I’ve done it… I can now say that I have had the pleasure of having visited Blackpool and more importantly the privilege of spending the day in a fantastic Catholic school there. It was a unique opportunity to spend some time with Stephen Tierney, Executive Headteacher at St. Mary’s Catholic College and Christ the King Catholic Primary School. Stephen is a prolific blogger and is passionate about all things to do with education and learning. We are both part of the SSAT Vision 2040 group with a focus on Redesigning Schooling and curriculum reform. I suppose this led to the educational equivalent of “blind date” as we were paired up to progress with some work on identifying what makes a distinctive school curriculum. This will build on the effective work of Dylan Wiliam who led one of the symposia for the SSAT and also will author a resource to engage schools further. Ultimately the aim is to establish a clear understanding of the difference between the national curriculum and the framework it provides to the school curriculum, with it’s unique interpretation in your own setting and context. Anyway… back to Blackpool!
I was welcomed with warmth and open arms by all at St. Mary’s. The school has going through an exciting time of change in a number of ways. It has had an extensive redevelopment which incorporates innovative modern design with a deep rooted tradition of Catholic education in Blackpool. There has also been change in the structure and leadership of the school, including Stephen becoming Executive Headteacher and the search for a new Head for the school. This has also led to a hard federation with Christ the King Primary School which provides fresh opportunities to work in partnership and collaboration. So what did I learn from this experience?
- Be passionate about learning – as a Headteacher or a school leader you set the weather and tone of life in the school. If you are not interested in pedagogy, learning and teaching nobody else will be. It was clear that Stephen, the leadership team and middle leaders passionately cared about this and were willing to make the commitment to always move things on. If you lack this passion who else will have it?!
- Invest time in spreading the “good news” – the evening I arrived a cohort of Year 6 parents came into the school. In the presentation they listened to it was wonderful to see them gazing at the new innovative environment and talk to them about the aspirations for their children’s future. A refreshing part of this presentation was an honesty that the school did not always get things right and were continually happy to improve.
- Empower and believe in others – one key thought that struck me was the wisdom in looking to ensure that you have the right breadth of skills on the leadership team but also being willing to develop a new structure to open a new chapter for the school. St. Mary’s is on this journey and I believe this could lead to exciting times for the school.
- Is everyone on the boat and rowing in the same direction? 5 years ago Stephen challenged all at the school to make a deep rooted moral commitment to doing what was right for the students at the school. This was a challenge to bring consistency and a “call to arms” to keep the school moving forwards. Staff remembered this and had responded with real vigour, passion and commitment, as indicated by their loyalty to Stephen’s vision for the school and the number of cars in school at 7.30am when we first arrived was testament that this was being lived out each day.
- Be true to your mission – it takes time to identify what you and your school stands but once it is clear the challenge is to try to be true to it in all you do. This may be particularly challenging in times of economic or political change. It was clear to me speaking to students, staff and Stephen that there was an unwavering commitment to doing things right. It was described to me as the “St. Mary’s way”. There was also a real commitment to looking to develop further including nurturing opportunities for collaborative and independent learning including the innovative use of technology.
So what next? Well like every good fixture we have a return leg to look forward to when Stephen will come to spend time at St. Paul’s. In a world of education where some are quickly swayed by the wind of political change or educational fashion it was clear that there was something about St. Mary’s that was not up for discussion… this was the commitment to a really inclusive vision of education where decisions would be guided by doing what as best for all students. I am sure this was what was the “Blackpool rock” – if you cut through all that happens it was this moral purpose that was lying at the heart of this Catholic school who committed to doing all that was right for every student giving them the “passport” for their future. We could all learn from this integrity and clarity of vision – St. Mary’s Rocks and I salute you.