Enabling a school community to ‘sing!’

Enabling a school community to sing!

The Olympics, London May 2012…and my first interview for a Headship post. The recurring theme over the course of the 2 day interview was the Olympic Torch – the bearer of light, hope and a lasting legacy. 6 years on, now ready to embark on a new role in September 2018 I return to that place, those feelings, that learning and reflect upon my own journey in leadership and its impact on the 2 school communities I have been privileged to serve during that time.

Then, as now, my goal was to change the lives of young people, improve life chances, enable social mobility and true hope in a coastal town. My aim was to facilitate a team of people to flourish, find success in every possible measure and to fulfil their huge potential – to sing!

Over the course of my journey in school leadership, to date, I have been fortunate enough to listen to, read, interact with and learn from and alongside incredible leaders from both educational and non educational spheres. So many, that it would be impossible to name and accredit all but instrumental (to continue the musical theme) to my learning have been: Mrs Lynn Atkinson, CEO (Learning Academy Partnership, LAP), Tracey Cleverly, Director of Education (LAP), John Thomsett (This Much I know…), Mary Myatt (High Challenge, Low Threat, Hopeful Schools), David Breashears (Mountaineer), Jim Kerr (All Blacks – Legacy), Sir David Brailsford (Team Sky), Sir David Carter, Regional Schools Commissioner, Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last, Jo Malone, Autobiography, and Yusuf Malala.

My final professional nourishment opportunity, of this academic year, came on the penultimate day of term with a visit to Tregolls Academy, Truro to meet the Head, Matthew Middlemore (who had also been our Ofsted inspector in February!) What that visit engendered, for me, was an even greater focus on thinking creatively, a renewed energy to continue breaking boundaries and to do whatever it takes to achieve excellence in the development of human beings. Matt talked about battling the odds for his community in so many ways in order to change the lives of the community his school served.

At the outset he showed a video clip https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ja-n5qUNRi8 if you haven’t seen it… it’s 5 minutes of your time that gets the blood pumping, the heart beating faster and the hairs on the back of your neck to stand on end.

A song, an anthem of hope, a ‘call to action’ if you like. Just 2 days later I shared it with our Year 6 it felt like the greatest gift I could give them as they flew the primary nest. It summed up what we had, collectively as a team, been striving for when the journey began 2 years previously in my second headship. Being ‘kinda’ isn’t good enough, not living the dream that has chosen you just isn’t an option and if you only drift through life then you will never truly live. If you are going to do something, do it the best that you can.

Perhaps though,  the main reason that visit, on that Friday, hit home so comprehensively was because Matt talked about the importance of trust management coupled with an analytical forensic approach to every single aspect of school life coupled with a sense of humour. School leadership is tough!

I pride myself on a forensic approach to data – understanding the data is like reading musical notes on a page. Overlook even one note or misinterpret and the piece won’t harmonise. If any member of the team doesn’t understand the data or doesn’t acknowledge their own small, yet vital part in the whole, the piece doesn’t work. The leader (conductor) is key in ensuring that every member knows and plays their part at exactly the right moment in exactly the right way – even one note out and the effect on the whole is huge.

When I began in headship my patient mentor spent infinite time ensuring that I understood the data (read the music) – what it said, didn’t say, what it meant and did not mean and most crucially – so what? I then made the classic error of knowing that data but not sharing widely or comprehensively enough with my team that meant that trust was hard as no-one but me knew what the whole piece should sound like. It couldn’t possibly work unless everyone knew their parts and the parts of others.

‘Know thyself’ the most important lesson in leadership. I have learnt to feel very comfortable with exactly who I am as a leader. I was a classic ‘let’s crack on’ leader often leaving bodies in my wake. I held all the cards, all the knowledge and my perfectionist tendencies meant that I always thought I knew best. I obviously don’t!

Yet a conductor can’t possibly conduct unless they truly listen to every part as well as the whole: to tweak, evaluate and refine. So many times I have fallen short of listening and taking time and continue to do so but I am ever conscious of it and have developed strategies to remind myself to listen more than I speak. The conductor knows every part, every voice, every instrument intimately but doesn’t speak.

Leadership is about trust management and developing a team. My second headship was tougher I didn’t inherit: a team, a culture of excellence and high expectations.

I inherited a disparate group of amazing people and a new leadership team who had never met each other before let alone worked together. You cannot develop trust and therefore a culture of challenge in order to achieve excellence quickly – it takes time, quality input and guidance and constant nurturing. I liken this to our school choir – a group of amazing children who didn’t know that they could sing together and bring their unique voices to create something amazing.

Looking back on the last 2 years of our rapid school improvement journey the following 6 elements were, I believe, seminal in achieving: significant improvements in the quality of teaching and learning, year upon year better outcomes for all, closing the disadvantaged gap, phonics results of 97%+, 2 Good Ofsted inspections (February, April 2018) and 2 Outstanding SIAMS inspections (2018), an accredited area of excellence in Early Years, Foundation Stage across our Hub of 3 Schools:

  1. Family – developing a sense of unity, a team. The language I used, daily, to set the weather was one of care and positivity. I referred to us as a family within our school community within the wider family of our Multi Academy Trust. We never veered from this – in every communication with every stakeholder. This would prove to be crucial in terms of developing an identity – a sense of pride.
  2. Symbol – developing a symbol of hope for our school. A tangible sense of belonging proved to be intergral to our communications and our sense of being one, toget
  3. Trust – developing a culture of high expectations, high aspirations, risk taking, creativity only comes about as a result of constant investment by the whole team in building, earning and nurturing trust.
  4. Challenge – can only come after trust has been earned. Whilst we set hugely aspirational outcomes right at the outset (the trickiest, most complex song we could possibly sing on the biggest stage) we were only able to truly drive these once Trust had started to develop.
  5. Song/creativity – I am fortunate enough to work with brilliant individuals who share their expertise generously for the benefit of all – never under-estimate the power of an inspirational environment, quality displays and enabling to shine in areas in which they feel a true passion. In this, I refer to the pupils too – at the heart of our school community is song. Our children are most incredible singers and through their voices our families grew an identify, a pride, a soul. Yes, the singing itself sounded amazing but was more than this it was about the whole singing and as our singing lead, with amazing shoes, always says ‘music makes you feel good’, ‘it’s good for the soul.’ It is also about the collective, an anthem, a pride in your school community and what you stand for.
  6. Team –  not just the team I worked with physically everyday but the wider team across our Trust. The hardwired nature of Trust and th collective way in which we work to support and challenge each other. Mary Myatt’s High Challenge, Low Threat (last summer’s read) and John Thompsett’s This Much I know…. both epitomise for me what school leadership is for me and what it should be about. My own leadership journey is testament to our MAT, the way in which we work with share accountability for every child. We know our parts in th choir but if something can be tweaked (Team Sky, Marginal Gains) to be even better the collective steps in.
  7. Shoes – the unofficial 7th! As a leader having a ‘thing’ , in my case shoes, has been incredibly important in terms of building relationships. A starter for conversations, an ice breaker, a piece of who you are, an invitation into what matters to you. In my case – quality, statement, shoes! 👠👠

Whilst the song is unfinished and always will be…the torch passes on for the next stage in the journey. To be finished implies perfection – we know that excellence is a journey rather than a finishe state and leadership likewise a journey rather than a destination. Although not finished it is hugely satisfying to stop and listen to the sound of the music a collective body creates. It is ‘truly good for the soul.’


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