In praise of the humble headteacher

2 Nov 2019, 5:00

Headteacher, Kate Frood has seen the education system transformed as her career has progressed. In an age of chief executives and superheads, she argues something valuable will be lost along with the one-school-one-head model

As an experienced head with almost 40 years’ experience in education, I find myself in many meetings these days where I feel small. As the only person who introduces themselves as a headteacher among a roomful of CEOs, principals designate, and directors of trusts, my confidence takes a hit.

The sector landscape of schools has been transformed during my career and I’m not convinced that the fragmentation of the system has quite lived up to its aspiration. The career paths have changed beyond recognition and whilst I have the utmost respect for colleagues who take on two, three or more schools, I wonder what we’ve lost in making the position of headteacher a staging post rather than the ultimate career achievement.

George Berwick, the genius behind London Challenge taught me about ‘teachable moments’ – that the best learning happens when a teacher is as close as possible to the learner. The scale and the role of one-school-one-head creates so many ‘leadable moments’.

I’m in one school. I’m very close to the pupils, the community and the curriculum. I’m present and known to everyone. I still teach weekly. We’ve developed our own strong and well thought-out curriculum over the years and I’ve always been close to that development.

My borough, Camden, is still a strong community of schools. Each school has its own headteacher. Each of our schools has its own unique identity. They’re doing what is right for their community.

None aspire to be ‘head of school’ within an academy chain

Three years ago we formed a company called ‘Camden Learning’ which cemented and secured our commitment to working together to improve our schools. I think we are winning. None of our 51 schools are less than good and 14 are outstanding. There is collaboration and support at every level. We have a wonderful council that prioritises education in its vision and in its budget.

Part of our work has been to create learning hubs. Practitioners from all levels sign up to work on the same line of enquiry in joint practice development groups. Last year, I led a maths hub looking at improving teaching for remembering in maths. This year, my group is composed of year 4 teachers coming together to distil what is unique and special about this oft-neglected year group. My staff are working in other hubs on mental health, SEND and early years. It’s stimulating and professional.

It’s not cosy – far from it. We have rigorous standards meetings once a year where, along with our chair of governors, we are grilled on a range of school improvement issues. School improvement partners visit regularly.

As a teaching school, we train student teachers, lead NQT induction and offer CPD in maths for teachers and support staff across six boroughs.

So I might not be a system leader with the title and salary to go with it, but I’m a systemic leader. The work we do affects the front line, changes classroom practices, builds teacher pedagogy and commitment. And it’s done from an authentic position of being a lead practitioner.

We have a wonderful and growing network of teachers who we have trained, inducted, and who we now watch grow into leadership within our partnership. Teachers stay in our schools because they know they will be supported and developed.

I meet so many excellent future leaders.  So many tell me – quietly – that what they really aspire to, is to be a headteacher, to run their own school, build their own community. None aspire to be ‘head of school’ within an academy chain, never quite having the autonomy real leadership affords.

Things have a way of coming back around in education. Maybe someone will eventually realise that systems and structures don’t improve things. People and the relationships they build do. Maybe someone will even decide that the best accountability system for schools is to build strong local communities of schools led by a well-funded local council.

I may not see it come to pass before I retire, but until then, I will keep celebrating the autonomy and support I have, in my own small way.

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