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?

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:

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.