The heart attack didn’t cause me to give up leadership, writes Robert Campbell. Losing heart did

I never intended to go early. I was always going to be the one who kept on keeping on. When I used to wind up my partner, Sarah – who is nine years younger than me – by saying she would retire before me, I was only half-joking.

I was the career-educationalist who served as the headteacher of four schools in total (two substantive, two interim) and who participated willingly and enthusiastically in the education system in manifold ways: NLE, NAHT National Executive, Headteachers’ Roundtable, inaugural CEO of an academy trust, special free school establisher. I loved my work but, aged 54, I have decided enough is enough.

Today, I am a part-time teaching associate for a local university, a house-husband and an aspirant poet/musician, but at 37 I became a headteacher for the first time – willing, yet woefully under-prepared by my NPQH. I survived that first headship. Looking back, I’m sure I’m not alone in questioning the value of this hazing we put new heads through.

In 2007, I became principal of Impington Village College, a fulfilling job at a great, inclusive, comprehensive school with a unique character (International Baccalaureate, Enhanced SEND, Henry Morris, etc). I felt at home there, but education doesn’t stand still. IVC reluctantly became an academy in 2012, and in 2016 formed a MAT with me as its first CEO. In many ways, my ideal role.

It only took a matter of weeks from that point for my perspective to change

As other “founder” CEOs have acknowledged, we were making it up. It was exciting and unpredictable. In the four years since its foundation, the trust grew and I stepped into being an interim head twice. I got my head around trust governance and became fully acquainted with the Academies Financial Handbook (Test me!). I enjoyed working with the other trust CEOs as we forged a new model for education.

Then, in October 2019, I had constricting chest pains climbing a local hill. I thought it was a virus, but Sarah hastily sent me to Addenbrooke’s, where A&E told me it was a suspected heart attack. It was a shock. Sure, I’d had a stressful decade or so as a head, but I was also physically fit and a good runner ̶ no candidate for a heart attack. A week later, I was in Papworth, next door, for a procedure and a lifetime prescription of medication. Still, nothing put me off getting back to school.

Then Covid arrived. A nasty bout took me out of action for 11 days. But I recovered and settled into lockdown leadership. The trust needed me.

But it only took a matter of weeks from that point for my perspective to change. I have disagreed with a lot from government over the years, but I have witnessed more nonsense in the past ten months than probably the previous ten years put together. There is an ineptitude about this regime that is making things so much worse. Watching peers grow increasingly exasperated at what we are obliged to implement, feeling that exasperation myself, I took early retirement.

In the summer of 2019, Sarah and I had relocated after she had secured a new job in her home county of Cumbria. Coming out of lockdown, I simply couldn’t face the thought of a return to weekly commutes. I tried to secure a trust role up here, but my heart wasn’t in it. The years of leadership have taken their toll on me, as they have done with many of my peers. Fortunately, I guess, my diseased heart taught me a lesson about the value of living better while I still had a chance to learn it.

I’m conscious there’s some privilege behind my decision, but I don’t imagine I’ll be alone in weighing up the options and deciding there’s life after the DfE. I’m now living a beautiful quiet life, teaching a couple of days a week, keeping a house clean and tidy and writing poetry and music. I’m earning much less than 10 per cent of what I used to, but I’m happy and healthy. It’s sad you can’t be a head and be that too.