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Headship and navigating troubled waters

Caroline Derbyshire 24 July, 2017

I am part of the early noughties NPQH generation of headteachers. I was persuaded by the then Headteacher of Saffron Walden County High School, David Boatman, that headship was a social responsibility and that to lead was a privilege. I believed him and I still do. David could see that I was uncertain about the wisdom of engaging with headship: Ofsted had begun to categorise and label schools and headship had become a career that was fraught with danger. Failure was not an option and Deputy Headship seemed a secure garrison from which to watch the carnage that was about to ensue. I was not ruthlessly ambitious, I wasn’t interested in money. I had come into teaching in order to be an agent of social change because I passionately believed in the power of education to transform lives. It was only when David asked me the simple question: “if not you, then who?” that I realised that leadership was not a choice for me, but something of a duty, if I was genuine in my desire to make a difference.

So, in 2004, I signed up for the NPQH and learned during my training year that headship was challenging, but that it was not the solo endeavour I had once believed it to be. It was about building and leading complementary teams. And so, for 12 years now, as a Head and more recently as the CEO of a MAT, that has always proved to be the case. But it is like leading that team on a white-water raft course…..the political waters we have navigated have by no means been calm ones. In 2005 I could not anticipate the obstacles and buffeting we would face as local authorities diminished and multi-academy trusts rose up, as free schools surfaced, as funding platforms were swept away, as the culture of parental entitlement and litigation swelled, as a new religion around tracking performance data created a racing current and school accountability measures chopped and changed with the seasons.

As you can tell, I enjoy an extended metaphor. After my first decade of headship, my school bursar invited me on a staff outing to the Olympic white water rafting course at the Lee Valley Centre. It was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure. If you let go of the raft, or leaned in the wrong direction or could not paddle through the turbulence, you plummeted head-first into the water and the current carried you fast away. You had to react to the conditions, work as a team and be prepared to tough it out. And it could be thrilling if you succeeded…… until the next circuit began, when the conditions would change and so might the outcome. Rather like school leadership in the last 12 years.

I have been around long enough now to see patterns in all of this. In 2005, when I became Principal at Linton Village College, the accountability measure for schools was the percentage 5 A* to C grades in any subject. Schools learned quickly that BTECs delivered 5 subjects at C grade to any mainstream child who attended regularly. So, the measure changed to ensure greater rigour and 5 A* to C including English and maths became the new goal…and schools adapted and learned that some iGCSE courses delivered C grades more easily and that multiple retakes improved outcomes. So now we have Progress 8 and schools are approaching the circuit with different tactics……narrowing their curriculum offer, working out the subjects most likely to deliver good progress in the open buckets: effectively riding out the next wave. Schools that perfected their strategy to perform against one accountability measure often founder when a new one comes along. And somewhere along the course people have forgotten why we are doing this in the first place. Wasn’t it something about making a difference and transforming lives?

In my final interview for my NPQH I was asked a question that I have never forgotten. It was about my values and integrity. If I could write down my three most important educational values and lock them away in a safe so secure that they could never be compromised, what would they be? Well they certainly would not be about meeting an arbitrary school accountability measure, but they might be about enabling achievement for all, providing a varied and rich experience for the learner and nurturing good character. Fundamentally I believe that this is what great schools always do, whatever the measure or the conditions and the role of the headteacher is to make sure that nobody loses sight of that in the scramble for short-lived glory. And what will always deliver achievement is great teaching and children who are taught to be effective learners. Increasingly I have little patience for the self-satisfied accounts that you can hear at conference workshops of schools who have a magic curriculum logarithm for hitting a measure. At the moment, these are all focused on achieving a high positive P8 score….usually by massively reducing the curriculum diet of children by marginalising aspects of learning that are not factored into the formula, as if achievement was only about what counted in the current measures for schools. It’s a definition of achievement that I refuse to recognise. That’s not to say that having an eye on the way your school is to be judged is not important. It would be self-defeating not to be a little pragmatic, but to abandon your values for a measure that will not last? That is becoming a slave to the politicians and not any kind of leader at all.

In the whitewater rafting experience that is education leadership, keeping on course is as important as it has ever been. The far horizon is the one that counts more than the current wave. Changing conditions are inevitable, but I believe that it is principled leadership and great teamwork that will see you through.

Caroline Derbyshire


Saffron Walden County High School


Saffron Academy Trust