Leading an Independent School

Why you might want to

If you’d suggested when I was at school, when I was training to be a teacher or in the early years of my career that I would at some stage move into the independent sector, I would never have believed you.  I was entirely state school educated, as was everyone I knew.  My parents had both left school at 14.  I was the first in my family to complete a degree.  I went on to a PGCE and taught in four state schools in the next 15 years.  Independent schools simply weren’t on the radar.

But when I was Head of Sixth Form I decided that I was ready to step up to be a deputy. We’d moved from one side of the country to the other when I took up that post, so weren’t ready to move again.  I looked for deputy headships in my local area.  I had an interview for a deputy headship in a state school – a girls’ school – which, if I’m honest, I thought I was going to get. They had just appointed the male deputy to be the head of the school. The school had never had a male head before, the incoming head hadn’t actually proved to be that strong as a deputy, and the community was still reeling. I was sure they would want to appoint a strong woman as the new deputy. The interview went well and I was feeling confident. They appointed another man.

The following week I had an interview for a deputy headship in a girls’ independent day school. I didn’t think I stood a chance. All the other candidates were already working in the sector. I felt out on a limb. But I liked the school, and the head, staff and governors I met. Completely against expectations, they chose me.

I loved it. I loved the autonomy, the freedom from DfE initiatives which might or might not be relevant to the individual school’s context. I didn’t miss Ofsted. I loved being able to make decisions which felt right for this particular school. I loved the ethos, the atmosphere and the focus on learning. I stayed there for five years and then went on to lead a similar school – another girls’ independent day school – for ten years. I never ever regretted the decision.

I fully understand that this is not what many teachers/leaders would choose, and I respect that. But if I’d never taught across the two sectors I’d never have understood how much binds us, rather than separates us. I’d never have realised how ‘normal’ the pupils can be, and the staff, and the parents. The pupils certainly weren’t all privileged and pampered. They needed strong teaching and good pastoral care as much as any state school pupil I’d ever met. If I hadn’t had this experience, I’d probably have taken my (false) assumptions, pre-conceptions and, dare I say, prejudices, to my grave. I learnt so much from all six schools I taught in, and my career was richer as a result.

And I found so much more joy in headship than I ever expected to.

How you can prepare

I was the head of this independent school for ten years and, although I loved it, ten years in one school, the final decade of thirty years in teaching/school leadership, felt like enough for me.  I didn’t want to move to a second headship.  So I went about professionally reinventing myself.

Since 2010, I’ve spent time encouraging and support aspiring leaders at all levels.  Twitter, blogging, TeachMeets and conferences have been very positive channels with respect to this networking.  #Womened is a shining example.

One of the things I’ve been involved in has been a four-week online course on ‘Leading an Independent School’.  Andrew Hampton, a serving independent school head, and I developed the course and facilitate it together.  We’ve worked with twenty cohorts in the last few years – on Monday 30th April 2018 we start cohort 21.  We take up to 25 participants each time.  A significant number of those who have completed the course are now heads. Whenever this happens, Andrew and I feel like proud parents.

I knew little about online learning when we started, and suspect my initial thoughts about it were relatively negative – wouldn’t this be impersonal, faceless, dry and dehumanising?  Wouldn’t it, in fact, be dull?

I have learnt so much!

Online learning can work well for busy professionals who want to invest in their personal and professional development but don’t want too many days out of school.  It’s flexible in that they decide when they want to spend time on it, so they can work at a time and in a way which suits them.  The participants make up a supportive, energising and enthusiastic community and there is warmth and humour in our exchanges.  We’ve had a great deal of positive feedback, and those who have completed it often continue to connect with us, use our support in headship selection processes, and let us know how they subsequently fare, especially when they have news of success to share.

So how does it work?

The course runs for four consecutive weeks, and those who register need to commit to spending 3-4 hours a week on it. They decide whether to organise this time in short bursts or longer blocks, whatever fits best with their other personal and professional commitments.

The course covers: Vision and values, marketing, schools as businesses, governance and accountability, and leading an independent school through an ISI inspection.  Tasks include reading, exploring scenarios, watching videos, doing research, writing blog posts and reading and responding to posts written by fellow participants.

Each week there is a 1-2 hour online synchronous hotseat: a ‘Welcome’ hotseat in week one and online Q & A sessions with a marketing professional, a chair of governors, and a bursar/school business manager in weeks two, three and four.  These are fast and furious, and enjoyable!  Participants then need to reread and reflect on the discussion thread after the event and pull out their main learning points.  If they are unable to be online during the hotseat itself, they leave questions and comments in advance, read the discussion afterwards and still access the learning.

The course is specifically targeted at those considering independent school headship.  If you think this might be of use and interest to you, visit:

http://www.leadinganindependentschool.co.uk

It would be good to have you with us!

Photo credit: John Berry. With former pupils as a recent school reunion.

This post was originally published on @staffrm in 2016

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