Christine Stansfield tells me she was on the verge of pulling out of this interview because she feared she might “say something stupid”.
It is symbolic of her leadership style that she is upfront about it, and about how important it is for her school leaders to “let go” of their egos and embrace “heartfelt collaboration” with each other.
Stansfield claims the close working approach of leaders of the seven Leicestershire schools within her trust, and their willingness to leave their egos at the door, is a strategy that holds the key to “future-proofing education”.
She acknowledges she has “high expectations and there are aspects of the trust that are not where I want them to be”, but believes she could not have survived as a chief executive if she were “not ready to be transparent and vulnerable”.
The death of headteacher Ruth Perry has prompted soul-searching from school leaders of late, and the “pressure and vulnerability being felt across leadership in schools” worries Stansfield.
“It was difficult enough to recruit and retain the best leaders before, and I’m seeing many people considering carefully how they want to spend their time on the planet,” she says.
Her solution lies in how leadership teams support each other.
Every Friday morning, school heads meet as a team for nearly three hours for “support and challenge”, with a “shared high expectation of ourselves”.
“More than to the trust, there’s an accountability into the team … that feels first and foremost that it belongs together, rather than belonging to an individual school.”
In the past she moved heads between schools, believing that leaders who remain at the same school have an “overpowering” relationship with it that “makes it increasingly difficult to keep focus on pupils…because sometimes they’d far rather just not have difficult conversations.
“Belonging first and foremost to a trust leadership team enables leaders to look reflectively. The school’s problems then are not the headteacher’s but the trust’s shared problems, and we solve them together. That feels like a much more sustainable model.”
Stansfield believes the “shared accountability” her heads have gives a “huge sense of security” for their schools, because if “something happened to a leader, there’s a group of people with collective ownership of that [school]”.
Before she became chief executive in 2017, Stansfield admits she was “quite competition orientated” and “would not have believed this depth of collaboration was possible. Now I’ve seen what real collaboration feels like…heartfelt collaboration, which is palpable and exciting.”
Recruiting pupils as teachers
Founded in 2014, Mowbray changed direction when Stansfield took over to focus entirely on school improvement – and the evidence points to her success. Her six Melton Mowbray schools all have a ‘good’ rating, and only one – Iveshead School in Shepshed – remains ‘requires improvement’, having not been inspected since Mowbray took over in December.
But it has been a rocky road, with some “really difficult” relationships between the central and school-based teams and challenges in school performance. The improvement model has, she says, “evolved significantly” over time.
Whereas previously the trust had improvement leaders for maths and English, they were expected to deliver “better and more” than teachers.
“It implies most trust employees are going wait for this person to come along and tell them how to do everything. I’d find that quite insulting.”
The current strategy is all about tackling her greatest challenge, recruitment and retention.
The trust employs a “talent manager” and ensures six-weekly conversations with those teachers “absolutely smashing it” to know their “direction of travel”. Heads have organised secondments to hold on to their most talented teachers and Stansfield is also turning to her pupils as potential recruits.
“We’re asking how many of our existing key stage 4 and 5 pupils we think might have the potential [to become teachers]. Let’s start career conversations with them…Let’s track those we think have the potential [when they finish school] and support them. Let’s get them in for taster days…get them immersed.”
Pandemic has set back family dialogue
Stansfield believes the pandemic has “interrupted the dialogue” of schools with some families and, for some vulnerable children, attendance has become a daily negotiation.
The “assumed professionalism and gravitas” of heads and teachers is up for grabs, making staff retention even harder. “The challenge is everything has to be argued, and we need even better people then to negotiate and get things back on track.”
Stansfield believes the business model, upheld since 1944, of “dividing pupils into chunks of 30 and dividing the day into five hours” is still “just about affordable. But the emerging needs of students and their feelings about school are challenging that. It is impossible for schools to make the level of response being demanded by communities. That’s quite frightening.”
Letting go of ego
Having once been a “competitive headteacher with an ego” – she was head of John Ferneley College for five years – she understands that “you can tell me to collaborate and I’ll smile and nod, but actually really collaborating feels completely different…you have to let go of your ego, and that’s hard.”
When did she first let go of her ego,? “I’m not sure I have.” But she has “carried” the realisation of her own ego since, as a head of department, she asked herself whether she would rather her department got the best exam results, but her own classes were two thirds from the bottom, or that her results were the best and her department’s were poor.
It was a “pin-drop moment” when she asked a similar question to her trust’s heads. Would they rather their own school achieve ‘outstanding’ but one trust school remain ‘inadequate’ – or that they are all rated ‘good’. Not everyone put the interests of the wider trust above their school, but she says that’s fine as long as those leaders understand that’s what it feels like and wrestle with it.
Plan to tackle community needs
Collaboration also means schools working with other public bodies to tackle rural deprivation. She believes many trusts are “spiralling away” from their communities, but with council services significantly diminishing, who’s stepping into the space if not schools?
Mowbray is starting a campaign over local bus service cuts that she blames for reducing her schools’ post-16 provision. She also wants to “do something powerful” on poverty – “firstly as a group of schools, then involving other community settings”.
She also wants to grow the trust. Mowbray has one secondary and five feeder primaries in Melton Mowbray, and is seeking to “create the same collaborative group of schools” 20 miles away in Shepshed.
The ultimate aim is for 12 to 14 schools in clusters of nearby communities, but Stansfield “worries about swift growth”. Taking on a school that could not thrive within her trust is “a red line” she will not cross. “We have to make sure the ambition and values are there, because that’s the bit that we can’t shift on. Most other things are up for discussion.”
From selling cars to teaching
Stansfield grew up in east London and after studying English at the University of Kent and an MA at Lancaster, had a brief stint as a car salesperson – “I’m way too honest to sell cars convincingly”. But it is a memory she evokes when feeling downbeat about her current job.
“When it’s dark on a Thursday and we’re managing behaviour, I think ‘but I could be selling cars in Lincolnshire’. That has motivated me through quite a lot of my career.”