Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Arthur Ashe’s words are Rachel Snape’s motto – or Rae as she prefers to be called.
“When we started Cambridgeshire Festival of Education, we had a lot of people ask us why we were doing it in Cambridge. Why not Peterborough or Wisbech?”
And why not? In an age defined by organisations trying to stem the tide, if not reverse the flow, of city-centrism, it seems a reasonable question. Not to Rae.
“I would never stop anyone from Peterborough or Wisbech doing anything, and if they asked my help I’d give it, but the fact is that you have to start where you are.”
In many ways, Rae – half her life an educator, and nearly half that again, 12 years, a headteacher – is the antithesis of the stereotypical warm-strict school leader. Progressive to her core, she is known for her refrain of “flamingoes of hope, not lemmings of despair”, her vivacity and outfits to match. Yet here she is, gently chastising neighbouring populations while offering them support.
If there was a pithy phrase to encapsulate her approach, Rae says it would be “distributed leadership”. It is the means by which she appears to have hacked an education system characterised by workload-induced dissatisfaction and workforce turnover to buck those trends. She has bucked these trends to become the headteacher of an “outstanding” primary school at the heart of a teaching schools alliance, the organiser of a rapidly growing festival of education, a member of countless groups and networks and the holder of more kitemarks than any letterheaded paper could allow for.
Rae is in a transition phase. Her time at the Spinney Primary School is coming to an end and a new challenge awaits her, but she is confident about the school she is leaving.
“They might miss me for about 30 minutes,” she says, “but they’ll get on with what needs to be done, and there won’t be a single point of failure that will cause a collapse.”
My mother said: “Whatever you do, don’t go into teaching!”
Distributed leadership is a management style characterised by mobilising expertise and potential at all levels of an organisation to develop capacity for improvement. For Rae, it means “there isn’t that mentality of ‘I’m the boss
and the rest of you are there to do what I decide.’ It’s democratic.”
“I’ve seen the opposite elsewhere,” she adds ruefully, “when the control goes and the systems dissipate because it was only held together by challenge or fear.”
What does distributed leadership look like in practice? Well, there are no lesson observations at the Spinney. Instead, the school operates an open-door policy, from classroom to headteacher’s office. In meetings, everyone leads on a part of the agenda according to their expertise. The staff room is referred to as the team room, because the raft of community volunteers the school makes use of are treated as part of the collective effort.
It dawns on me as I listen that there might be a flaw. Distributed leadership seems more like a set of values than practices. “If the values belong to one person, isn’t this the single point of failure awaiting a school whose leader is departing?”
Rae is quick with the response. “No,” she says. “They’re not just my values. They’re a combination of things I wanted to see more of, yes, but also things that came from appreciative enquiry or parents directly challenging us.”
They’ve evolved over time, and they’ll continue to do so with or without her.
A privileged life
Rae is one of three daughters. Their father was a geologist and their mother is a retired teacher who told them all: “Whatever you do, don’t go into teaching!”
Rae isn’t the only rebel. One of her sisters is an assistant headteacher in Telford, the other a deputy head in Sheffield. A cautionary tale for any parental advice.
When she graduated, Rae pursued her love of drama. She saw it as transformational then, and she still sees it in her own school-aged daughter. She worked for a while as an assistant director, then left to teach English in Greece, then Spain, and came back to the UK to support her husband’s career. She got her PGCE in 1994 and has been in education ever since.
She is loath to draw direct lines between her past and present. “I suppose, after being a headteacher for so long, you combine the detail with the bigger picture, just like you would if you were a director, but it’s tenuous.”
Rae and her sisters were raised for much of their early childhood following their father’s work postings in various African and Asian countries, including the DRC (then Zaire), South Africa, Malaysia and Mauritania.
I’m permanently motivated to find gaps in the system.
“When I lived in these countries,” she recollects, “and it was still a colonial world, with segregation and apartheid, I had a very privileged upbringing. It doesn’t make me very comfortable now, but my mum was very instrumental in bringing about change.” As an example, she cites her mother’s campaigning for all workers, not just white ones, to have helmets to go down the mines in Zaire.
Rae feels these experiences have contributed to making her adaptable to change and quick to make connections with new people. Above all, the discomfort with her early upbringing informs her sense of solidarity and egalitarianism. “I want everybody to be treated equally and fairly, and I think that motivates the way we work in our school, in circles rather than hierarchical approaches.”
A pragmatic changemaker
Rae has written about accountability and teacher professionalism. I ask her about the uncertain political situation, the radical alternatives proposed by opposition parties. Could the school’s distributed leadership model withstand a massive swing of the political pendulum?
“We’ve found a way to make it work in a context with more and more testing,” she says diplomatically. I get a sense that Rae will continue to do what Rae does regardless, and she will always butt up against the limits of the political realism that limits schools’ practices.
Nor is her vision uncontroversial. In fact, the biggest barrier to the changes she’d like to see is parents themselves. “They value the high-status qualifications. It’s a different paradigm,” she says.
Ironically, her community may very well be the key enabler of her far-reaching influence on education in Cambridgeshire and beyond. She acknowledges this. “I one hundred per cent know that this is a privileged space to be in,” she says.
Short of a school community to accompany her all the way in delivering her vision, she has cast her net wider. Now, she is spearheading My Cambridge, a cultural inclusion partnership aimed at addressing inequality of children and young people’s access to the arts.
“We’re one of the Ashoka Changemaker schools,” she tells me, “and I’m permanently motivated to find gaps in the system and using what we have to hand and innovate with it. In India, they call it Jugaad.”
Rae is also black belt in Tand Soo Do karate, and member of ukulele band, the Misspent Ukes. “You must get tired?” I ask her. She acknowledges the support she has from her husband and her daughter, but there is no acquiescing to tiredness.
“I’m involved in many things, but once you get people motivated around an idea, it just happens. I sit on the steering committee meetings. I’m not delivering any of this stuff.”
It’s a testament to the power of distributed leadership she adheres to, and you can’t help but feel Rae has indeed hacked the system with it. A shadow of privilege hangs over it, but it would be churlish to blame the injustices of an education system on one headteacher, no matter how indomitable, just because she hasn’t fixed them.