Who Me? Yes, You!
How do my values influence my style of leadership and how does my leadership influence my values?
I seek the truth. I seek contentment.
I was brought up in the care system by white working class parents in Wiltshire where I was born. My birth mother had moved down from Manchester with her mother, given birth to me and kept for for 5 months giving me to social care when she married a man she had recently met. She was 16 years old. My birth mother told everyone I was Italian. I was not. My father was Jamaican and she was white.
I was the only girl of 4 children in my fostered family. My mother and father fostered many children during my childhood aside from me - I was never formerly adopted, not because I wasn't loved but because my birth mother never signed the papers. I was never encouraged to embrace being BME but I was taught to hold my own - how could I not with 3 brothers and just 5 years separating all of us? This was in the 60s and 70s when racism was widely spread and accepted but there was an underlying fight against it that many around were a part of.
I had a happy childhood. I have many happy memories and one of my goals in life is to help children to have happy childhoods so that when we reminisce over our childhoods we can smile.
I left school with no qualifications because despite being a very bright child my teachers encouraged me to do sport and put me in all the bottom classes which were set because, I believe, there was a wide spread belief ' that that's where black kids belonged'. I was reading books about religion and philosophy by the age of 11 and spent much of my youth in the library. I didn’t skip school but used school as a social hub to engage with people and observe the world around me. I often felt both in my family and at school as an outsider looking in. This perception never bothered me, it still doesn’t.
When I was in my early 20s I remember being told that one such Indian faith believed that the universe was an illusion and everything in it was put there for you to learn from. (I have never researched this and do not know if it exists partly through fear of finding out that this was not true). I understood why this would be an attractive belief if there was such a belief then you are in the driving seat; you write the rules. You keep yourself safe, you have a strong belief in cognitive dissonance and you create your own parameters. What a glorious way to live. Whilst I digress it is fundamental to know this about me as to a degree I have lived my life as if the universe if there just for me and everything was put there for me to learn from it.
I took maths at university when I was 26 and a mother of two because I knew it would strengthen my chances of getting a job. I got a first in my maths degree and was top of my class despite not having a maths O or A level. It took 70 applications and 10 interviews before I was offered my first post when everyone around me was being offered posts. My first role was as a temporary cover teacher in one the of the most challenging schools in Bristol - this school is currently in special measures in 2019. This was in 1996 when teacher shortages, like today, were widely published. I felt I had to apply to the most challenging schools because they were desperate for teachers and I had a better chance of getting a job.
I worked overseas in Cambodia- I was mugged at gunpoint within 2 weeks of being there - believing that working overseas would increase my chances of getting a good and permanent job when I returned to the UK.
I worked for 7 years in what would be considered one of Bath’s most challenging schools – the HT at the time described the group of schools that we were part of as the – slapped wrist group - (this school continues to have among the lowest results in Bath today) taking 4 secondments, 3 part time at Bath Spa University as a maths lecturer and 1 full time with Fulbright and The British Council. In both cases I was the only BME member out of 100s of employees over the 7 years both in Bath Spa University and the Bath school. In this Bath school despite applying for internal promotions I never got one. I now had been in education for 14 years including 4 as a trainee teacher. I decided to apply to London because I thought I would have a better chance at getting a job as a senior leader. I was successful at my first interview - a school in difficulties. I always knew I would return to the West country when I had developed a skill set that the West Country wasn’t yet able to develop. I got a headship in Devon, in a school in difficulties, and then the headship at **** a school in special measures followed. I transformed both these schools. Making BRCA a good school - 9 people over 10 years had tried before me and all had failed and I was awarded 4 times by 4 different agencies – DfE, SSAT, LA and TES for my achievements over a 6 year period. A Trust took on my school as they saw it as an opportunity to take on board a good school with an outstanding leader. I was promoted to executive HT – after 2 years in this trust I was made redundant.
What I am saying here is that I have always taken risks. Risks so that I can achieve the best possible outcomes,not just for me. I have been inspired and supported by many people, just so few of those people in my professional world are or have been BME. I wish there were more. I do not claim I know why there are so few of us. Although we do kow that one of the precursors for being a leader in 2016 was a good education in the 70s and 80s which would lead to leadership opportunities. Good and equal educational opportunities I can guarantee were rarely offered to black or mixed black pupils. I prove that things can be done, that we can all achieve highly. I help everyone including parents, children and staff to believe in themselves. I don't 'moan' about the racism and have mostly ignored it ( if I hadn’t, I would have given up trying and would not have even made it to uni.) I do fight it head on and prove to my friends, colleagues and family that we can achieve and we can overcome.
Some other key achievements which demonstrates my determination to succeed - I have travelled to over 35 countries sometimes having to tackle racism head on; I have just returned from China and Japan. I wrote a blog about my travels in 2015 which included visiting South Africa, a country which amazed me in many ways http://www.pandagoeswest.co.uk/421409940. I swim (I swim long distances for charities every 2 years) , I cycle, I play tennis, I have an undying thirst for English or Irish folk music as well as French cabaret, world art history and I became British, English and Welsh Tae Kwon Do Champion. I also continue to love learning about the world in which I live.
When travelling around the globe in 2015 I made a personal discovery which aligned with my core belief which caused me to make a shift in my thinking and in the way I live my life. The pursuit of happiness has been a rhetoric that forms the basis of laws, many faiths or religions and the ways a society behaves. But rather than the pursuit of happiness, which to me is a deeply intense emotion, I preferred the term contentment, which again to me is a feeling of fulfilment or satisfaction. I encountered many societies and communities that could not change the world in which they lived so lived with great contentment within the parameters which they were confined to. Therefore, I seek to be fulfilled and I seek to be satisfied, I seek contentment. The reason I start here is because I believe when seeking happiness or contentment and always living by our value of honesty is difficult. In addition, whilst I know that my views are not always welcomed I seek ways to present them without causing conflict or I consider ways that will reduce the amount of conflict my views may present. There have been times in my life that when aiming for the long-term goal of contentment I have encountered conflict with my emotions and have had to compromise my values. Sometimes it is necessary to compromise your beliefs, your values and your truths to pursue happiness. I describe one such time I had to compromise my values to pursue contentment in the long term rather than the short term.
As an experienced and successful leader, in the summer I left a multi academy trust (MAT) that was not functioning well. 67% of its sponsored schools had been put in special measures in 4 months after 4 years of being sponsored by them and 60% of its leading staff had also left. According to Monster employment website “15% of staff turnover is considered healthy and anything more than this can lead to a lack of underperformance”. Later newly appointed staff in the organisation continued to leave at a rapid rate, therefore the organisation was unable to make the necessary improvements so that pupils accessed a good quality education. Improvements were not sustainable.
I joined an organisation 3 weeks ago as a headteacher of 2 primary schools, that on paper had all the attributes that aligned with both my personal and professional beliefs and values. I chose to take up an interim role over a permanent role as it would give me time to reflect on my practice and enable me to make firmer decisions on my next step in my career.
I am passionate about teaching and learning and take risks that have led to transformational change within the schools and improved outcomes. My newly adopted multi academy trust has 4 schools, 3 of which are all through schools responsible for 3-18-year olds. The federation has a teaching school with quality assured and accredited programmes to equip its staff to better undertake strategic aspects of their roles. It invests time and funding into its staff by providing these training courses.
At the recent annual conference for senior leaders, the aim of which was to update the annual improvement plan across the federation, we were presented with discussing 3 themes on 6 tables. The themes were all focussed on improving outcomes for pupils or specifically improving the exam progress across the federation from 0 to 0.5; which would demonstrate the federation was adding value to pupils’ progress.
Designated seating meant that I sat with the CEO, the director of the teaching school, a HT of a primary school, a vice principal of the secondary and an HR leader. With the headline focus clear each table was afforded a sub heading to discuss in relation to the main heading. Ours was workforce, specifically how can our strategic plans for the workforce be improved to improve outcomes for people? We were encouraged to write down any plans or ideas that we could implement during the following 5 years that would impact positively on the workforce. Then we had to discuss and prioritise these. I had written - increase income (to cover the costs of protecting and developing the workforce) and reviewing recruitment and retention plans and policies, with the knowledge that the school I was working in had 76% teacher turnover in the last 15 months. We then had to discuss which strategies that we had recorded were key to improving outcomes for pupils and delete the ones we felt had no place. Both of mine were later vetoed. As the newest person in the organisation I was faced with a dilemma. In the pursuit of both wanting my experience and views validated, demonstrating that I have both emotional and intellectual insight, but also wanting to improve outcomes for all. I have two of Federation’s most influential players on my table; that decision for me to be in their sights when there were 5 other tables was probably a strategic one they had both made. How do I strongly present my vetoed views without fully knowing their aims and values well enough and risk being labelled as an arrogant daredevil?
Realising that I will have other platforms where I can share my visions and my experience, I sat back and listened for the remainder of the session, but undoubtedly compromising my values as the team continued to discuss how they could introduce more robust accountability systems to ensure the workforce is high functioning. Having been there for two weeks I felt that there were high accountability systems in place that didn’t need much adjusting. My role was not to system change yet, but to contribute towards a team in a positive manner.
I believed that valuing people should be at the forefront of any leader's strategic plans and not unnecessarily using tools to hold the team to account. One tool used in the new MAT is the headteacher’s performance management pupil targets, ensuring they are aligned with the national targets; that year set at 65%. Not necessarily taking into account the cohort’s strengths and the quality of teaching they have been exposed to over the last 4 years. Given this, the federation’s KS2 targets should be 52%. This system, should the 65% target not be reached, will undoubtedly lead to a personal dissatisfaction and further turnover of staff. It appeared the leaders within the MAT had a strong belief that the reason for a high turnover of staff was owing to a lack of robust accountability. As Russell Hobby, National Association for Headteachers’s Chair reporting to Schools Week in 2015 states:
“Figures show a further deterioration in retention after three years, which is a source of great concern for school leaders. We lose a quarter of those who enter service by this point. This has been steadily worsening over the past four years, and the government needs to look at the drivers – workload, stagnant pay and an over-bearing accountability system – behind this worrying trend.”
In my opinion the reason there is a high turnover of staff in the new MAT is for a myriad of reasons, but probably having more robust accountability systems may not address the retention and recruitment issues when the federation already has such clear systems in place. These systems complement those also delivered by both local and national accountability mechanisms such as monitoring of pupil outcomes by the Regional Schools Commissioner, Ofsted and the local borough. What will make a transformational difference, in my experience, is strategic plans where people's wellbeing is at the heart of the decision making and not systems which are predicated on telling them that what they are doing wrong and where commitment over compliance prevails.