low. I cried. But what was different? It had only been 2 days!

To all intents and purposes,

I was missing the connection to other humans. To other professionals. Yes I’d Zoomed and called and Teams’ed… but nothing – for me – can replace the actual feeling of having a connection with another human being: reading their facial expression, their body language, responding to their tone of voice or laugh. I hadn’t realised quite how much it meant to me, until this point.

Wednesday was tough. I found it hard to motivate myself. I found it hard to be productive. Wednesday dragged. I found myself not doing things I needed to do. Instead I watched recording of lessons that teachers had been uploading to Showbie, scrolled through Class Stories on Class Dojo and looked through children’s work. I was missing being a teacher. However, these activities re-energised me and gave me a strong insight into where my teachers were at with Virtual Blended Learning. I was able to assess where the most effective practice was and this gave me a mechanism by which to share this with other teachers. I re-read Doug Lemov’s Teaching in the Online Classroom and started to compile a crib-sheet for teachers. The day ended much more positively than it began.

(Without this turning into a rendition of a Craig David classic) I was back on it on Thursday – which is interesting because Thursday is the day I “Act Up” in the Head’s absence. How would that work, eh? I made a point of connecting with the other members of SLT more frequently… mainly by phone. I connected and checked in with the Middle Leadership Team and I joined a live lesson. Beautiful.

I felt more connected than yesterday, but still at a superficial, distant level. However, I cracked on and got on with my tasks.

Thursday ended with our usual SLT check-in email to the Head. In my mind, there were only a few days to go. I was now closer to being back in school.

Friday was a mixed day. A bit of a meh day. A day that was neither positive nor negative. I was productive. I got stuff done. The day went reasonably quickly. But it was just unsatisfying and unfulfilling. The most satisfying thing about Friday was recording an asynchronous model Year 4 maths lesson. It took me three attempts, but was definitely worth it!

So what have I learned from this experience?

I have learned an awful lot about myself:

  • I am connection driven: I crave human connection.
  • I need regular feedback from humans.
  • I care passionately about being in the classroom – this is where I thrive.
  • I care passionately about teacher development – this is where I get my energy.

But more than that, on a leadership level, I have realised that working from home provides you with a perfect opportunity to be in “Operator Manager” mode. The safe space. It allows you the time and head-space to “get stuff done”, to check off the items on your to do list – which feels nice.

What it doesn’t do, however, is allow you to be strategic. Why? You cannot be completely strategic in isolation (literal or metaphorical). You need your team around you to bounce ideas off of, to offer critique and to challenge.

So, would I work from home on a more frequent basis, through choice? Probably not unless I needed to be in “operator manager mode” and get stuff done. It’s too quiet. It’s too lonely. That’s exactly why it’s called self-isolation.

Understanding my identity as a leader.

This blog feels like a natural sequel to my recent blog on “What I Care About” and comes about after a virtual Deputy Head’s Network meeting on Friday with a fantastic input from Liz Barratt, Fiona More and Sarah Heesom – three leaders that I respect and look up to for a whole host of reasons.

Recently, leaders up and down the country (and probably worldwide) have found themselves flung into a sphere of leadership unlike any they have experienced before. It has tested courage, nerve and tenacity. It has pushed leaders’ everywhere to reconnect with what they believe in and test their “Big Relationships” at all levels.

On March 20th 2020, education changed exponentially. Traditional methods of teaching and learning were paused and remote/digital/virtual learning kicked in just a few days later.

As a Leader, I was well and truly in Operator/Manager mode: things needed to be done, and my usual leadership style – consulting stakeholders and gathering feedback – was out of the window. What was needed at this time was clarity, decisiveness and action. This remained the case for several weeks in light of the continually changing DfE Guidance and the constantly shifting landscape.

Steve Radcliffe’s Leadership: Plain and Simple is a leadership book I constantly come back to. It’s my ‘handbook to leadership’ if you like.

He refers to three modes: Operator/Manager/Leader as identified in this image below:

In his book, he says:

I have yet to find anyone who at times doesn’t slide back into Operator/Manager when being in Leader Mode is what is needed.

Radcliffe (2012, P23)

I agree with him. I’ve been there. It is easily done, because as we discovered earlier, we like it in Operator/Manager because we see quick results.

Harrison Owen added value to this point when he said:

Leadership is often spoken of as if it were simply advanced management. The presumption is that whatever the manager is supposed to do, the leader does more of and better. Leadership is not advanced management; it is radically different from management, and to equate the two is to miss an essential distinction.

At a termly Deputy Head’s Network, our CEO reflected on her own leadership throughout this pandemic. Several colleagues nodded in agreement when she eluded to being in Operator/Manager mode too. She qualified this by saying, “I’m safe in this mode. I get things done and it feels good.” Which I wholeheartedly agree with. Who doesn’t love a list and takes great satisfaction in ticking the last item off it?

However, as we move ever closer to the end of term, it is important that we scan the horizon and “take the two-footed leap” into next year. In her words, “there would be nothing worse than arriving in September having not given it any forethought.” And I agree. This week has been most “in leader mode” I have felt for a while.

But is it as easy as this? To make the switch from one mode to another effectively and meaningfully?

Liz, Fiona and Sarah presented a great Keynote which helped me to reconnect with myself as a leader, to re-establish my identity. And what better way to do that than to take a “deep-dive” (their words not mine!) into our core values. Liz, being a geography teacher at heart, used the Earth’s structure as a metaphor.

The Earth is made up of several different layers. This can be likened to the layers of a leader. Prepare for a mini geography lesson:

The CRUST is a relatively thin layer which manifests any activity or changes in the Mantle and the Upper Core. It is what we see in terms of landforms: mountains, volcanoes, valleys, ocean trenches etc.

The MANTLE makes up 84% of the Earth and is mostly slowly moving molten rock. Heat and pressure cause convection currents to drive tectonic activity in the Crust.

The OUTER CORE is what influences the magnetic field of the Earth and what drives the geothermal energy. The Earth’s magnetic field is crucial to the health of the Earth. It maintains the ozone layer which protects us from harmful ultra-violet radiation.

The INNER CORE is solid metal. It provides the geothermal energy for the Earth. It very slowly grows over time as the outer core solidifies. However, this growth is not uniform. It occurs in lumps and bunches and is influenced by the activity in the Mantle.

We only understand the Core by measuring the behaviours in the Mantle which can be seen on the Crust.

So what does this have to do with me as a leader? Well the layers of the Earth a very much comparable to the layers of a leader:

The CrustThe Crust is how we present to the world. It is what is going on below the surface. We can understand ourselves on a superficial level or we can look below the surface to understand what is driving us, where we get our energy from and to recognise our relatively unchanging values in our core.
The MantleThe Mantle is dynamic and it is where our actions and behaviours play out. These behaviours are influenced by what is at our core.
The Outer CoreThe Outer Core is our energy centre and the origin of our magnetic field. This drives us and provides our protection.
The Inner CoreThe Inner Core – our almost solid part – is only comprised of two or three main values and maybe a few subsidiary ones. Knowing what they are helps us to understand who we are, how we behave and how we can be at our best more of the time.

This led to an activity whereby we identified aspects of our personal and professional life that fit into each of the layers above. It was a tough exercise as it called for real introspection – something I’d not done for a while, especially as a leader over the last 3 months. My answers were varied and covered lots of ground, as you can see from the diagram below.

A few bits stood out to me:

  • The idea of excellence
  • Educational leadership and teaching and learning featured heavily
  • The desire to become a good school
  • A clear career path
  • A clear home-life plan
  • The desire for more knowledge

After reviewing it, there were some themes that came out:

  • Connections
  • Learning
  • Relationships

These led me to reflect on my core values. Lots of “words” came out and formed a long list of values that are as equally important as the other, but what were my “inner core”? Those few elements that make me the leader I am. I concluded that the following four values make me the leader I am today. I would like to think that they will never change – they may be added to, but hopefully not eroded or compromised.

  • Honesty
  • Self-improvement
  • Integrity
  • Courage

These were interesting as over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on my NPQH submission which is an inspection of aspects of leadership and I came across The Seven Principles of Public Life – also known as The Nolan Principles – which are described as “the basis of the ethical standards expected of public office holders.” Several of these match with the themes and values I identify with.

The great thing about the session was that it was facilitated. I was guided to make my own decisions through close self-inspection and it was done in a safe and supportive environment – given that there were over 50 other colleagues in the “room”.

This part of the session finished with a Breakout Room conversation with a colleague. This provided and opportunity to share what we had arrived at, question it, challenge it and clarify it. Through a brief but meaningful coaching conversation, it was great that my partner was able to repeat back to me what I thought I was saying. This was both a relief and a reassurance at the same time. Most importantly, it was great to connect with another leader on a leadership level.

So what did I take from the session and what are my next steps? For me it was great to re-connect with my values base, in a dedicated arena free from the distractions of school life.

I went back to my Leadership: Plain and Simple book and re-read the section of conscious practice:

“In leader mode, your first thought is not ‘what shall I do?’ It’s ‘who do I want to engage and what is the request I want to make of them?’

Radcliffe suggests pausing and noticing what I am like:

  • How strong is you tendency to just do the job yourself?
  • Is making requests of others your first or second thought?
  • Who are the people you make requests of?
  • Who are the people you don’t?
  • How clear is your picture of you delivering in Leader Mode rather than in Operator/Manager Mode?

This coming week, I will be reflecting on the points above and finding opportunities to reaffirm and make visible my core values.

What do I care about?

What do you care about? Education has been a life saver for me, but has proved daunting as well.

Steve Radcliffe says:

The first question to ask yourself is ‘What do you care about?’ What matters to you, what’s important to you, what your value most or what you have most passion for. You can only be a great leader for things you care about. If the answer doesn’t give you an energy boost, by tapping into your energy of passion, pride and possibility, you haven’t got to the real issue yet.

Leadership Plain and Simple (2012)

I always knew I wanted to go into teaching. From a very early age, I would play “teachers” and terrorise my younger brother by setting spelling tests and giving out detentions; my neighbours used to know when lunchtime had ended because the ‘two whistle system’ was well established.

I loved school. I loved learning. I still do. My mum always encouraged me to do my best and give 100% effort in all my studies. But when I reflect back on my experiences of school, I know appreciate how much of a journey I have been on.

As a child, my attendance at school wasn’t great and there were lots of reasons for this: I suffered with severe asthma as a youngster, which affected my chest a considerable amount of the time – particularly in the winter. This led to lots of time off. This was eventually brought under control but my attendance didn’t really improve. At the age of 7, my mum and dad separated. My mum, brother and I moved out of the family home and moved in with my grandparents, then my aunty and uncle, then to another town (meaning a change of school), then to another village, (meaning a taxi-ride followed by a bus-ride every day), then back to the first town (meaning a change of school again). This erratic and unsettled period of time spanned two-and-a-half to three years – my Key Stage 2 career.

But my patchy attendance started before this – back in Key Stage 1. It seems from old reports that I found that I would have the “odd day off here and there” for no apparent reason – the very thing that I have conversations with parents about now.

If I were in school now, I would be a “pupil premium child” – single parent family, safeguarding concerns, poor attendance. By all accounts, I would be one of those statistics lumped in the disadvantaged groups who was destined to “not amount to much”.

I remember vividly arriving to school one Monday morning having stayed at my dads for the weekend – my dad wasn’t a great support; he drank and smoked a lot and before my parents separated, this often led to the police being on our doorstep. He didn’t really value education either, which meant he didn’t really support or encourage me or my brother – and being sat in my year 6 classroom with Mr O’ Boyle (the Headteacher) and him saying: “right everyone, take out your maths homework so we can mark it together.”

My heart sank.

I’d taken my maths book home. I’d taken my maths book to my dads house. But amongst the chaos of the weekend, I had not completed it.

Mr O’Boyle wasn’t the most understanding of teachers, nor was he that compassionate so I daren’t tell him I hadn’t done it.

I was now in panic mode. What should I do? As the class moved closer to him with their maths books and pencils, I hung back and waited for them to overtake me. I sheepishly sat near the back of the room. I had a plan. I would do the homework now. I would keep a few questions ahead.

(Thinking about this now with the knowledge we have of cognitive science, I would have been in complete cognitive overload!)

The plan was working… until I was asked the answer to a question… How I managed to keep it together, I do not know. Maths was never my strongest subject!

Needless to say that wasn’t my greatest day at school.

Fortunately, I was reasonably clever and could cope with situations such as this and the more they presented themselves, the more adept I became at dealing with them.

I do wander what my outcomes would have been like if I had a stable primary education? A stable home-life?

As I started at secondary school, things did settle down somewhat. We moved to a house in a nice area and mum had a stable job. Things were looking up. They remained that way for much of my secondary school career.

My attendance was still patchy (as you can see from the slightly pointed comment from my Head of Year: “well done… perhaps attendance could improve further?”) – but this was more habitual rather than for any other reason. Habits are hard to break.

I enjoyed secondary school. I was successful at secondary school. I went through all of my secondary career in the top set for every subject and enjoyed engaging with challenging material that made me think.

I found something I was good at – performing arts – and started to participate in productions (the first one being Shakespeare’s The Tempest). This was tricky to balance though as rehearsals were after school.

I had lots of small successes throughout secondary school. This led to me becoming Deputy Head Boy in Year 11 and gaining 11 A to C grades at GCSE. And then it was onto the next thing… Sixth Form

It was in Sixth Form that my love for education blossomed. I studied English Literature, Performing Arts, Art and Design and Philosophy and Ethics. A Levels were different. Very different. The level at which we were expected to engage was higher, the demand put on us to read around a subject was more intense. I loved it. I thrived off it. My attendance improved, my relationships with teachers and peers became more established and I felt more like I was meant to be there.

It was still a bit of a balancing act. I had a part time job now to support myself a bit more as things were still tight at home. But this was fine. I had to make it work.

All in all, I did well in A Levels – three As and a B. Decent. I was proud of myself because all of that was earned. I worked exceptionally hard to achieve it, to make something of myself. Then it was onto the next thing… university.

I was the first one in my family to go to university. I knew I wanted to teach. I knew I loved performing arts to the secondary education course at the University of South Wales Institute (UWIC) in Cardiff was perfect.

My mum was reluctant at first – turns out it wasn’t because she didn’t want me to go, it was because she knew she couldn’t fund it. But that didn’t matter. I applied for the the Maintenance Grant and secured a job.

Throughout uni I balanced the demands of an undergraduate qualification, school placements and a job. I had to work to support myself. If I didn’t work, I wouldn’t have lasted. At times, it was challenging. At times, I considered giving up. But I didn’t. Ironically, my attendance at university was outstanding – I didn’t miss a day!

I thoroughly enjoyed my four years in Cardiff; I made some wonderful friends, networked with some wonderful people, graduated with a First Class honours and won Student of the Year at the same time. I was proud of myself because all of that was earned. I worked exceptionally hard to achieve it, to make something of myself.

Then it was on to the next thing… a job. I was fortunate in that I secured a job straight after graduating. A secondary school in Neath, South Wales.

When I take stock of my journey to this point there is a certain irony – my attendance at primary school was questionable – now I was going to be on the other side of the classroom, the teacher.

I can now look proudly back on a decade long teaching career (where I’m pleased to say, I have had very little time off school).

It certainly sounds cliched but I can attest to the fact that the experiences I had of early education, sixth form and university definitely shaped me. Me as a product of the education system, but more importantly, me as an educator – the kind of teacher (and now leader) I am.

So you’re probably thinking what on earth does this post have to do with the title “what do I care about?”

I care about social mobility.

I care about education being the most powerful tool for moving children out of poverty (and I use that word deliberately and I include myself in that category).

I care about education giving children options.

I care about valuing every child regardless of their background or perceived barriers.

I care about giving every child the chance to succeed.

And why do I care so much about this? Because I know first hand that it works, that education makes a difference, that education makes people.

I know because I am one of those people and I won’t stop until we have an education system that does for all children what it has done for me.

Corenna Khieu: Show Them That You Care

The Lion, The Tinman and The Scarecrow…

March 9, 2019


No, I haven’t gone mad. And no, I’m not blogging about The Wizard of Oz, either. Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of listening to Hywel Roberts (@HYWEL_ROBERTS) talk at a twilight session on his reverie of adventures in teaching.

I’ve not blogged in a while and thought that this was the perfect topic to get me back into the swing of things.

Hywel Roberts, a travelling teacher as he identifies himself, spent two hours guiding us through some of his escapades and endeavours in education, at the same time as indirectly offering advice on how to teach some of the “drier” subject areas and topics.

His opening line, “pedagogy is holding a child’s hand and guided them through a challenging curriculum” immediately grabbed my attention, as, at its most basic, that’s exactly what it is. But how do you do that? How do you engage 30-something children and bring them with you on the journey…?

One of his ways… WITH A GOOD BOOK! By now, I’m putty in his hands. 

He went on to talk about teaching a bottom-set Year 10 English class in a “challenging” area of the North West of England and the book he revealed to us was one that would never have come to mind… To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Madness I hear some of you say. A recipe for disaster, maybe?

“It was the best choice I ever made…” he said, confidently. “And do you know why? Because the children (did I mentioned they were all boys?) could identify with the themes and the characters. I had some tough boys offering Atticus Finch advice on how to move forward after his defeat in a racism case.”

He went on to say that he didn’t just expose the children to the book without ‘protecting them into it’. Dipping their toes in the water of the time, the themes and the culture.

He summarised it by saying “don’t be afraid to take rich knowledge and navigate it, articulate it.”

All too often, teachers are slaves to the curriculum, when really, it should be the other way around – the curriculum should serve our needs as educators. 

This often makes children feel like “education is something that is done to you and then it eventually stops.”

Education should be about giving children the chance to be critical. 

How do we make it relevant to their lives today?

It should give children the capacity to make good choices and to negotiate.

Children spend 13% of their lives in schools so how do we make it relevant to their lives today? Hywel’s ideas are simple and clear:


Having a professional imagination


Making children engaged with their learning. For us, the professional capacity to care.


Professional practical wisdom or, in other words, wise teacher values. 

Engagement is great, but will only takes you so far. Engagement at an emotional level gets investment from the children. An example of this came from a story he told:

There was once a man named James (Jimmy on a Sunday) who refused to leave his house – no matter how many letters they sent. His home was everything to him, even though the wallpaper was peeling from the walls. All his memories were there and, now she’d gone, it’s all he had to remind him of his late wife.

He then asked us (as though we were the children) what else provided memories in the home? We enthusiastically said “photographs, letters, diaries…” which paled into insignificance when he told us a 9-year-old boy once said “his wife’s half finished knitting.” WOW!

The story continued and we were now 100% emotionally invested and wanted to find out what the whole situation with Jimmy (James on a Sunday) was. 

Hywel then showed us this image:

The intake of breathe was audible. We had never imagined that this image would flash up on the screen.

The topic: coastal erosion investigated through a story that places humanity at its core.

So where could you go from here? One example was to look at where his “garden” was and where it is now. How long has it taken to erode? How long can James (Jimmy on a Sunday) realistically stay in his home?

Regardless of where we went with it, Hywel had us hooked; we were emotionally invested and would’ve gone anywhere on the learning journey with him. 

He went on to say any learning that is put in context and poses question or scenarios for children, gets a better investment and leads to better authentic outcomes. 

Listening to Hywel was mesmerising: what he said was all common sense and simple, but it was delivered with such passion and enthusiasm that it made it feel all more real. 

I highly recommend getting him to speak to your staff. Particularly in the current climate of curriculum reform. 

To finish where I started…

…your curriculum should be one of brains (knowledge), courage (risks) and heart. 

Maximising Pupil Premium Funding to ‘Close the Gap’

June 4, 2018


Over the past two years, we have made great strides in ensuring that pupil premium funding is used as effectively as possible to help close the attainment gap between the school’s disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

Recently we were asked to share our strategies with Rachael Gacs, a member of the Inspiring Leaders team. You can read the published article below:

Or check out the interview here:

Wellbeing, workload and well… running!

February 26, 2018


“Teachers’ workload is too high, with various organisations – including the DfE – reporting teachers, working in-excess of 55+ hour weeks just to keep on top of their day-to-day workload.”

Ross Morrison McGill (@TeacherToolkit)

Over a year ago now, I worked with a few of our governors and the deputy headteacher to champion a whole school Health & Wellbeing Policy, which would encompass work/life balance. The Association of Teachers & Lecturers defines work/life balance as being “essentially about choice and flexibility, balancing life and work, balancing the needs of both the school and teachers and the optimum environment for high performance and satisfaction at all levels.” (2004)

Since then, teacher work/life balance has been the hot topic of conversation amongst senior leaders, local government and indeed politicians at a national level and prompted the DfE to launch The Workload Challenge consultation on the TES website ran between 22 October and 21 November 2014, and asked three open questions:

  1. Tell us about the unnecessary and unproductive tasks which take up too much of your time. Where do these come from?
  2. Send us your solutions and strategies for tackling workload – what works well in your school?
  3. What do you think should be done to tackle unnecessary workload – by government, by schools or by others?

“The survey generated more than 44,000 returns. The same themes were raised again and again by the profession as the key drivers of unnecessary and unproductive workload, including Ofsted and the pressure it places on school leaders (whether real or perceived), and from government – as well as hours spent recording data, marking and lesson-planning.” (DfE source)

In the consultation stages of devising our policy, staff reported the main factors affecting their health and wellbeing were:

  • Marking
  • Completing admin tasks
  • Demands of the job

Bearing this in mind, and taking notice of local and national guidance, our policy went through the drafting process and was adopted by the governors and staff in September 2016. You can read the current version of it here.

But does having a policy actually make a difference to the health and wellbeing of staff?  

As both a class teacher and member of the Senior Leadership Team, I always pride myself on being an excellent role model for everything we do as a school – teaching and learning, classroom environment, books, pupil progress etc etc. But when it came to role modelling a health work/life balance, I’ll be honest, I really struggled. The demands of the role(s) meant I had to get a lot done in a finite amount of time. Because of that, through my own choice, I would arrive to work early (normally [well] before 7) and leave when the caretaker kicked me out at 6pm. This meant that I would sometimes get most of what I needed to get done, done! I would, however, find myself taking things home, normally my books – 33 English and 33 maths. I was working well in excess of 12 hours a day.

Now it was my choice to progress to the position I have, and I do not regret a single choice I have made. I thoroughly enjoy every aspect of my job and am privileged to have had the opportunity to do so this early in my career. However, I had a very work heavy work/life balance.

In September 2017, having been in my role since the previous April, I pledged to do something about re-balancing my work/life balance. Again, this didn’t happen. After much reflection (ironically!!) I realised why – I was not prioritising my work/life balance. I was “used” to what I did on a daily basis and I had, quite simply, come to accept that it was normal.

After this epiphany, I decided that actually I wasn’t too happy with the situation and so, conveniently timed to coincide with New Year, I took up running (again).  

I began by Park Running on a Saturday – a free 5k timed run around a local course – but this went no way to alleviate my workload or establish more of a work/life balance… nonetheless, it was a start.

Midway through January, the Head (a fellow Park Runner) showed me a flier for The Great Northern Run in Derby in March. 10k? A bit of a step up from the weekly 5k; this would require a more rigorous training schedule! So, dedicated to both the run and levelling the balance between work and home, I signed up and began to follow the Bupa Intermediate 10k training plan.

Having paid my £17, I was determined to follow the plan, which meant training on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Now, we’ve established that the Saturday and Sunday are fine; the days that would cause a potential problem were Tuesday and Wednesday.

Well today is February 25th and I’m still sticking to the plan. And here’s how I achieved it:

  • Looked at my planning for a Tuesday and how I planned to mark the learning.
  • Planned more in-class intervention marking.
  • Used the whole class feedback sheet (as pioneered by colleagues like @primarypercival)
  • Experimented with recorded feedback via Vocal Recall.
  • Switched to marking one set of books the following morning.

By looking closely at how I managed my workload and my time, I was able to get rid of some superfluous activities and focus my efforts on the important things.

The quality of my marking is the same (if not better in places) and my class have responded very enthusiastically to my different feedback methods.

I may have shot myself in the foot, though! After the 10k in March, I’ve signed up for a 12.5k in May and a half marathon in June. 

Moving to a whole class shared reading model.

February 24, 2018


Over the last few years, the raised expectation has hit all core subject in the primary curriculum; ask any primary practitioner and I’m pretty sure they’ll say that reading has been the biggest uphill struggle, both in terms of ensuring the attainment pupils make and the progress.

Up and down the country, for years on end, teachers advocated the Guided Reading model, which (excuse the flippant description here) gave between 6 and 8 children approximately 20 minutes of focussed teacher time per week, whilst the remaining children in the class (at least 22 children on average) completed what I call a “holding task” that normally entailed practising spelling, an independent reading comprehension or silent reading to themselves. All of which, unfortunately, had little impact on their learning – Reading or otherwise.

Much research has been done into the allocation of curriculum time, the most comprehensive of which is the OECD Education at a Glance in 2013.

It showed that whilst reading, writing and literature accounted for 26% of curriculum time, only around 8% of this time was dedicated to the teaching of reading.

Logic tells us that dedicating approximately 17% of our time to maths and writing will yield better outcomes in those subjects, ensure better attainment and lead to enter progress.

Guided reading obviously was not working. This was confirmed with our 2016 End of KS2 with only 31% of our Year 6 cohort achieving the Expected Standards (EXS).

Having heard a great deal about shared reading, this was a natural area to investigate. And so we did, well our Teaching and Learning Lead (now Assistant Head for Whole School Development) go to work on setting up a curriculum for reading.

We were fortunate that we had some flexibility in our lesson timings and identified that the morning could be altered to include an extra lesson: a dedicated, daily reading lesson.

After much research, based heavily around Reading Reconsidered by Doug Lemov (@Doug_Lemov), we designed a curriculum that promoted high expectations of the teaching of reading and that would hopefully boost attainment and progress by the end of KS2.

Initially rolled out to Y5 and Y6, our reading curriculum focussed on 4 key aspects:

1. Reading harder texts – A steady exposure to harder texts and to the experience of struggling, over the years leading up to KS2 and beyond is critical to the success of a reader. Below is a selection of text which we presently use in KS2:

2. Close reading texts rigorously –Close reading is providing children with a set of tools readers will use to “solve” text when it is challenging and out of their comfort zone. For us, this focussed on a Reader’s Toolkit and Marking Key.

3. Reading more non-fiction – Non-fiction poses a special set of challenges. It relies more on background knowledge and is among the most useful tools in building background knowledge. When unfamiliar, they create yet another barrier to comprehension.

4. Writing in response to reading – Writing for reading. Writing is the “coin of the realm”. True, learning to write directly in response to reading develops the skills of writing but, more importantly, it shapes what children take from the text.

Our model evolved considerably over the first academic year of its introduction. We refined and developed the planning format, which, in its current form, includes the following aspects:

Hook – how do you gain that instant buy in from pupils? We sometimes use a video clip, an image or pose a question.

Open Response – this is a read of the section of text under scrutiny during the lesson. The reading is done aloud by pupils, pre-selected* and at random, as well as the teacher, modelling effective reading. It is important to note here that every pupil has their own copy of the text and tracks the text with a pencil, held upside down. This can be easily flipped to “stop and jot”. Not only does this promote engagement, but encourages accountability as pupils are actively encouraged to “mark-up the text”. This is done with a set of common annotation marks know as our “reading toolkit”. (

Zoom In – after the open response, a smaller section of text is chosen for detail scrutiny. As a School, we chose the reading skills that we needed to develop in our pupils.

  • Word building
  • Retrieve and record
  • Inference
  • Summarise
  • Predict/compare/explain

Written response – each lesson must result in pupils providing a written response to what they have read. This can be an independent response, a paired response, group response or a whole class, agreed response. To mark/assess these responses, we tend to use self and peer assessment based on a set of criteria as we were acutely aware that by adding another lesson into a teacher’s timetable, it would create another set of books to mark.

Having started the model with only Year 5 and Year 6, it became very clear that the model of shared reading could be applied to Lower Key Stage 2 and by Christmas of 2016, years 3 to 6 were working on the same model. Moreover, colleagues in KS1 have experimented with shared reading and are currently integrating guided reading with shared reading.

So, I’ve gone the whole post without mentioning “impact”. We took a risk abandoning what we knew in the hope that it would have an impact on our end of KS2 results. In one academic year, our results in reading went from a disappointing 31% EXS+ to an impressive 63% EXS+.

Although not completely down to the change from Guided to Shared Reading, it did contribute significantly to our improvements, something which we can now maintain and improve on year on year.

Learning Behaviours and Growth Mindset: The impact of a whole school initiative.

November 19, 2017


In September 2015, as part of my whole school research project following my Middle Leaders Training Programme, our school introduced what we called Learning Behaviours. Heavily influenced by Guy Claxton’s building learning powers, we used similar principles to create a bespoke model that met our exact needs at the time. Initially, implementing Guy Claxton’s model would have been an “easy option” but, given our context, cohorts and staffing model, would have probably failed within the initial few months owing to complex nature of the system.

Claxton says “it is about creating a climate or a culture in the classroom – and in the school more widely – that systematically cultivates habits and attitudes that enable young people to face difficulty and uncertainty calmly, confidently and creatively” (2010)

So we went back to the drawing board and posed a question: what do we want our learners to be? After much discussion and a “short” list of about 15 qualities, we narrowed it down to four key Learning Behaviours that we felt would serve our pupils well both in their school career and later in in life. Those Learning Behaviours are:

  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Confidence
  • Resilience

For me, reslience in learning is key and with this, children will develop the others naturally. Respect, of course, is a more holistic quality, which can certainly be developed in terms of learning, but is much more wide reaching.

“Resilience in the face of difficulty is one of the basic ingredients of learning power.” (Claxton, 2010)

The next stage of the process was to introduce these to all key stakeholders: staff, pupils, parents and governors. We wanted to ensure that everyone in the wider school community had a crystal-clear, shared understanding of what our Learning Behaviours were and what they looked like in our school.

The following few weeks involved INSET seminars, staff training, guest speakers, whole school launch days (mixing up the entire school for an immersive day of resilience training), parents meetings and governors meetings. I’m happy to say that these were exceptionally well received and provided us with a solid platform on which to develop our model.

One aspect of the model had been bugging me from the off: how would we measure the impact of the project? As one thing I’ve learned over my career so far is if it’s not having an impact, stop!

Measuring the impact of a English or maths based intervention is, in most cases, straightforward – data measure at the start, intervention takes places, data measure at the end. Done! Measuring confidence and resilience, however, would be a bigger challenge.

After a strategic meeting with a seasoned School Improvement Advisor, she suggested looking at the PASS Questionnaire (Pupils Attitude to Self and School) published by GL Assessments (

This tool measured 9 key aspects of a pupils’ attitudes (basically, it does what it says on the tin!)

The responses are averaged against a national benchmark and ranked in terms of a satisfactory scale:

From here, a comprehensive report analyses the responses of each child as well as the subgroups they belong to (i.e. gender, ethnic group, FSM, PP etc) and provides you with a  detailed understadning of each learner.

The table below shows the whole cohort profile and indicates that children’s self-regard as a learner and response to curriculum demands are considerably lower than the other seven factors.

This allows staff to plan a relevant and targeted response to the individual needs of the child.

This comprehensive questionnaire will be completed again at the end of the academic year to track progress.

So how does this link to the original topic of this blog – Learning Behaviours and Growth Mindset?

Well after spending an academic year embedding our learning behaviours and continually assessing their impact through pupil voice interviews, questionnaires, structured conversations with parents and evidence gathered from lesson observations and book looks, we were happy that we could develop the initiative further. For us, the next step would be to introduce the concept of Growth Mindset.

Now I hear some of you already say “Growth Mindset, that educational fad” but believe me, we are not in the business of trying things for the sake of them; we will only embark on a project or initiative if we are sure there will be an gain for our children – and by gain, we mean either in terms of attainment academically or socially, or, in the best case, both.

After researching the work of Carol Dweck ( and listening to a fascinating Ted Talk titled “The power of believing that you can improve” (watch it here) I was convinced that with a bit of work, the concept of Growth Mindset could work for our children.

Given the work we had already done on building resilience, it made sense to introduce Growth Mindset within the realm of something the children were familiar with.

By launching our Growth Mindset initiative on International Dot Day using the phrase, I can’t do it…yet the children bought into the idea immediately. The day then allowed children to explore the concept of Growth Mindset in more detail by looking at:

  • The language of Growth Mindset
  • Strategies to employ when you get “stuck” in your learning
  • Challenges that build resilience
  • Art work based around “make a mark and see where it takes you”

The result was incredible: children from Year 1 through to Year 6 had a shared understanding of what Growth Mindset meant for them and where they were on their learning journey, a common vernacular that they could employ when discussing their strengths and areas for development in their learning and stretegies they could employ when they got “stuck” in their learning. Not bad for a days work.

But how do we make this sustainable and how do we measure impact?

Having been recommended a great read titled The Growth Mindset Coach: a teacher’s month-by-month handbook for empowering students to achieve, this provided me with an easily accessible, quality assured bank of strategies, activities and challenges for embedding Growth Mindset.

In short, we chose an element of Growth Mindset we felt best developed our children’s understanding (not necessarily in calendar order) and delivered these to staff, who in term, found an afternoon session or a series of afternoon session to deliver these to children. The strategies were then applied to all learning experiences to promote cross-over between curriculum areas. A neat, compact and self-contained way of minimising excess workload for staff but ensuring maximum impact on the children’s learning.

So there’s sustainability covered. What about impact?

Again, measuring impact on such a qualatitive area of learning is challenging but, as mentioned earlier, through structured conversations, pupil voice questionnaires and the eviidence gathered from lesson observations and book looks, children’s (and teachers) attitudes to their learning had become more positive; they were more willing to make mistakes and felt confident that they had a bank of strategies they could call upon to help them help themselves.

It will be interesting to measure the difference in children’s attitudes, particularly their “self-regard as a learner” and their “response to curriculum demands” in the follow up PASS Questionnaire.

The first year of being a Deputy.

Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.

— Oscar Wilde.

Starting a new job brings with it a whole raft of new challenges, not to mention new skills that need to de developed or old skills that need to be refreshed.

In this blog, I originally recalled some of the funny, challenging and downright bizarre experiences within the first #100days as #Deputy. The timed seemed to fly by so fast and before I knew it, I was nearing a year in post. I decided, therefore, to change the slant of this post to “a year in the role of…”.

I’ve tried to capture some of the aspects of the role that were either new to me or were just stand out moments. It’s not designed to teach you anything, it is a lighthearted reflection of my last year.

Here are my top 10.

Recruitment: As part of my previous role I completed my Safer Recruitment training but never used it. Within a few weeks of being a #Deputy, I’d interviewed for cleaners, midday supervisors and teachers. The process was really interesting and diverse – from the logistics of planning the interview process to running the actual day, it was insightful and having been on the other side of the table very recently, I had complete empathy with each of the candidates.

Just as I thought I’d cracked the recruitment process, a new spanner was thrown into the proverbial works: The Coronavirus and lockdown. But this new challenge excited me. Seven interviews via Zoom. How do you do it? Simple:

  1. Short Zoom meeting entitled “introduction to the panel” where the candidate is put at ease by meeting the panel. On a technical level, this allowed me to check it all worked!
  2. Send them away for 2 hours with an unseen task. Set up a delayed email to send out the task automatically.
  3. Longer Zoom meeting for the candidates to present their unseen task by sharing their screen and narrating their decisions. This then leads into the formal interview where the panel take it in turns to ask questions.

“But what about the teaching?” I hear you ask. I asked the candidates to record themselves teaching a lesson of their choice to a year group of their choice. Their video should capture them doing the main teacher input and addressing the main teaching points of the lesson. A lesson plan (in whatever format the candidate chooses) should accompany the video. This was actually a very interesting part of the process and something we should consider keeping when we return to our “new normal”.

Essentially, the recruitment process remained very much unchanged, it was the medium through which the interviews played out that was different.

Was it less effective? I don’t think so. Although there is nothing quite like seeing a teacher teaching in front of real, live children.


Ofsted: Yes, you’ve read that correctly. Within my first #100days, I’d experienced a full Section 5 Inspection. To be precise, we had the phone call on #Day21 and a team of three Inspectors (one HMI) arrived on #Day22. I planned to write another blog on this that would go into more detail. I never did really get round to it. Maybe I will over the summer break of 2020.


Finance: My experience with finance up to this point in my career had been minimal. I had an understanding of budgets and where funding came from and went to, but never had I had responsibility for spending (too much). Within my first #100Days, I was responsible for spending several tens of thousands of pounds to develop the resources within school. Some people would see this as a great “shopping” opportunity; I found it somewhat stressful – I felt a great amount of responsibility to get it right for the children. Furthermore, given the different situation we were in as a school in Summer 2 of 2019, I was allowed to “sign off” orders etc. Needless to say, I made a few mistakes! So my key learning around finance: ask questions, get three quotes for everything, ask more questions.


Being a Site Manager: I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty and there was one week during the summer holidays where our Office Manager and Site Manager were on annual leave. And what with having contractors working on our outdoor environment, that left me in charge of opening up and locking up. Not only that, I learned how to maintain a Welfare Unit and diesel powered generator, work a sack trolley, a flat-bed trolley and a shopping trolley (!!), use several new power tools and work the lifts! You’ll probably laugh at some of these and think that at the age of 31, I should know how to do that anyway, but within a school context, things are always different!


Flood: Things always happen when the person you need isn’t around; things like a flood. A considerable flood that took around 25 buckets, bins, boxes and tubs to control, a flood where the rain outside was replicated inside! A flood that no roofing company seemed able to help with because “they can’t do much when it’s raining”. This probably tested my skills the most: finding the electricity isolation points, working out how to get onto the roof (not even thinking whether I was actually allowed on the roof – health and safety and all that) and then working out how to get to where the flood was located. Well, I’m pleased to say I was successful in all of the above! The culprit – an empty packet of salt and vinegar Squares crisps blocking the drain, which created a lake of water around 8″ deep across the area of the the flat roof!


Fire Alarm: So if water wasn’t enough, the next thing sent to test me was fire! Well, no, there wasn’t an actual fire, just a false alarm. Sat with the new headteacher, having a deep intellectual conversation about being a research engaged school and our thinking is disrupted by the two-tone wail of the alarm. Luckily, we knew where the Zone was and we knew we had contractors working in that area! After a quick sweep of the building, we knew some people hadn’t signed in and some had left without signing out! But, headcount done, we just needed to silence the alarm… cue the pressing of various buttons. Nothing. Then we noticed you need a key… which the Site Manager has. Not me. The Site Manager who is on holiday! In a panic, I remembered we have a Key Safe in the office… and, needless to say, the set of Fire Keys were on their little numbered hook. Key in, button pressed, alarm silenced, system reset. My only worry – things come in threes: we’ve had water and fire, so next… earth or wind?!


Traffic Warden: My school is not your standard primary school. It is located between a main “A” road and a train line. This in itself presents a whole set of challenges, but more on that another time. Given that my school is located where it is, we do not have an immediate “catchment” area: children come from up to a 15 miles radius of Derby city centre.

We run a school bus service, but this only attracts around 20 families. We also run 2 Walking Busses in the afternoon. But as I’m sure you can imagine, the morning drop off and afternoon pick up are interesting… on some days, frantic!

The mornings are not too bad: parents drive into the one-way system of the car park, drop their children off and drive off. I suppose you could describe it as a drive-thru drop off, where staff meet children and usher then into the playground. This works smoothly unless you have adverse weather or there is a build up of traffic in elsewhere in the city. Then it tends to get a little frisky! We operate a strict car park policy in the afternoon: cars can come into the car park until it is full then one in one out. Sounds straight forward. Yes. And actually, it normally works well.

I specifically remember being particularly challenged in February 2020 when the UK was overcome with snow. The car park was full, the main road on which my school is located was grid-locked and the snow was coming down in sheets. It’s funny how a slight change can cause such chaos. That day, I found myself outside in waterproof trousers and a hi-viz jacket, armed with nothing but a walkie-talkie and a smile. Not only did I find myself directing traffic coming into and going out of the carpark, but stopping traffic on the main road to facilitate this – most people were lovely (some were not!).

The standout moment had to be when two police cars drove past, wound down the front window and commended me on a great job and told me to “keep it up”. You simply couldn’t write it!

Inspiring Leaders Conference: As a new Deputy, working with a new Head, we welcomed any leadership development we could get. I had worked with Inspiring Leaders before and had been interviewed for their Leadership Soundbites which featured on their YouTube Channel. (Watch the interview here.) The opportunity to attend the Inspiring Leaders conference was one I had looked forward to for many years and it was well worth the wait – I was not disappointed.

Firstly, the opportunity to network with colleague from around the country was hugely beneficial. I’m sure many will say “but you get that at the meetings you attend,” – which is true, but here, I was fully in leader mode and could network with colleagues without the pressure of having to get back to school, or get to that next meeting or whatever was next on the list. This spanned a full two-days as well, providing the time and space for deep conversations.

The speakers were wide ranging in both esteem, experience and breadth of topics. Some were phenomenal, others were unmemorable. My favourite of the two days was by far James Kerr author of Legacy.

Legacy is subtitled “15 lessons in leadership from the All Blacks.” Kerr was fortunate to spend time with the New Zealand All Black rugby team, learning about their culture, their traditions and their timely changes to their leadership that led to their unrivalled successes as a team.

One thing that really resonated with me was the phrase “respect for the jersey”. No matter what the outcome of the game, no matter how frustrated or tired or injured a member of the team may have been, their rugby jersey would never touch the floor. It was always hung up, neatly, tidily, out of respect for what it stood for.

Just a few days before this, my Head presented every member of staff with a new “uniform” – a hoody, a coat, a tabard, Chef’s whites – all brandishing the school emblem and the words “The Zayteam”.

Why way this important? Because it brought us even more together. It unified us. It made us belong.

The keynote was fascinating from start to finish; I could have easily listened to Kerr speak all day. Equally, the book is a great read and so relatable to leadership in education.

A final one-liner: “Disagree then commit.” Harder than it sounds, but a good example to live by.


Challenge Partners: My school had never been involved in the Challenge Partners Quality Assurance Review process before. I had been involved in several Challenge Partners Reviews in years gone by – both as a school being reviewed (and being observed myself) to being a Challenge Partners Reviewer.

This review was different as I was not teaching, so my sole focus would be from the view point of a non-teaching Senior Leader. Strange!

For those who are not familiar with Challenge Partners and the work they do, here’s a brief overview of the Quality Assurance Review (taken from their website):

Challenge Partners’ quality assurance and assessment is built around the QA Review, a professionally-led peer review focused on teaching and learning. The review identifies areas for development, bringing key challenges to schools for the coming year and also provides Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for the visiting team members. It is a joint exercise between the review team and the school. All activities include a member of the school working alongside the reviewers. This approach enables honest and open conversations about where the school is and where it is going, to the benefit of all concerned.

Our Review took place between Monday 2nd March and Wednesday 4th March 2020.

This was important for our school, the staff and the wider community. It was the first form of external feedback we received since the Head and I took up post. It would also be a strong indicator of the progress we had made since our OFSTED in July 2019.

The Review comprises a variety of activities designed to evidence which category a school is estimated to fall in:

  • Ineffective
  • Working towards effective
  • Effective
  • Leading

Challenge Partners are very keen to point out that they are no an OFSTED equivalent, nor should they be compared to OFSTED. In some respects this is quite clear – Challenge Partners do not “inspect” the same areas as OFSTED do and when it comes to the report, with Challenge Partners, Senior Leaders have some say in the content and wording, whereas with OFSTED, they do not.

The activities are pretty much the same – although the timetable can be developed to suit the school. Included in the Review are the following activities:

  • Review of the school’s latest OFSTED report, data, SDP and SEF. This happens on the afternoon of the first day before any school based activities taken place. (The findings from this session for the basis of the Pre-Review Analysis Form, which then guides the Reviewers over the next day and a half.)
  • Lesson observations or learning explorations
  • Book looks
  • Conversations with middle and senior leaders
  • Conversations with SENDCo and Pupil Premium Champion
  • Conversations with governors
  • Conversations with Senior Leaders

For me, this was an opportunity to really celebrate the huge steps forward I had contributed to in just six months. Whereas others were anxious and slightly fearful of the process, I looked forward to showcasing my school and what I had achieved in such a short space of time.

The first “learning exploration” I did was an observation of a year 6 reading lesson. Alongside me was the Lead Reviewer (a former Headteacher and current HMI) and another Deputy Headteacher from a Junior School.

The premise of any learning exploration is that the leaders involved spend equal time providing quality feedback as they do engaged in the exploration itself. So for a 30 minute observation, the leaders would discuss it for 30 minutes. Now that sounds excessive – “What would I talk about for 30 minutes?” I hear you say. Actually, the time is valuable and goes quickly.

To summarise the thoughts of the Lead Reviewer after just one learning exploration: “Well that’s not a lesson of an RI school.”

This motivated me even more to showcase all the aspects of school that “weren’t RI.” The remainder of the next day-and-a-half continued in the same vein. Further learning explorations and conversations were similarly positive and provided leaders at all levels with the opportunity to both give and receive critical feedback, designed to move the school forward. At points, 30 minutes was not enough time and colleagues engaged in deep debate.

A further aspect of the Challenge Partners Review process is the opportunity to put forward an Area of Excellence:

An Area of Excellence (AoE) is an area of major or key strength in a school, for example a subject, phase, or initiative put forward for accreditation during a Quality Assurance Review. It should have a significant impact on pupils’ outcomes and should be shareable with other schools in the network. Please note it is not compulsory to put forward an Area of Excellence.

The criteria for being accredited with an Area of Excellence is clear, it must:

  1. Demonstrate sustained impact
  2. Be sharable to others in the Network
  3. Be sustainable for at least 3 years.

Given our uniqueness, it was clear to out forward an Area of Excellence linked to our values and ethos: Quranic and Islamic studies and the provision associated with it.

Now this is very niche so it was important to look at the broader implications of our QIS provision and the way our systems, procedures, protocols and provisions can be applied to others areas of school life. We came up with varied offer that would appeal to a broad spectrum of schools:

  1. Specific Islamic faith schools
  2. Schools of other religious denominations – looking at applying our ethos to other religions, including collective worship.
  3. School of no religious denomination – look at applying our community focussed approach to promote wider engagement.

After preparing the application, evidencing the impact of the provision and developing an offer, we were accredited as an Area of Excellence for three years.

In addition to this, during the final meeting, in which Review Estimates are arrived at, the Review Team indicated that the quality of provision was effective. This was huge. My school had never been effective (“good”) since it opened.

The full report is yet to be published. Needless to say, when it arrives, I will be shouting about it from the rooftops.

It just goes to show that a little progress each day adds up to big results.


COVID-19: This requires its own blog and I’m sure many people will be doing the same as a way of capturing their leadership development and reflecting on their response to the pandemic. Check back soon.

There will be other challenges, of that I am sure. Keep an eye on my blog for some more funny anecdotes of my life as a #Deputy.