Review by Fiona Atherton

Headteacher, Ladypool Primary School

27 Apr 2024, 5:00


The Conversation – with Fiona Atherton

Pray for sunshine

We have made it to the summer term in what seems to be the year that the weather forgot. But what’s been making the social media weather this week is the rumbling story of the Michalea School trial over its prayer ban. And what do the British like more than to talk about the weather?

I’ve been a quiet observer of the two sides of this debate for some time, and my personal conclusion is that this was not a good decision for the family, the school or education as a whole. This X thread from employment lawyer Zillur Rahman best sums up my concerns.

Many non-faith schools manage to provide a quiet space for children or young adults to pray and reflect. I suspect they will continue to do so. You have to admire Katharine Birbalsingh’s dogged determination, but sometimes leadership needs to be about humility, service and kindness to the community you serve – doing what’s right rather than being right.

Article 14 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (freedom of thought, belief and religion) states: “Every child has the right to think and believe what they choose and also to practise their religion, as long as they are not stopping other people from enjoying their rights. Governments must respect the rights and responsibilities of parents to guide their child as they grow up.”

That’s a succinct expression of where I stand as a school leader.

The kindness of leaders

Speaking of kindness, I read a blog this week that really warmed my heart. It reminded me that although we seem to hear and read only about the controversial leaders, more often than not the vast and usually silent majority are out there doing good and changing children’s lives for the better.

Ian Frost’s post really got to the heart of the type of leader I most admire and strive to be. He gives five reasons for including kindness in your leadership approach, and for each one he also cites a book that supports this idea. So, if you are someone who likes to do the research, there is a ready-made book list for you.

For me, the most pertinent point was based around the thought that ‘kindness is not niceness’. I suspect Ms Birbalsingh would agree with the sentiment. However, Frost’s injunction is not for us to dispense with niceness but to go beyond it to support those we lead. It certainly made me think about the leadership actions I spend my time on.

An inspector doesn’t call

One of the topics that has dominated my conversations with colleagues this week is Ofsted: the infamous ‘window’ right down to the days and weeks inspectors might call, whether it is right or not to celebrate top ratings, and now even whether those one-word judgements will continue. (Sunday, The Times said no. Monday, Schools Week said yes. You have to wonder whether this is an intentional briefing strategy.)

So many of our fantastic schools in Birmingham (particularly in areas deemed most deprived) are doing an amazing job, and it seems that work is now being seen by Ofsted after many years of being overlooked.  So it is with a sense of irony that I admit to feeling somewhat similar to the author of this blog when I was awaiting the call last year.

As a school leader, it is incredibly difficult to compartmentalise the upcoming Ofsted inspection even while acknowledging that it is fundamentally flawed in its current form. When they reward schools that you admire, it becomes even harder.

Add to that the growing fight for school numbers as the birth rate in Birmingham falls and the fact that parents use the inspection as a decision-making tool, it becomes like a maelstrom in your mind.

The range of emotions every week when you are waiting for them to call, along with the disappointment you feel when you are ready and they don’t, can leave you feeling tempest-tossed.

Here’s to a change in the weather.

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