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
This blog is offered as a personal reflection by Sarah Jones, Executive Director of 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.
Leading change is a fundamental undertaking for school leaders. No leader is ever short of guiding influence in this area: there are a plethora of research papers, pragmatic ‘how to’ books, and some quite expensive CPD on offer, including a ubiquitous unit in every leadership programme. Despite this, and in my experience, leading and managing change is one of the areas that leaders seem least prepared for and often stumble over, albeit nonchalantly in most cases.
David Hargreaves gives some insight into this conundrum. He suggests, in response to a paper written by Sue Williamson, that providing guidance on implementation for managing change in schools is a much more difficult task than people anticipate. This is in part because there is a lack of research evidence on this, and in part because implementation is often a very idiosyncratic process that reflects the unique context and the personalities, preferences and priorities of the leaders involved.
This chimes with my experience. The frames and guidance given, whilst well researched and evaluated, are over relied upon. The issue is that the frame is not really there. So, following the steps suggested by John Kotter religiously, or using Tim Brighouse’s guidance for effective leadership will frustrate the change process rather than support it.
I have learned over the years that we must be prepared to consider the uniqueness of change and consider theories to be the canvas upon which innovation is painted. For change to be effective we must accept that wrong-turnings and mistakes will be inevitable and need to be admitted as they guide the on-going change process. To enable this, there are three principles that should be considered when implementing the theoretical change framework of choice.
Firstly, the ‘why’ of the change must be defined and communicated frequently. We should aim to keep the ambition front and centre, scoped in success criteria, not tasks. Those that are implementing the change should feel confident that they can find their own way to make the change happen. This gives two advantages - time to reflect on the process, and opportunities to provide feedback.
Secondly, in leading change we should remember that change is predicated upon people, not the process. To enable ‘flow’ people need to be swimming, not sinking or surfing. So taking time to intentionally consider your leadership style is critically important in driving change forward. It will be different with different people: some need coaching, some need direction and some need to be allowed to lead on your behalf. This does not mean that you are behaving inconsistently, rather it is all about recognising that resistance or anxiety is inextricably linked to each person’s psychological contract with their role. It is so important to pay attention to this, and to informally undertake a commitment mapping process. Consulting widely before, during and after the change process will help.
Finally, when leading change we should try to align the new ideas with what has gone before. Everyone’s previous work is, therefore, recognised and valued. Change should be about strengthening good work as well as adjusting wrong work. In other words, we need to show that we are trying to build forward rather than changing direction. The former liberates thinking, while the latter can cause the frustrations associated with ‘yet another new idea’. Examining your motivation for implementing change and comparing this to your values is a good starting point.
Whilst change is inevitable, school leaders are still gatekeepers. We are changed with improving our schools . But not at any cost. Our work cannot become a joyless gradgrind where we atrophy into an initiative driven machine. That trap merely recreates Gove’s dream of educational regression whereby we are simply drilled, tested, ranked and punished against someone else’s vision for our schools. We are better than that. In all things we should recognise our actions should aim to liberate others, not to constrain them. But that is a topic for another D-note.
This blog is offered as a personal reflection by Dan Morrow, CEO of 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.
When I was starting out in teaching, I was often praised for my insight and decisiveness with decision-making. I can process information quickly and come to my own reasoned conclusion at speed. Having come from a commercial background into teaching at a challenging inner city school, I was struck by how many decisions were not, in my opinion, being made speedily nor indeed at all. As I rapidly gained promotion, this aspect of being decisive began to breed in me an unhealthy sense that I was the one in the room most likely to be right; that quick meant good and that good meant action. In the mid to late 2000s this style of leadership, the “Soldier” and the “Surgeon” ( The One Type of Leader Who Can Turn Around a Failing School (hbr.org) were in fact celebrated and lauded. The intoxicating impact of both praise and what was deemed rapid impact led to a Command and Control style predicated on decisiveness. Making a decision in many ways became prized above the quality and lasting impact of the decision itself. By 2009 my view was shifting rapidly. On a personal note the weight of being at the apex of decision-making, of having created a circumstance where I wasn’t just expected to always know but presented as if I always did, took a toll. Equally, for the school I was leading there was the emergence of a funnel in decision making that was professionally frustrating but my own responsibility. I knew this and it took mentoring and coaching from outstanding leaders to help me to understand I needed to invert the pyramid; to coach, not tell. To listen more than I spoke.
The impact of this was immediate and profound- the teams I led were so much more obviously empowered and the distribution of not just leadership but decision-making helped to craft a culture of agency and of autonomy- anchored but not weighed down by the culture we all shared and refined. I went from being a leader of results to a leader of culture and as consequently the results took care of themselves. I intuitively began to see the impact of being architectural as a leader and to work in the spirit of true cooperation which goes beyond what collaboration can achieve. At first this manifested rather glibly with cliches such as “bring me the solution not the problem” but over time as I matured as a person and as a leader I started to understand the role that listening, and I mean really listening, plays in giving the confidence and skills needed for colleagues to actualise their own knowledge and skills.
Joining DMAT has taken me back to those days and I have needed to re-remember some lessons; our growth is cyclical rather than linear and sometimes we have to go back to prior learning to avoid our own temperamental defaults. For me, I like to get things done; I like to be positive and future focused and I cannot bear to see a day wasted for our children. Upon arrival, I have been praised for quick decision-making and for removing some historic blocks to our progress. It would be easy to preen and to see this as a positive, but instead it tells me the work we all need to do on our culture to ensure that decision-making rests where it most effectively sits; within our classrooms. There is no doubt that there are times when rapid decisions must be made and it needs to be in every leaders toolkit- equally so there are times when we can let things go and really think about what also needs to be heard. I was reminded of this most recently by a wonderful blog by Dr Jill Berry (Let it go…. – jillberry102)
'Which are the boulders that may slow the water, but the stream will continue to flow around them? What are the barriers that are causing so much obstruction and damage that you need to take time, working with others, to remove them? And sometimes we have to find compromises if we’re to move forward. I feel uneasy when the adjective ‘uncompromising’ is equated with leadership strength.'
Decisiveness has its place and always will; but it neither supplants the importance of truly listening nor should it be the default in how we interact and work with colleagues. In fact, I genuinely see some of my decisiveness in the early days of being Trust Leader at DMAT as a weakness that I need to reflect on and to improve; I am not here to make decisions for people- I am here to make it with you.
This blog is offered as a personal reflection by Veronica Lloyd-Richards, Trust Champion 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.
Last week saw the return to school for many thousands of children across the country including the five thousand learners in the seventeen schools in our Dartmoor MAT. Whilst there is understandably some anxiety for colleagues about the return to classrooms, the overwhelming emotion felt by almost all educators is a sense of joy and relief to be freed from the distanced virtual world of remote learning and to reconnect with the young people who are the reason we do the work we do. To see them smile, to listen to their voices without the strange distorting effect of a laptop and to see them playing and talking with their friends has been a great feeling for everyone I know who works in schools. As a Trust Champion for the Dartmoor MAT, I am based in the sixth form building at Okehampton college and as I write this, I can hear the sound of a hotly-contested game of table tennis between two young people going on outside the window and the hum of serious discussion coming from the A-level classrooms on the corridor. Sounds that we used to take for granted but which now thankfully signal a return to some kind of normality.
Now that the children are back, there is much discussion about what they should be doing. Should we be making the school day longer? Should all the children be in for the summer holidays? Should they all be tutored? Should we be worrying most about ‘catch up’ or well-being or both? Plenty of questions but perhaps the most important thing for us to think about before we jump in with solutions is ‘who is best-placed to determine what is right for our children in the weeks and months ahead?’
In all of the challenges of the last twelve months and the emotional and practical difficulties that schools have had to think about, one thing has been very clear. Colleagues in schools have, time and time again made thoughtful, compassionate and intelligent choices about what is right for their children and communities. At times, that has arguably been in the absence of clear or timely guidance from the government. I’ve had conversations with many of our brilliant headteachers in the last few weeks about how they’ve supported their learners in this last lockdown and it has been amazing to hear how creative and thoughtful they have been in response to the needs of individual children and families.
Leaders and teachers have more than risen to the challenge and shown that they are, without doubt, best placed to make great decisions for their schools and communities. The many thousands of letters of admiration and praise sent to Ofsted by grateful parents (including some of our own) suggest that the families we serve also believe in schools to do the best thing for their children. My colleague Ed Finch has talked in a previous blog about the importance of independence of mind and professional judgement in our profession. This is something I’m very much thinking about in my role as I bring colleagues together to think about the approaches we take as a Trust to curriculum and pedagogy. Front of mind is the question of how we protect autonomy for teachers and leaders whilst also maximising the benefits of being part of a larger groups of schools.
There is wisdom and vast experience in the across our seventeen schools and being part of a Trust means that we all intuitively know that our chances of delivering on our mission to provide the highest possible quality of education for all local children is more likely to be succeed if we collaborate meaningfully, share expertise and support each other to be successful. Our work is not just for the benefit of our individual schools but for the Trust as a whole and even beyond our family of schools.
Key to my role as a Trust Champion is working across all of our schools to ensure that we are creating the conditions for our teachers to thrive as professionals. So what is necessary for this to happen? In their recent book The Teacher Gap, Prof Rebecca Allen and Dr Sam Sims suggest three things are critical for teachers to develop and grow. They need to feel:
1. Competence – to be able to demonstrate their abilities and continue to improve
2. Relatedness – to feel valued and respected by others
3. Autonomous – to be authors of their own actions
There’s no doubt that teacher autonomy is hugely important. A study published by the Teacher Development Trust in January 2020 concluded that “teacher autonomy is associated with higher job satisfaction and intention to stay in teaching.” It is clear that if we want to retain great colleagues and if we want them to feel fulfilment in their roles, then we need to ensure that our teachers have a strong sense of agency in their classrooms and in their professional growth.
It is also clear though that autonomy on its own is not sufficient. As teachers, if we are trusted to make decisions about what we are teaching and how we teach it, we also want to feel that we have sufficient knowledge and expertise to make those decisions the best they can be. Autonomy without the support and challenge of a professional community is not helpful either. We use our autonomy best when we know we are part of something bigger; a purpose which binds us together and brings meaning to our work.
These ideas of autonomy, connection and professional growth are key to the work we are embarking on as a Trust on curriculum and pedagogy. The work is being driven by groups of leaders and teachers who will join together regularly to set direction and codify ideas which will help colleagues across all our schools to do their best work. Each school will be represented and have a voice so that we can be sure that our collective work is deeply connected to the needs of each of our seventeen schools. We will be consciously building our own ‘competence’ and building a shared knowledge and understanding through reading and debate. In these groups, we will also build connections and strengthen the professional relationships across our schools so that colleagues, whether from our smallest or largest school, feel a greater sense of ‘relatedness’ with each other and the learners beyond their own schools.
I hope this way of working has the potential to be really powerful and to bring colleagues together to think about some of the most critical parts of our provision as a Trust. Key questions for us to consider are how we ensure our work reflects the rural context we work in as well as building on the best ideas already in the system
and how do we build the connectivity between our teachers and schools that will be so important for success. We’d love you to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below to help us do our best work together.
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.