Better Together


Overcoming the challenges we face in education

As leaders we face some of the most significant challenges seen in education. We are at a pivotal time to shape the educational landscape and direction that provides the opportunity to influence a generation far broader reaching then our own temporary custody within individual schools.

The two most significant challenges we face are those provided by the uncertainties of school funding and the need to ensure a deep-rooted focus on recruitment and retention. The question remains what can we do to address these areas that has an impact in all our schools and will we be in a stronger position standing individually or through working in collaboration?

Recruitment and retention – the quality of education is defined not by the amount of time in the classroom or the size of the class but most importantly by the quality of instruction. The defining factor remains the quality of learning, teaching and leadership to ensure progress and that every child makes the most of their potential. Through working together we have the opportunity to develop strategies for professional learning from the “cradle to grave” and ensure that our schools actively track, engage and provide opportunities for talent management and succession planning at all levels.

Financial uncertainty – the one thing that is clear is that there will be continued change and uncertainty within educational finances. We will face these in isolation with potentially catastrophic effects in that some schools may cease to exist or we have the opportunity to ask ourselves what we can do differently or more effectively by working together. This may include contracts, services, capital development, income generation and staffing.

Underlying this is a commitment to looking to embed and develop the school-led system so that there is a strength of voice when we stand together. Currently there is a risk that we are susceptible to political winds of change and we need to overcome this through helping shape our own destiny. We are challenged to establish a way of working in “accountable collaboration” underpinned by peer review, joint curriculum development and defining a shared strategy, vision and direction.
It is here that we have to take a leap of faith, to have the strength and moral conviction to find a path through the challenges that lie ahead. We simply owe it to ourselves, our students and the school communities we serve to find new ways of working together with creativity, commitment and a shared vision and direction. I am sure that if we invest the time and energy to get this right working in a multi-academy trust can achieve this vision and direction.

So it is time to face the challenges and uncertainties head on and discover new ways to solve these challenges standing stronger and better together. Are you ready for the journey?


Fed as a leader…

Leadership Concept

Some thoughts and notes from the recent conference on leadership in Birmingham. A few questions to consider.

  • What feeds, develops and challenges you as a leader?
  • How are you committed to continuing to grow and learn?
  • What will you to have a relentless focus on simplicity and improvement?

We can’t have a diet of junk food and need to be broad and balanced in what we eat and drink. Perhaps we need the same exercise and commitment in our leadership development. So thanks to those that shared in the journey and I hope we can all find a meaningful way to share the experience when we return to the pace of life in school.

Do you want to be a mechanic or a surgeon?

Like many of those preparing for the dawn of a new term I am eagerly anticipating getting back into the routine of school life. As part of this most schools kick off the school year with some pre-season training (or an INSET day or two!). My youngest daughter was easily convinced for a while that this in fact was an INSECT day where teachers would be set free to explore the world around them…

So what could be happening during this time? I hope most schools worth their salt do a few key things…

  1. Celebrate the successes of the summer – personally (weddings, engagements) and professionally (results and triumphs)
  2. Take time to welcome new staff and welcome back the trusty team
  3. Invest in developing one another by learning in some way actively

If none of this happens at your school and you are sitting around listening to presentations ask “how could this be better use of our time?” and suggest some solutions.

I do think the routines of life are useful for us all on a very basic level and this is definitely the case in our family life. We love time together but equally benefit from the contrast and rhythm of school – in essence I look forward to going back and secretly I think my children do too…

As part of our learning as a staff I want to prompt some reflection on learning and how we can understand what is going on at a deeper level.


Would we send our car to a mechanic who knew nothing about how engines work or we be happy to be operated on by a brain surgeon who hadn’t been to medical school?

I am fairly confident, that on different levels, the answer to these questions would be a resounding no.

So why should be any different for anyone working in education to know nothing about how the brain works and functions?

“How brains are built”

“Optimising the Performance of the Human Mind”

“Opera Singer sings during Brain Surgery”

“The learning brain”

“How playing an instrument benefits the brain”

“The human brain”

So maybe this year we should use this time to “set people free to explore the world around them” just like my daughter once thought! Welcome back and have a great year ahead…

Is it time…?

HS_WatchGuide_Watch Movements_Header I have just returned from the annual trek to Birmingham to the “Inspiring Leadership Conference” which is attended by 1500 headteachers from around the country. What were the take-away messages and what will I try and do differently as a result of it? I have looked to summarise it as a top 10…

  1. Teach less, learn more – how do we shift the focus to facilitating learning and expecting more of students at every stage and age? Remember education is the human enterprise of “paying it forward” to the next generation.
  2. Think about FED – Future (where are we going?), Engage (how do we get people on board?), Deliver (how do we get on and do it?!) Leadership is not the reserve of the “chosen few”, we need to develop it in everyone.
  3. How do we develop and train the brain? – finding time for plasticity and detaching from screen-time to shift from virtual reality to reality… perhaps a challenge for family life as much as education!
  4. We need to have connected leadership and shape the system we are part of… how can we see beyond our individual needs as a school to be a strong, cohesive and compelling voice to shape the future of education.
  5. Develop the habits to be a great school and great leader… we need to focus on classrooms not schools. The key to this is engaging discretionary effort and motivating people.
  6. Learn from winners – what makes them unique, successful and compelling but remember to be the person you are “called to be”… 
  7. Spot the trends and understand how society changes as it informs our understanding of what makes people tick!
  8. We need to broaden education to recognise the significance of EQ and IQ. When we accept our imperfections we are ready to learn.
  9. The biggest challenge we face is population growth – if the human race is to survive we need creativity…
  10. Never give up on the power of education to transform lives – deal in hope and nourish potential. “We shouldn’t throw away trash or peoples’ lives either…”

In essence it was an opportunity to reconnect with the reason that we teach, learn and lead. Having the opportunity to spend time with “world-class” people who challenge you to think learn and grow is significant. It is equally important to find the time and space to think and be challenged by people you respect, as other school leaders, whilst you are there. So thanks for the vitality, friendship, passion and care of those we got to share the journey with. I believe it is your responsibility then to do something with this… to drip-feed the messages of what you have learnt to others in a meaningful way. So come on… what are you waiting for? It’s time to be inspired!

“To be born at all is a miracle… what are you going to do with your life?” Dalai Lama

dalailama Some books to consider…

  • Practice Perfect – Doug Lemov
  • Teach like a champion – Doug Lemov
  • Visible learning into action – John Hattie
  • Student Centred Leadership – Jossey-Bass
  • Flip Your Classroom – Bergmann
  • Winners – Alistair Campbell
  • Nudge – Richard Thaler
  • Creative Schools – Ken Robinson

5 reasons teaching is the one for me…


I was recently asked by the University of Sussex (@UniofSussex) to speak briefly at a local recruitment event. In essence I had to get across why teaching was so special to me and I entitled the talk “The best job in the world…?” As we prepare for the next round of School Direct recruitment which opens on UCAS tomorrow I thought it was worth sharing my thoughts.

  1. You make a difference every day – so many jobs seem to become routine and mundane. People get bored of the monotony or lack of challenge. In teaching we have a unique responsibility and opportunity to genuinely make a life-changing difference every single day. When life gets tough for young people often it is school that provides the “glue” to hold it all together. We can provide the consistency and care that can inspire our students to make the most of their potential. When you think about it what could be better?!
  2. Young people give you vitality and energy – I secretly still feel as if I am 25 and believe at the heart of this is the joy and vitality I take from being with young people each and every day. They make you laugh and cry and brim with pride when they do their best. I would feel a bit lost without this buzz each day in school. I am really grateful to staff and students at our school for creating an environment and culture that is so alive.
  3. You need to have a “growth mindset” and willingness to learn – to be happy and successful in teaching you need to be committed to still being a learner. Stephen Tierney @LeadingLearner lives this out well… as a Headteacher you need to be open to learning. If you feel the journey is over it is time to give up!
  4. You will be inspired and supported to be the “best you can be” – all through my career I have been blessed by having people around me who challenged, supported and inspired me. I firmly believe you are only as good as those who you are working with. You cannot blueprint the perfect teacher or the perfect leader in school but you can be changed by walking alongside some of the best.
  5. You will find a world of opportunity and talent is nurtured at every stage – in the “old days” you only got opportunities if you had sat in the seat for the longest. You were expected to “do your time” as a teacher before you took on responsibility. I believe teaching is now a meritocracy… if you are good enough you are experienced enough. Last year we had three experienced staff on maternity leave. The trio who took the reins were young but truly brilliant. I know they will make outstanding school leaders and we have a duty of care to nurture, support and develop them now and in the future.

School direct is the most wonderful and inspiring route to teacher training that we can be involved in. We work in partnership with two universities, Sussex and St Mary’s University College, to develop a programme that inspires and develops some amazing teachers to work in our schools and beyond. We market the programme in exotic locations from Brighton to Dublin and then go on to interview and recruit teachers onto the course. The quality and the calibre of those training over the last two years has been excellent and I am proud that a number of them work in our school and in Inspire, the Teaching School Alliance we lead.

So if you want an opportunity to do something that means something then this could be your chance. I have never regretted the decision to teach for one single moment. Tomorrow marks the opening of the School Direct recruitment round for 2015/16… so what are you waiting for?

Are two Heads better than one?


I have recently been asked by my old school to write something on Headship as I am blessed by the fact that I have been privileged to have worked with (and for!) my brother in our career in teaching. So how did we both end up as Catholic Headteachers in the same Diocese, therefore having a family representation of 18% of the total of Catholic state secondary heads?

What was it in our experience at Worth that led us in this direction? I have thought carefully about what led me towards teaching. At the heart of this are three core formative aspects of this journey.

1. An inspirational role model – one of my English teachers, called George Daly was a person who “lit the fire” for me when it came to learning, motivation and identity. He was someone who was passionate about all he did ranging from his teaching to drama to sport. He had a sense of drive, conviction and focus that had a profound impact on me. In essence I could see unless you gave everything in life you might as well not bother! I hope I have echoed this and lived it out in a small way in how I have taught and led. I also have pledged in writing this to tell him the impact he had on me.

2. A sense of moral purpose – we were privileged at school to have opportunities to do voluntary service. This helped us see beyond the insular life at school to be challenged to take our place in the world that we live in. Two examples of this for me were volunteering in a special school and at St. Botolph’s in Aldgate, a homeless crypt . This awoke for me a sense of purpose and direction where I knew I couldn’t live a life solely focused on a career without it making a positive difference to the world we live in.

3. An independent spirit – staying away from home gave you skills to live independently. Looking back having a 24/7 school experience encapsulates the best and worst of school days. You had the freedom to be with friends, enjoy sport and a sense of adventure as well as the challenges and intensity faced in school when all isn’t going to plan. During this time my faith was nurtured and developed through pilgrimages to Lourdes, cross walks at Easter and other experiences. I also became politically aware and was drawn to the Justice and Peace group which included the work of Amnesty International. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “Whoever thinks religion and politics don’t mix must be reading a different Bible to me.” Sometimes this meant sticking up for your beliefs even if nobody else shared them. I hope to engender this sense of conviction and character in the students I serve today.

And finally… it has been an immense privilege sharing my vocation as an RE teacher and a Catholic Headteacher with my brother. To have worked together, and now alongside one another, in Catholic secondary schools in the diocese is fantastic. He is my best friend, confidante and an inspiration and I couldn’t think of anything better to bind us together. When we are in school together we are often mistaken for one another – physically there may be some similarities but at the heart of it I hope I share in his vitality, energy and commitment to a job we live and breath. I believe in this we are in our “element” and for this I give thanks each and every day.

My Brother’s perspective…

The prospect of me speaking in front of a thousand or more students and staff, at one stage of my life would have been totally unthinkable! I was a shy boy, keen to avoid putting his head above the parapet and not one for the limelight (although possibly my parents and teachers at Worth may have different recollections!) I now find myself as Headteacher of St Philip Howard School, a Catholic 11-18 secondary school near Arundel, working in the same Diocese as my brother, another ex-Worth boy, who is Headteacher at St. Paul’s Catholic College. How on earth did we end up here?!

I’ve been blessed to have had some wonderful role models in my life, whom I have aspired to be more like.  Three have made a particular impression on my decision to teach and my journey to Headship.

We remember our very best (and worst!) teachers. The TES used to run a feature on “My Best Teacher” where a host of celebrities spoke of the teachers who had made an impression upon them. The common theme throughout was about inspirational, passionate teachers who had a love of their profession and a selfless quality to the approach they took to their work. I was very fortunate to have been taught History at Worth by Alex Farquhar. What a dedicated, caring, patient and hard-working teacher he was. His passion for History was infectious, his desire to walk the extra-mile endless and his commitment to ensure you realised your full potential made a huge impression on me. Education has the power to transform and make a life-changing difference to others. It was Alex Farquhar who demonstrated that to me most.

Nothing worthwhile in life is achieved without commitment, hard work and sacrifice. Bringing up five children, running your own successful business and still having time to take care of everyone else’s needs, is no easy job, but something my mother did and continues to do with aplomb! Her example to me has without doubt led me to want to teach and serve others.

My vocation into teaching wasn’t immediately obvious to me despite the fact I’d spent 6 months in Canada during my Gap Year doing just that. It took four years of accountancy following my graduation from Newcastle to realise it was time to take the leap of faith. That leap was very much more the easier for having an older, far wiser and very supportive older brother who to this day inspires me in my work. Rob wasn’t one to avoid putting his head above the parapet and his courage, commitment and integrity to do what’s right was the single most important reason for choosing to change career.

Teaching has been the making of me. I haven’t looked back once and feel extremely fulfilled in my job. It is an enormous privilege to serve the young people entrusted to our care. Young people are an endless source of energy, enthusiasm and vitality. We are challenged by Christ to witness the world through the eyes of children and we have a lot to learn from them. At the heart of it is that we are all teachers whether we know it or not – let’s hope we can all rise to that challenge!

Creating the conditions for success…

I have talked and written before about how it is up to anyone as a leader to help “set the weather” by what we say and do each and every day. At the recent Inspiring Success conference this was reinforced by a fantastic session led by Andy Buck who is best known for his work with ULT and now has setup Leadership Matters.

I will try and capture some of the themes of the talk and share a few reflections on it’s impact. I have included the themes of the presentation and used examples to bring to life some of the ideas that were discussed.

Leadership for performance – how all leaders can create the conditions for success – Andy Buck – Leadership Matters / ULT

How do we create climate and culture that has an impact for children?
How do we create the culture for learning for students and staff?


Create the culture – what we do
Create the climate – how it feels
Discretionary effort and engagement – are people doing anything over and above what would get them sacked. It’s about going the extra mile. The key thing is people need to be working on the right things…


What has the biggest impact on discretionary effort?

  • Pay 2%
  • Benefits 10%
  • Personal development 12%
  • Work characteristics 17%
  • Senior team characteristics 17%
  • Induction 20%
  • Organisational culture 21%
  • Direct manger characteristics 25%

Recruitment and expectation

  • The bus – we all need to be “on the bus” and in the “right seats on the bus”. If you want some more on this look at the infamous Jim Collins book “Good to Great
  • High quality – only recruit the best people and don’t compromise
  • Appoint in haste repent at leisure – don’t be tempted to just “fill the spot”
  • Risk two if you have “the best” – if you have two great teachers and can afford to appoint them get them it will pay off
  • Support – look to nurture, develop and support
  • Accountability – are you backing or are we sacking? If you don’t believe in someone who have a duty to do something about it. You may have to “eat a live frog” occasionally as you will see later!

Developing staff

  • Every day – look to ensure staff grow and learn every day not just in training or INSET
  • Long term – look at the long terms aims and goals. Make it simple! We’ve had only two themes for learning and teaching all year and I think it has made the world of difference with a clear, consistent message
  • JPD – find time for joint practice development, peer observation, co-planning and team teaching. You can do this between schools and this is something we need to look to nurture through Inspire Teaching School Alliance which we lead.
  • Mistakes – spotting them and encouraging risk. We need to look to create an environment where we actively encourage staff to take risks (in the right areas!) knowing that it is safe to do so. This helps us learn and grow by challenging us to be evaluative, reflective but also to try new things in the classroom.

Developing students

  • Aspiration – it’s all about how we can set the right culture of aspiration. If we accept excuses for why “you can’t do it around here” we are failing the students to fulfil the potential of the students in our care.
  • Motivation –  we need to look to reward students for hard work. It’s all about catching people doing the right thing. Providing effective role models will help engage and motivate students.
  • Independence – it’s not good enough to just get the exam result on the piece of paper. We need to ensure that we haven’t failed to prepare students to develop as independent learners, if we achieve this we can empower them to thane the independence to thrive and survived in the modern world.
  • Voice – how can we find meaningful opportunities to empower students voice? Get them speaking about learning, observing lessons and having an impact. We have introduced students Governors who serve on the Learning and Ethos committee over the last 3 years which has been a big success.
  • Leadership – find opportunities to get students to lead not just at the top of the school but across every year group – we have introduced peer student mentors in key subjects, have “Guardian Angels” who welcome and support Year 7 and have a vibrant student council. All interviews include student feedback who are spot on in their reflections, often using the phrases or themes I have written in my notes! After all they are in up to 1140 lessons each year so have a pretty clear idea of what makes outstanding learning and teaching.


  • Vision – make your vision based on “ruthless simplicity” so people can understand and engage in the message. A drip feed approach has the biggest effect. Mention the common themes at every opportunity so people remember what you all stand for (and in contrast won’t stand for!)
  • Pedagogy – be passionate about learning and teaching. Every leader needs to have something relevant to offer. It is important to keep up to date and engaged in current approaches to pedagogy.
  • Behaviour – model the leadership behaviours you want. I will never ask someone to do something I wouldn’t be willing to do… you need to live out the principles you stand for.
  • Bedrock – build the basics and foundation that will make the school great – this allows you to gain the freedoms to take risks and experiment.
  • Simplicity – if you can’t summarise the vision in less than 5 bullet points it’s too complicated and people won’t engage in it. Our improvement plan has only 5 themes and 25 strategic objectives (CLASS – Community, Learning, Achievement, Students, Staff)
  • Expectations – have high expectations and don’t be willing to compromise on them


  • Ofsted wordle – most frequent word was consistency in schools that were graded as “outstanding”. Much of the recent research on school improvement identifies “within school variation” as the most significant factor that causes underachievement.
  • Buy-in – get people to understand why it matters. If every person in the school buys into the vision and knows what their unique role is then you will be onto a winner. This is equally relevant for teaching and support staff.
  • Simple – did I mention simplicity matters? The more overcomplicated or complex it is to express what you are doing the less likely people will engage with it.
  • Monitor and challenge as leaders – be self-evaluatives as leaders will to ask challenging questions of one another.
  • Change – be willing to learn and change. As Headteacher you should be the lead learner… If I feel I have stopped learning I should go and do something else. I am confident there are enough people around me who would do this if and when this time comes!

What’s the most important for you? 

  • Recruitment and expectations
  • Developing people
  • Developing pupils
  • Clarity
  • Consistency

I know what my answer would be… what would you choose?

What we do..

  • Set strategic direction
  • Build and sustain relationships
  • Deliver results and get things done
  • Plan and organise
  • Create teams
  • Create alignment

Leadership communication

  • Honest
  • Find every opportunity to catch people doing the right thing
  • Open
  • Simple
  • Walk the talk
  • Listening – it’s all about getting the message across, heard and understood. Communication is the response you get!

Leadership performance

  • Actual performance vs Natural predisposition
  • Natural strengths – work with
  • Potential strength – work on
  • Fragile strength – work in
  • Resistant limitations – work around


  • North Pole – would you follow them on a journey into the unknown?
  • Integrity – do they care about me?
  • Competence – can they do it?
  • Delegation – what level of delegation and trust do we show? You may achieve this in the leadership team but can you spread distributed leadership beyond this?


  • Different scales – link people and departments up within schools and between schools. We have enjoyed doing this through our work as a Teaching School but could do more to embed this work.
  • JPD – joint practice development can challenge us to see that teaching is not a solitary vocation. The more we open ourselves to working together the more we can build capacity, confidence and professional learning.
  • Win-Win – remember the benefits for both sides and be ready to articulate “what works and why”

The right priorities

  • Write it if it’s good – if someone has done something great write to them and let them know. If it’s by email copy in their Head of Department or Line Manager. Even better send them a card home to arrive on the first day of the holidays telling them they’ve done a great job. This one small gesture will be remembered for a long time.
  • Speak to people if it’s bad – see them quickly and face to face. Don’t hide behind an email or write something in haste that may be misinterpreted or you may regret. Don’t challenge them publicly and be clear about the message.
  • Confidences – trust people around you and offer a trusting relationship to them.
  • Keep promises – if you say you will do something make sure it happens, however insignificant you think it might be. This builds up trust and respect.
  • Best use of time – Importance vs Urgency (Covey). Evaluate how you prioritise. Do you comfort work (like comfort eating!) starting with all the interesting jobs and avoiding the ones you don’t fancy or enjoy?
  • Do the one thing that you dread most first – however difficult it may be! (Eat that Frog!!) If you put if off it will dominate your thinking and drain your energy.

What leadership practices make difference for students ?

Vivianne Robinson – relationships and trust

  • Do the right thing
  • Take calculated risk
  • Admit when your wrong
  • Have a core inner strength and purpose
  • Managing others and get the balance right between support and challenge

Actual performance vs behaviours and values

  • Stars – more recognition
  • Sloths – remove or neutralise
  • Saints – coach and support. Committed to values but don’t deliver
  • Sinners – feedback. coach and then sanction. Deliver but don’t toe the line



  • Level 5 leaders, as presented in Good to Great by Jim Collins, will show humility and belief in others around them.
  • Credit for the organisation not personally – it is important to set your ego aside. Remember to avoid talking about “my school, my deputy, my department”. It is “our school” after all and ultimately belongs to the students it serves. Share the wins and sometimes take the pressure when things don’t go to plan.
  • Authentic – be yourself and be comfortable in your skin. Sometimes we can be tempted in an eagerness to please to present to people the image that we think people expect of us.
  • Self-aware – be self-ware and willing to get feedback. 360 reviews are an ideal way to do this. Simply ask what you do well and what you could do differently or better, this is best led as a face to face discuss. Get another senior leader or Headteacher to do this for you and feedback word for word what a broad range of people said and discuss themes and future responses or improvements.

Who we are?

  • Operator – take the problem
  • Manager – give the advice
  • Leader – ask the right questions

We need to challenge ourselves to go beyond operating and managing if we are going to influence change over a longer period of time and have an impact. Pace-setting and coercive leadership may have a short-lived impact but visionary and affiliative leadership will have a longer lasting impact on improvement.

As leaders we can have a direct effect on the climate of the school we lead. Andy Buck gave a great practical talk which prompted thought, reflection and enthusiasm. I hope I have done it some justice – follow him on twitter @andy__buck

And finally…

We are challenged to think about whether we we light up our schools or cast a shadow? So what can you do to make sure you light the fire…

My top 5 final thoughts would be…

  1. Make the message simple so everyone can engage in the vision – consistency is the key
  2. Never compromise on recruiting the right people
  3. Face your toughest problem first everyday – if it’s a difficult conversation do it face to face
  4. Catch people doing the right thing – say thank you often and send them a card to make their day
  5. Trust, empower and believe in the people around you