This is a blog written by Jo Luxford who is currently a participant on the SW100 programme; a school leadership programme for Devon and Cornwall. The mission of the SW100 is to identify and prepare 100 future Head Teachers to lead South West schools where all children thrive.
Shivering at the finish line, clutching flapjacks and towels ready to greet my mud-spattered, exhausted and exhilarated husband after one of the crazy, obstacle filled 20-mile races he loves, I got to thinking. People my age or thereabouts seem to sign up in their droves to compete in the latest gruelling physical challenge. The punishing training regime leads to a level of fitness never before attained, the act of ‘digging deep’ to find ‘hidden strength’ is incredibly rewarding, the sense of achievement when the race is done is unparalleled… I felt a confusing mix of superior smugness because it was obvious to me how ridiculous it all was, and envy because I could see the reality of how rewarding it was to those taking part. Handing over the towels and escorting my endorphin addled husband to the car it dawned on me…I signed up for my own version of an ‘Iron Person Challenge’ the day I accepted a job as a class teacher in a tiny, two class primary school on Dartmoor.
If, like me before I moved to Dartmoor, you’ve never lived in a village community, perhaps you were only hazily aware that schools with less than 60 pupils even existed, let alone were common in rural and coastal communities.
You might imagine that this hidden network of tiny schools were populated entirely by the children of the well-to-do middle classes; those who could afford to live in houses with names instead of numbers. The reality is very different. Our intake is often incredibly varied. Pockets of rural poverty are tucked right alongside relative affluence and the lack of infrastructure means that job prospects are extremely limited and families often have to travel some distance to access basic services such as doctors, pharmacies and supermarkets. Our small schools are the beating heart of our village communities therefore, acting as hubs for families and fulfilling a unique and important role. It is an honour and a privilege to teach in a tiny school because if we get it right we are a window on the world, a social space and a beacon of hope for the future in areas where these things are few and far between.
Some of our small schools are blessed with quirky, beautiful buildings, some with spectacular views, some with access to swathes of incredible countryside and often with unparalleled support from our families and communities. Easter bonnets, cream teas, duck races and cake raffles abound. Take a job in a small school and you might sometimes feel you’ve slipped and fallen into an episode of ‘The Larkins’. The challenge is for teachers to embrace the idiosyncratic beauty of village school life while remembering that we are not a living history exhibition. It’s our moral duty to take what we’ve been given and work to use it to provide the best possible education for every pupil we teach. The children we teach today will be adults in the 2030s. They are going to need more both happy, idyllic childhood experiences and a world-class education to equip them for this.
Taking the job here was a return to full time work for me after several years of working part time after having children. I knew I was ambitious and wanted to move towards school leadership and I honestly couldn’t have chosen a better place to start.
As one of only two teachers onsite I am responsible for the school when the principal is off-site. This might mean every other day, every day for a week, or in the instance that the principal is off on long term absence as mine was in 2018-9 it can mean stepping up and running the school indefinitely. I am the DDSL, the EYFS and Science lead across six small schools, I work across the team of teachers in my trust who, like me, teach classes of mixed Reception, 1 and 2 children. I often unlock the school in the morning and lock it in the evening. I have learnt about the systems for everything as I have stepped in and taken on every aspect of school life at one time or another over the time I have been at the school.
Effective teaching is hard. Effective teaching in a mixed age class is harder. Leading in multiple areas is demanding, even with small pupil numbers. Combining the two is the biggest challenge you will face in your teaching career. I write this in a state of mud-spattered, exhausted exhilaration in the last week of half term. I have been pushed to my limits and I have loved every minute of it. So if you’re looking for your very own ‘Iron Person’ challenge and you’re ready to build your experience base with a view to moving into Primary School leadership you could do worse than to take a job for a year or two in a rural small school because if you can do this, you can truly do anything.
This blog is offered as a personal reflection by Adam Hill, Principal at Bridestowe and Lydford Primary Schools at Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust. The blog does not reflect the views of the MAT as a whole or of the Trustees. D-notes blogs are offered as a stimulus for reflection and as a provocation for discussion. Do use the comment field at the foot of the page to interact - we'd love to hear what your thoughts queries and responses.
Originally published here, on Mr E Finch's blog (Principal at Chagford CE Primary) and kindly shared
In what ways has your engagement with the Church of England vision for education and a developing understanding of theology informed your leadership practice in your school community?
Reflection is a powerful tool, and the last four years of school leadership in rural Devon village schools has certainly been a journey. When asked the title question I had a lot to ponder, a lot of challenge to work through and a lot of joy to reminisce.
My own past is dotted with religious experiences and learning. My own Primary School, Boasley Cross, was not C of E, but I remember singing ‘Give me joy in my heart’ and ‘One more step along the world I go’ in our daily assembly. Such was the enjoyment in those 30-minute sessions, we sang both hymns at our children’s christenings. I distinctly remember Sunday School at the Methodist chapel opposite the school as well. My performance as the Shepherd, never Joseph, every year brought a smile.
As an adult, I flitted around belief and religion – St Augustine of Hippo reportedly said, ‘The world is a book and those that do not travel read only one page’. My own travels took me to the Ellora Caves, Buddhist temples in China, the Jama Masjid Mosque, Sri Hamadir Sahib and to explore the cultural beliefs of groups such as the Maasai. My wedding in an Anglican church with all the religious trimmings was one I wouldn’t change for the world.
My conclusions, still incomplete, are that almost everyone wants to do right by others. To help, to be kind, to support and to believe in something greater than ourselves.
When I returned to the classroom, I was able to deliver the national curriculum quite efficiently and effectively, or so everyone said. And if you show any promise in the classroom, and a desire to progress, you are soon offered leadership opportunities.
This happened for me in January 2018 when I joined the beautiful Exbourne Church of England Primary School.
Despite my personal journey of faith and belief to this point, this was the first time I had taught or learnt in a C of E school – and what an eye opener.
In 2019 the school had 22% SEN and 10.2% EHCP cohorts, far above the national averages of the time (12.6% and 1.8%). Academic test results were clearly not going to be representative of the brilliance of the children at the school. Educating the whole person, not just the academic success, became the key. My personal philosophy drove me to promote living life in all its fullness (John 10:10) and specifically overcoming the rural isolation of Devon whilst sensitively challenging the established traditions and customs of the patriarchal farming community. My leadership would focus on developing opportunities and creating the ‘Value added’ of attending a C of E and small school.
Within a couple of months, we had relaunched our vision as ‘Live, Love, Learn’ underpinned by ‘Let us spur one another to acts of love and good deeds’ (Hebrews 10:24) partnered with the motto ‘Small School, Big Opportunities’.
Our provision, we decided, should be aimed at developing wisdom, knowledge and skills for our most vulnerable. Support them and everyone will benefit. This is mentioned numerous times in Proverbs, and I regularly referenced the Good Samaritan – we would be the one to help, no matter who they were. Extensive research around SEN provision, primarily from the EEF supported me in this.
All children were included in all activities, regardless of need or status. All families were invited into the school – relationships with the parents and wider community went from strength to strength. We were courageous advocates for all our children – ‘We’ll never win with them in the team’ ‘Shouldn’t they be in a special school?’ and ‘They’re just the same as all their siblings, is there any point?’ were all common phrases we challenged and refused to bend on. And those were just from the parents and staff.
The impact for our children and families was life changing.
The children grew in confidence. They found skills they never knew they had. They were part of something, for the first time. Parents and families came to us for support – they asked for help. Children spoke to us about their worries, opinions and joys. We uncovered some horrors too – but at least we could support the healing process.
We experienced challenging behaviour, of course – these were vulnerable children in difficult situations. Hope and aspiration for all was essential. For many ‘bad children’ they had lost hope. School wasn’t for them. They didn’t have friends. The teachers didn’t like them.
Considering Zacchaeus, I drove a culture change. Forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion and understanding were needed. Staff and parents were trained and, in some cases, instructed to follow an entirely new behaviour policy. We would no longer blame and shame – we would explore, support and learn from the behaviour communication we were seeing.
Suddenly, the children felt understood and supported. Issues came to the fore and were sorted, behaviour improved dramatically and children realised opportunities that they never believed were open to them.
We finally thought about Living well together. How could our village, our area, our region support and help one another? As Galatians encourages us to carry one another’s burdens, I encouraged the community to drive healthy and happy living. Community projects with the local shop, pub, Methodist chapel, pre-school and St Mary’s Church grew a sense of belonging. The raise in self esteem for our children was evident – life affirming opportunities to speak and perform, in all mediums, were provided for all.
In my leadership at this time, I was the ‘fixer’, a saviour, a messiah. If someone had a problem, leave it with me. If someone was struggling, I’ll do it for you. If someone had made a mistake, let me fix it. For a while, this worked, and people loved me for it. But things change. In March 2019 I was honoured to be asked to lead to lead Bridestowe Primary School in addition to Exbourne.
Now, leading across multi sites, I couldn’t always be there. The phone calls were incessant, about the most trivial of items – Joe’s not ordered a school lunch, what should we do?
It was at this time I entered the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership’s (CEFEL) NPQH course. A revelation. Humility, service, the empowerment of others was what leadership was about. I am not a messiah. It wasn’t all about me. In fact, it wasn’t about me at all.
Further proof of this came from The fearless organisation by Amy Edmondson and Michael Fullen’s work on leadership styles.
My approach at Bridestowe, which has similar SEN and PP cohorts to Exbourne, was to repeat all the actions which had so worked but this time not by myself, with all the team on board. A significant difference, however, was Bridestowe is not a Church school. I wondered what difference this would make. With the staff team, we planned what we wanted for our children.
We wanted exactly the same things I wanted for the children back at Exbourne, so why do it differently?
God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11), so why should we.
We, collaboratively, launched a new vision With respect and ambition, we flourish together. Many of those words will be familiar with anyone who’s read the Church of England’s vision for education.
‘Worship’ was replaced with ‘Spirituality, ‘Prayer’ with ‘Reflection and the personal development of our children, literally, flourished.
Wider changes to our policies, procedures and processes had to be managed in a sensitive and personal way – connecting to the individuals I was working with and sharing their understanding and experience. Kotter’s work on change management emboldened my belief in what we were doing. As seems inevitable, some felt the need to get off the train and forge a new path – I wished them well.
The community welcomed the changes greatly, they suddenly felt part of the school family and their children were reporting how happy they were.
Within a year of my appointment to Bridestowe and just as we were gathering positive momentum, we went into a time of great need. March 2020 and the school restrictions enforced were a shock to all.
Our ethos and morality work started to repay us greatly. The school became the provider, the hub of the community. And everyone rallied round. Partnerships forged with local groups became fruitful sources of support and collaboration.
My belief in the servant leadership model was reinforced. I washed the feet of the disciples, delivered food packages to the doorstep, checked all our vulnerable families were safe and well and provided whatever was needed. Others started to follow suit – the donations and gifts we received at that time were humbling.
In April 2021, a year on, I made the move from Exbourne to lead Bridestowe and Lydford. I was no longer in a Church school at all. This hasn’t dampened my desire to follow the morality and ethos of my faith through my leadership – I’ve continued to drive forward what I believe to be right.
Currently, I’m most proud of the culture of promotion of others, empowering staff to also become connected, committed, not to judge or derail. I’ve recognised those vision statements, Live, Love, Learn and With respect and ambition, we flourish together are for all – children, staff and parents. Watching the staff team flourish has been my greatest pleasure.
I’ve recently taken up a Trust wide role at Primary Maths Lead. Developing the individuals within the team to deliver improvement in all 14 Primary Schools has been a joy – possibly the most impactful work I’ve ever done.
I never knew I had it in me.
So where did it come from?
Probably Boasley Cross Primary School. Singing ‘One more step along the world I go’ and knowing ‘You’ll be telling me the way, I know’.
Start children off the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
Link up with Adam on twitter @conkertron
Trust blogs are offered by members of the DMAT Team as provocations to thought and discussion. Trust blogs are the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not represent the views of the organisation as a whole or of the trustees.