Leading and Learning. Reflections on my first year at Highbury Grove

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Our new website under construction…

This is my 300th blog post on headguruteacher.com.  It seems like a good moment to reflect on my first year as Head of Highbury Grove.  Without doubt, this year has been the most challenging and rewarding in my professional career.  I’ve never worked so hard in my life – I’ve been dragging myself through the last few weeks through a fog of deep tiredness that I don’t think I’ve experienced before.  I’m not complaining; most of the time, it’s been exhilarating.  I can’t imagine ever wanting a different job; I love it.  As this is my second Headship (and third if you count BIS in Jakarta), I arrived with a certain degree of self-confidence.  But, whilst my prior experience prepared me well for some key elements of strategic thinking and armed me with some well-tested leadership tools, the day-to-day reality of school life makes this a different job altogether; I have been on a steep learning curve.

It would take a long time to list all the highs and lows – but I have tried to capture most of the journey via this blog. Take a look under the Highbury Grove category: http://headguruteacher.com/category/highbury-grove. Browsing through these posts just now, it certainly feels like we’ve achieved a great deal.  I’m especially happy with the progress we’ve made on behaviour management, our 11-18 curriculum model, our teaching and learning framework and our CPD model.  A lot of things have been teed up ready for launch in September and we’ve already made a start.  There’s still a long way to go but I’ve received countless messages of support from parents, students and staff: they share the ambition; they support the direction of travel; I feel that most people are right behind me and that counts for a lot.

I’m also pleased with the changes I’ve tried to introduce to shift the general staff culture – I get positive feedback about this from staff regularly; they feel they are being led more and managed less; the scrutiny processes are more authentic, more subtle, more collegiate and are not OfSTED-driven.  After my first term, I found the building metaphor helped explain the process; it’s been like that all year.  I’m especially grateful to some particular members of staff some specific parents, governors and students who have gone out of their way to give me personal encouragement and helpful constructive feedback.  I couldn’t have managed without them.

Throughout the year I’ve learned a lot about myself; as well as feeling generally positive about how things are going, there have been times when I’ve flagged, taken my eye off the ball and made errors of judgement.  Here are some ‘notes to self’ for next year.

  • Keep going and see things through: we’ve set ourselves an ambitious agenda for change on numerous fronts. We now need to deliver the goods, focusing on making things happen with evidence in the form of student outcomes.  Not this summer – that’s too soon; but definitely next year.  We don’t need any more ideas – we just need to deliver on the ones we’ve already had!
  • Sort out the communication flow: the emails and paper work are continually overwhelming.  I just need to find a better way to manage it all.  Somehow.
  • Re-balance time spent in meetings with time spent around the school. It’s so easy to get office-bound. I’ve had so many days with back-to-back meetings.  I once spent 12 solid hours in my office with a revolving door of people to see.  I’m resolved to impose some discipline with shorter meetings so I can see more learning in action.
  • Keep behaviour at the top of the agenda and problem-solve the hard-core cases.  The BfL system isn’t perfect but it has great potential. We need to keep reviewing it, keep modelling it as SLT, keep raising the bar and make sure we don’t let the 2% of most challenging students dominate the rest.  It’s still the case that we put up with lower standards that we should in some areas; we need to use the system to eliminate all the residual disruption.  I know it can be done. Impeccable Behaviour is achievable.
  • Seek out inconsistent practice and tackle it. In all areas from teaching, managing behaviour and setting homework, if everyone performed consistently as well as the most effective people, we’d see huge gains.  We need to share this thinking across the staff, share the best practice and show what can be done.
  • Keep up with all the difficult conversations – it’s painful but necessary.  I’ve had quite a few this year and I’m quite prepared to do what needs to be done.  However, there is an emotional side to that because people always mean well even when they’re struggling to perform to the required level.  We need to set a high bar; the students deserve nothing less- but it’s hard when lovely, kind, warm-hearted people aren’t quite able to deliver. But that’s the job.
  • Keep building the leadership capacity in the school. Be explicit with SLT and the middle leaders about expectations: – more leadership, less management; top quality delivery; positive relationships; admit mistakes and air concerns.  I love it when someone shares an initial idea, I give them a big ‘go for it’ thumbs up and they deliver a finished, quality product with all the details sorted and problems solved. That’s what I want; I don’t want to micro-manage the details. That’s not me. I want people to take the lead and deliver quality with me cheering them on.  Not everyone gets that; not yet. But they will.
  • Keep a close eye on the budget, protecting the core business: teaching and the curriculum.  It’s not my main interest or strength; that’s clear to everyone. But it’s crucial.  I’m determined to manage things more tightly next year so we don’t rely on spending at a level we can’t sustain.  If in doubt, we’ll do without, provided that teaching, teaching resources, CPD and student enrichment take priority.
  •  Recognise that not all governors and parents have a tolerance of ambiguity.  The period of exploration with KS3 assessment and the end of graded lessons along with the uncertainties in GCSE outcomes after our unexpected results in 2014 have created some tensions.  People want solid measures, predictions and projections that I haven’t been willing to give. Next year, we’ll need to give them more solid attainment and progress data – even if it’s more complicated than people want to hear.
  • Keep ‘system leadership’ in perspective; lean and focused. I’ve tried to play my part beyond the school this year but actually I’m still pulled in too many directions. Next year, it’s promoting the National Bacc Trust and supporting Heads’ Roundtable and that’s it. I think that’s plenty.  I’m still going to go to Wellington for the festival though; that’s a given.
  • Find more ways to shine a light on the work people do – not everyone gets flowers or a round of applause. I have an almost constant anxiety that I’ve forgotten to thank someone.  I don’t think people should get too precious about this but, at the same time, I do need to find more ways to acknowledge people.  Music teachers have concerts; art teachers have exhibitions – but what about science, maths and history teachers who slog it out unseen week in, week out?  I need to make the business of giving recognition something more equitable and routine.
  • Teach well and give it the preparation time it deserves; work more closely with the faculty.  I’m teaching GCSE Maths next year, taking a Year 10 class all the way through.  I need to make sure this is something I do well; I need so safeguard time for preparation and marking and for attending departmental meetings.  This is something I want everyone on SLT to do – we’re IN departments, IN the teams, not lurking outside them.  I’ll need to walk that talk myself.

That’s enough I reckon!  With all that off my chest, it’s time for the holidays!  Just the small matter of clearing my desk….  We all know where most of that paper is heading!


  1. It is clear that schooling is a tough gig: constant changes, complex human led systems, high expectations, loads of stakeholders. But, you appear to have the focus right. And to be frank, it’s almost exhilarating to be able to follow this particular journey via this blog.


  2. It’s really satisfying to “hear” how many times people feature in your ‘notes to self’ for next year. With such a focus and yardstick I think it will help you maintain your energy, face challenges and encourage those around you to see the importance of relationships too. Please don’t forget to just have fun too though. It’s one of the best ways to re charge those batteries.


  3. Great reflective post that really highlights just how complicated school, and school leadership, have become. I like that you prioritise teaching and learning as core business. I’d be interested in your thoughts on literacy, which I see as foundational to teaching and learning – the bottom line is, no child should leave school unable to read well for their age.


    • Literacy is a massive issue- it’s the driver of learning and achievement. We’ve been taking a look at your method and materials and are considering getting involved to support our weakest readers. Any independent studies?


      • Thanks for your interest. I wasn’t pitching for work 😉 Yes, Greg Brooks has conducted an independent evaluation. Also, have many single subject replications. Data is automatically collected in each lesson.


  4. A fantastic blog which gives a positive, common sense insight into what strong leadership is all about. I recommend all school leaders to follow Tom’s blog! It still is ‘the best job in the world’ despite some highly questionable government policies which are impacting on schools, and school leaders in particular! We just need to stay on the path that we know is best for our children.


  5. I just wanted to say ‘Thank you!’ Thanks for your honesty, for your openness and thanks for continuing to inspire. Enjoy the hols.


  6. Fascinating to read, Tom – and well done on all you and your team have achieved this year. Hope you have a very good break to refresh and re-energise – sometimes the adrenalin and excitement that come with a new job take us a fair distance, but we have to work out how to make our efforts sustainable over the longer term, and that’s more of a challenge.

    The very best of luck!


  7. Reblogged this on Create Great Schools and commented:
    Why aren’t leaders reflecting more? Too busy? Not enough time to reflect? Low priority? I enjoy reading @headguruteacher posts because it seems a bit of a rarity to find a Head taking the time to reflect on his/her leadership journey. Much to be learned. Thanks for sharing always great to read from the other side of the world.


  8. […] Built-in CPD: Our New Model by @headguruteacher shares a CPD model similar to the one I have developed at our own school. We have yet to publish staff leading sessions, but we are on the right path with weekly CPD sessions calendared. Sherrington also shares his 300th blogpost; read Leading and Learning. Reflections on my first year at Highbury Grove. […]


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