Out of the darkness.


In the last couple of weeks I’ve started to feel that I’m emerging from a dark tunnel. There is light! I’m not sure exactly where the tracks are leading to but, right now, I don’t really mind. There are plenty of new possibilities and I’m up for finding out.   At the moment I can’t imagine going back to being a Headteacher – or even working in a school at all.   A bubble of self-belief has burst… something I may never get back. Time will tell.

I wanted to write this to record something about the dark period; it’s part of the process of leaving it behind.  It feels like a good time now for a couple of reasons.  The formal inspection complaints process reached its final Kafka-esque conclusion only recently – it takes that long.  They don’t concede much, if anything.  I’m not going to discuss it but happily I’ve handed on my issues with what was an utterly brutal, heavily flawed process to the fabulous people at ASCL to inform their broader discussions.  Even though I feel a residual sense of injustice, there’s plenty of things that can’t be defended and it would be too damaging to all parties to rehearse all the issues publicly.  Everyone else has probably moved on; water under the bridge.  (There are lots of lovely people that I miss and never said goodbye to, staff and students.. which I’m sad about.)

More importantly, I’m also delighted that my former Deputy has now been appointed to my old job on a permanent basis – a hugely talented, generous-spirited  person with interpersonal skills on a level I never had; someone everyone trusts and respects.  I know she’ll be brilliant.  We met up to celebrate her success and that’s helping me to move on.

My main reflections from the whole process of failing an inspection and ending up under the proverbial bus, is that the worst part wasn’t how it ended; it was the time leading up to it.  Without realising it, I was living on the edge in the most ridiculously unsustainable manner.  From the moment our results came out in August, it felt that nothing went our way, and I was on a downward spiral, losing my grip, losing sleep, losing perspective; losing my mind.  Perversely, the continual anticipation of a difficult inspection created a climate where that was almost inevitable.

Looking back, I needed to step back, take stock and bring in some real expertise on some critical issues.  Literally nobody had answers to some of our more pressing questions. There were too many critics; too many well-intentioned amateurs; not enough real experts.  Our system or culture – or both – don’t seem to allow the figurehead, overpaid Headteacher to raise a flag; to say  ‘I’m struggling here!’  Or to take a stand and say things shouldn’t be this hard; give us a break.  At a time of great uncertainty within the accountability system – P8, new GCSEs, the bell-curve cage – people wanted certainty I couldn’t give, the pressure just grew and grew and I started to malfunction.  I’ll put my hand up to that;  I’m genuinely sorry that I didn’t do better.

One day, about three weeks before our inspection, after a difficult meeting, I got off the bus at the top of the hill near my house and just broke down.  I stood there in the dark, in the drizzling rain, leaned against a fence and cried.  I felt so isolated, trapped, drowning… tired; so deeply drained and tired.  As ever, you don’t want to take all this shit home – so you bottle it  – until it forces its way to the surface.  Brave face at work; brave face at home – with just the occasional release.

In retrospect, I was doing too much and absorbing too much; I was starting to feel like a punchbag, trying to meet too many disparate demands but not fully delivering on many.  My whole team was experiencing the same issues as me and, whilst we held each other together on a personal level,  I wasn’t leading them in the way I could have been. It would have been easier if I didn’t feel as if I had a gun to my head the whole time, but I should have stripped a few things back and been more ruthless where failings were emerging.   But you can’t re-run the past.  The pressure makes you drop a few balls, make some bad calls and pull back from taking some necessary decisions.   I wish I’d been given more time. I wish I’d had the perspective to realise that this situation wasn’t normal; that I needed more help. A mentor, a coach – someone neutral with the expertise to guide me.  If work makes you cry – that is stress! You need to get help…. I didn’t recognise it, so I didn’t.

In the first few days after leaving I went walking.  Every day for a week or so, I put my boots on and walked.  Mental health walks.  I walked from my house to the South Bank via Primrose Hill and all the way back.  I walked through all the woods around North London for hours and hours.  Weeks went by and then I decided to act normal and look forward, putting on a brave face again.   My consultancy work has been life-saving; something to do, gaining back a bit of confidence, feeling like you’ve got something to offer.  I’m enjoying it, meeting great people across the country.

Of course, it’s a mistake to project all your angst onto others.  Everyone means well.  Everyone wants the best for the children – especially their own.  Having crashed out, I’ve spent more time on introspective self-flagellation  than on blaming others by far.  You feel that you’ve failed; that you are a failure.  You feel like a fraud, that you’ve let everyone down, that you shouldn’t have done this and that and should have done more of the other.  Regrets? Oh yes, just a few!  Anything good I ever did feels like it’s been shredded, tarnished if not erased…. and that is hard to reverse. It means a lot when colleagues and parents remind me of things we were doing right – but ultimately, whatever we tried wasn’t enough.

I can’t help thinking that things shouldn’t be this way.  I can’t think of any other national education system which treats people who’ve given their professional lives to the job in this way; scapegoating individuals for what should be seen as collective system issues.  Even if it were true that I was a terrible, inadequate school leader, I don’t think the system should have pushed me so close to the edge.  It’s pretty f**ked up if you ask me.  I don’t say that lightly.   And I’m one of hundreds.  One of the problems is that the public scrutiny is so intense that it makes you want to hide away.  That is why so many people disappear from our system without trace and we don’t hear their stories.  I’ve decided not to hide – partly because I need to work but also because I don’t think I should have to.  We’re cowed into silence all too easily, forced into a role of being disgraced; a role we shouldn’t accept.

There have been lots of positive things that have helped to move beyond the dark tunnel to the light at the end.  One has been discovering that there are other ways to live and work.  I’m busy, albeit earning a lot less, working with lots of interesting people, writing and presenting ideas to people, without any of the stress.  I’m nobody’s punchbag anymore.  I have a super-healthy work-life balance; most days I get up when I want; I make dinner for the family; I read; I meet friends for lunch.   The other has been the overwhelming level of public and private support from the twitter community and my colleagues, recent and distant past – as well as my family and friends.  I’ve been carried on a wave of love and support that I had no right to expect.  I’ve been lucky.

So – it is time to move on properly now.  I just hope that those with the power to make the system changes, put their defences down, put their PR machinery aside, and take a good look at the regime they are running and ask themselves some good, hard questions about the impact they’re still having on people.  I can only hope.    I’d like to think I could come back to it some day in a different role, in a context where I could thrive and make a difference,  but I’ve got some work to do to build back up to the confidence levels that would require. There’s a way to go yet…  Meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy the change.

There is light….







  1. Tom, this blog – and the comments thread it has triggered – should be required reading for whoever is the secretary of state after next Thursday. You are right that few other systems share our obsession with ‘leadership’ in such a high stakes accountability environment. The impact on the system has been deleterious and will continue to be so until the paradigm and expectations change. I wish I could be optimistic about that happening any time soon. The root observation – Basil Bernstein’s the ‘education cannot compensate for society’ is simply ignored too often. By and large, societies get the school systems they deserve. In the expectations we have of our education leaders, there is too much wrapped up.


  2. So moving and honest – thankyou! As a teacher, on a different level to you – I know that this sounds all too familiar! I wonder if the people who care ( too much? ) and put their souls into the profession are the ones who suffer most! Having said that I don’t think that we could be any different – it would compromise our integrity too much! The ‘system’ just needs to catch up and value the people that make our schools great. How long will that take? As for value – I think that you are truly valued! It may take a while for the ‘experts’ to catch up!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for not hiding away. Of all the conversations we need to be having about education, this is the most important. How can it be that talented, dedicated people are allowed to suffer in this way? I hope that you will continue to find ways to stay in the game – even if it is not in a school – the profession needs people like you so badly.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is an incredible post. I feel so honoured to have read such candour that reflects all I feel and could feel if it happened to me.

    Thank you so much for not hiding! I will remember this post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Such an honest post. Thank you. Me and my head have just experienced a grueling inspection.. Being told by our SEO from the LEA that we were fighting for our jobs really didn’t help either. It’s refreshing to read your frank account. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Tom: utterly feel it. A similar thing happened to me: after 15 yrs in post the wolves turned on me…I, too failed to recognise my own stress.It took a GP to shock me into acknowledgement.
    ASCL were brilliant BTW.
    There is light: I now work as a classroom teacher in Spain: a 90% drop in salary, but, hey the sun shines!
    Good luck Tom

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Tom you have been an inspiration to me and my colleagues. Your ideas made this job interesting and showed a light bulb to aim for. We know life is tough, especially in this job, but to aim for the best is not a flaw. I’ve been where you have been and you seem to be making the change. May I suggest you talk to mind and or the NHS wellbeing service. Perhaps you may consider being a volunteer as they need people like us to support others. It’s important to talk to others. Only then the realisation of how many people are being bullied to the brink, not just in teaching, becomes a reality. Not sure how to fight back though. Perhaps a new workers political party…. Something needs to be done. With my sincere best wishes. You will get your strength back and do amazing things when you become stronger from this experience. The empathy and congruence you have would make you an excellent counsellor. University of Middx runs a degree in it. With love B flaherty

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  8. Dear Tom, I followed your last blog and I follow this one. I can only say that time is the greatest support after such an event. Ofsted are horrid-you know this though after working in both the state and international sector. They are the reason I left the UK and now work internationally. I think it took 5 years to get my confidence back from a ‘satisfactory’ grading when I was trying to become an AST. Keep blogging, keep up the consultancy work, and never be too brace to seek help and support. Carrie

    Get Outlook for iOS ________________________________

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thank you for not hiding away and for sharing this with us. I was so nearly another victim of the system not so long ago and the importance of stepping back and taking a fresh look at the situation is such good advice but also seemingly impossible when in the midst of the crap. Certainly dark and lonely days.
    I am glad you are still contributing to the world of education – you have so much to offer. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for not hiding away and not giving in. Your words are inspirational and have taught me a lot.
    Sadly I was in a similar position a while back . I am very grateful that I got through but learnt how lonely and vulnerable this job can be.
    I am glad to see you building yourself a positive future and still sharing your knowledge and skills. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you for not hiding away. This so could have been me a couple of years back. Headship can be such a lonely and dark place at times and as much as we know we should take a step back it feels impossible to do. I have followed you on Twitter for a long time and find your words useful and thought provoking. Please keep sharing your expertise. We need to keep fighting this system and ensuring that the children and staff are valued. Once again thank you.


  12. This is a remarkably frank account: like most of your musings, it’s provoked an awful lot of reflection, as I embark on my Senior Leadership career in September, and about the type of leader I’d like to be, as well as the pitfalls.

    If I can be as honest, as open and have half the integrity of this post, I’d be doing many things right. All the best for your new beginning – remain a stellar force in shaping educational debate and, most importantly, look after yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Being a head can be the worst as well as the best job in the school. You had so little support and every head needs this. A very honest and moving account and I’m sorry your headship ended in this way. All the best going forward.


    • Thank you Sally. That means a lot. People won’t like me saying this but some schools are much better off in MATS where there other people working on the same issues, with real expertise, coming in to drive and/or support. I didn’t have the expert advice I needed – nor the time to work it out for myself.


  14. This is so powerful and brought back many painful memories of my own experience at the tender age of 44. I left a good/ outstanding school to take on a large inner city troubled school. I gave it everything … I turned that titanic with 5 year upward trend in outcomes … attainment in line with or better than national and progress 96%… then SHE walked through the door … (our school was performing better than all our cluster schools yr on year from lower starting points – all ofsted good) … SHE breezed in … shit on us… SHE left.

    My life was destroyed. Yes I had a case but would it change anything no… go for a re inspection the senior HMI said 4 weeks later it will be good…too late I walked …. yes it went for re inspection … yes it got good… but I’m destroyed… yes I’m head at another school… they amazed with me. Can I stay for that inspection in Feb? … no . I’ve been destroyed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Such a powerful comment. It’s so devastating. We really have to change this system. People who won’t have a bloody clue how to do the job waltz in, make some biased sweeping evaluations using processes that have never been subjected to proper reliability trials and then pass judgement. You have to be deluded to think you could meaningfully and consistently judge a massive complex school that you’ve never been to before in a couple of days. It’s nuts really. I’m so sorry you were destroyed. What are you doing now?


  15. Heart breaking but so true.
    Especially the part about only our education system where people who
    give their lives to these jobs are scapegoated . Disgusting .

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Tom – I am grateful for the inspiration you have given me over the years since following you on Twitter and seeing you at Wellington. As a fellow physics teacher, musician and SLT, your posts have always resonated (even when they are about the gigs you went to in the 80s!).

    I am so saddened (and encouraged) to read about your difficult times. Saddened because I considered that you were the head I wished I could be (if I had the courage to take on such a role) and encouraged that you are courageous enough to be so open, which I consider to be an exceptionally healthy way to be.

    I will continue to follow you and read your blogs – in my humble opinion, you are still needed by the profession.

    Best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. So many people choose leadership positions which actually do not suit their temperament or they imagine that they alone are responsible and donor open up or reach out. Interpersonal skills are vital. I’m sorry you’ve been through this , ultimately you will emerge stronger because you were clearly in a very dark place. Schools are such complex places. Take time and recover , get a coach or therapist so that the hugely public nature of this can be laid to rest and you can find a good place for yourself professionally.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Not an educational professional but as someone working closely with head teachers I’m sure there are lots going through what you have been through. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Tom,

    Thinking of you. Going through something similar and about to cut the teaching cord at last.

    Keep well.


    Sent from my iPad

    LBall(Mr) Head of MFL & EAL Tel: +44 (0)1473 690281 Fax: +44 (0)1473 694597 Email: L.Ball@stjos.co.uk Web: http://www.stjos.co.uk St Joseph’s College The independent day and boarding school for girls and boys aged 3 to 18. St Joseph’s College Ltd | Belstead Road | Ipswich | Suffolk | IP2 9DR | United Kingdom St Joseph’s College Limited No: 3142500 | Registered Charity No: 1051688 Disclaimer: This message may contain information and/or data that is confidential and/or legally privileged. It is intended solely for the addressee(s). If you are not the intended recipient you are notified that any use, publication, reproduction or dissemination is strictly prohibited and may violate certain laws. If you are not the intended recipient, please contact the sender by return e-mail and destroy this and all copies of this email.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Wow such an honest and open account of your struggles but your sense of relief comes through every word. A strangely inspirational piece. Wishing you good health and happiness in this new chapter.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Hi Tom,

    Thoroughly enjoyable read. I’m a journalist at Education Executive magazine and wondered if you would be interested in writing an article on wellbeing and strategies to better manage workload and inspection pressures at school. Your experiences would certainly resonate with our readers who are made up of heads and school business managers.

    Any questions, feel free to ask using my email address – and apologies of course for a request rather out of the blue.



    Liked by 1 person

  22. Tom–a moving and courageous account of yourself and a very honest assessment of a dire set of experiences. But you are wrong to accept failure. What has failed is the system. Any system that can chew up and spit out a person as dedicated, intelligent, imaginative, analytical as you are–that system is rotten to the core. I doubt that the present government will be able to address the problems–or even want to–but maybe the next one will. Courage, mon vieux–you’re a model of excellence.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s