The New Kid on the Block

swardIt’s always difficult being the new boy. As a child I was lucky enough only to have had one school move (from primary to secondary) so never had the awkwardness of making new friends and getting used to new surroundings. You kind of expect that it will be easy when you join a new school, particularly as a senior leader, that the transition will be smooth and that  gaining everyone’s trust and respect will be simple…yeah?

My last big move, to my deputy headship at Hilton Academy, in Blakelaw Newcastle (although it was then just a plain old primary school-remember those days) came as a huge shock. I thought I was the big I am, the real deal ready to take on the world, this would be a doddle. How wrong I was. Viewed with suspicion-probably due to my Peterborough accent- the children took more notice of the dinner ladies than me at the start! It took a while but by the time I left after 6 years, through forced academisation and an outstanding Ofsted judgement, I had earned my stripes to be regarded as a trusted and respected figure.

Through my 6 years at Hilton, I was lucky enough to work under the inspirational Shirley Davison, now a national leader in education, who maintained her vision for turning the school around through creativity and innovation, even during some very dark days of intense scrutiny; never letting her beliefs be squashed by bureaucracy or imposition from above. It is now as head teacher of Barnes Junior School in Sunderland, that I realise that every day of my time at Hilton prepared me for the rigours of headship.

What we developed at Hilton took time; through the development of a curriculum, that had creativity at its heart and evolved to be responsive to the needs of the children and changing national expectations; to building the perfect team who lived and breathed the vision. A culture changed not just some short term fixes.

Through this experience and amazing journey at Hilton, my message, aimed at current deputies and assistant heads or anyone thinking of senior leadership , would be “take your time.” Enjoy the here and now, embrace the opportunity to develop your classroom practice and make the most of the experience and wisdom of those above you. Throughout my career I’ve always been in denial that I would ever get to the next step. I always thought I was happy where I was. However, the longer I did what I was doing the more I realised that I could probably do that next bit. It’s funny how all of a sudden you are just ready for that next step, without even realising it. When I completed NPQH in 2007, there was no way I was ready to lead a school-although I did get a very nice paperweight.

I do wonder that even though schemes such as Future Leaders and other fast track approaches offer amazing opportunities for people keen to progress quickly on a career path, does this really prepare them for the senior leadership positions as much as a rounded and full experience/apprenticeship learning the trade and coming up through the ranks?  Can the role-play and virtual experiences be a substitute for time spent working through real problems and achieving successful outcomes for their learning communities?

Anybody who has ever worked with me would know there would have to be a sporting analogy somewhere so here goes: None of the most successful football managers of our time were fast tracked into the big job, but had to work their way either  through lower leagues or as able deputies. Son of the North East and one of the most successful managers of all time, Bob Paisley, learned his craft as a second in command for 15 years! It is said that he was reluctant to take over from the legendary Bill Shankly, never thinking that the ultimate responsibility was for him.

Anyway after 8 weeks as the new boy, each day seems a little more like the feet are creeping under the table, and the realisation for everybody else that the guy with the big beard IS actually the new head teacher. Ok, so it wasn’t the ideal start having to close the school on the first day due to a burst water pipe but I think the parents have forgiven me for that one. The children have stopped whispering “That’s him” as I walk into the classroom and the honeymoon period is over. Now is the time for the real hard work to start and put into practice what I’ve learnt.

Please check out the hard work of Hilton Academy, on all their various social media platforms. But soon enough, I will also be pointing you in the direction of Barnes Junior School too!

Simon Ward, Head Teacher at Barnes Junior School, Sunderland

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