The moment when Rachel Johnson announced that she was taking over as school and college leadership network PiXL’s new chief executive was one that still gives her shivers.
It was January 2020, and little did any of the 1,200 headteachers present at PiXL’s conference realise that, over in China, a new virus was taking hold that would change the world forever. Back then, PiXL’s operation was mostly reliant on live events.
A former English teacher who at the time was Pixl’s head of strategy, Johnson recalls her heart going “mad and fluttery” as she told the audience that Sir John Rowling, the charismatic chief executive who had personified PiXL since founding it 15 years earlier, had died. He had kept his five-month battle with cancer a secret from everyone except close family.
“I’m his daughter,” Johnson continued to a “massive gasp” from PiXL members, most of whom had had no idea that the pair were related.
Then, she dropped her final bombshell: “I’m taking over.”
Johnson had left her husband to care for their children while she moved back in with her parents to nurse her father in his final weeks. But, when she revealed her desire to succeed him, Rowling refused to give his opinion.
Lion King moment
“I couldn’t get my head around it because I wanted him to say, ‘go on, you’re going to be brilliant’. I was imagining that Lion King moment of him saying, ‘here’s my legacy, you take it’.”
Now, she believes his silence was “the biggest gift” he could have given her, because it meant she “wasn’t trying to fill his shoes”.
He had wanted his daughter to feel free to make her own choices. She was free to lead Pixl in her own way, and to shake off a reputation that the company was encouraging schools to game the system – but more on that later.
At the time, she told the conference there was “so much” she could fear in “trying to grieve and lead in real time in a public way. I’ve got the biggest job of my entire life.
“I don’t know if you’re going to leave because he’s not here anymore. But I don’t want to choose fear… I want to choose hope.”
Such openness about her vulnerability triggered an outpouring of support from the heads who gave her a “teary-eyed”, standing ovation. And that message of embracing hope through adversity has epitomised her leadership ever since, because it had to.
It was the last time that Johnson would be in a real-life conference of headteachers for the next two years. During that time, she was forced to find other ways for PiXL to generate revenue while supporting headteachers through the toughest of times. She also had to deal with the death of her mother.
Her formidable resilience and determination to see the best in situations was clear long before that, however. At the age of 29, Johnson’s legs were “smashed to pieces” after she was hit by a car one icy evening. It was on the second date with her now-husband.
After eight hours of surgery, Johnson was told that she would never walk well again without a stick. She was determined to prove her doctors wrong, and she did.
Leading through grief
Two years before that, when Johnson found a burglar in her home, she “went all teachery” on him, persuading 19-year-old Darren to have “a chat in the lounge” and return all that he had stolen.
It turned out that Darren was an orphan who was “completely lost”, and Johnson helped to get him into drugs rehabilitation.
She says that leading through grief has made her “unquestionably more understanding and compassionate” to herself, too.
As a child growing up in a household where her mum was a teacher and her dad was a head (of Nunthorpe Comprehensive in Middlesbrough), Johnson’s dream had been to become a head herself one day. She had just started teaching English at a secondary school in Stockton-on-Tees in 2006 when PiXL was formed.
The Department for Education had pulled funding for the London Challenge school improvement programme that Rowling was helping to lead. Its then 55 partner schools pledged to continue working together under a new network, with him at the helm.
PiXL stands for Partners in Excellence, which seems apt when Johnson – a self-confessed “book addict” – points at a stack of books and explains that three, titled Climbing towards Excellence, Changing towards Excellence and Heading towards Excellence, were written by her father.
Rowling grew PiXL by “word of mouth” through its reputation for providing strategies to raise attainment. Meanwhile, Johnson became head of English at Cramlington Learning Village in Northumberland.
But she “didn’t really enjoy” being “in and out” of school on maternity leave after having the first of her three children. She began writing English resources for PiXL instead.
Rowling was adamant that, if his daughter wanted to climb the career ladder at his company, she would have to get there on her “own merits”. He left others to make decisions over appointing her head of strategy and director.
The network had grown rapidly due to his ability to build “relationships with people personally”. There were moments after his death when Johnson questioned whether PiXL could continue.
‘Pixlification’ of education
But it had not all been plain sailing. The company was sporadically dogged with accusations over gaming – so much so that in 2018, new Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said inspecting curriculum rather than results would help “undo the ‘Pixlification’ of education”.
Johnson takes offence at the statement. She was “confused by the narrative” of the “whole hoo-ha over gaming. How can it be gaming when everyone else is allowed?”
In 2012 PiXL had been criticised after encouraging schools to enter pupils into both English GCSE and its iGCSE counterpart to boost grades.Three years later it was the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL), with the organisation said to have advised members to enter their “vulnerable” pupils into the IT qualification, which was worth a full GCSE but which they claimed could be taught in just three days, to ensure they achieved five A* to C grades. Take-up of the qualification and pass rates soared, but it was soon dropped from league tables in 2019.
For the iGCSE, Johnson said that some schools had presented at a PiXL conference about how the qualifications were “much easier” for lower attaining pupils to “get their heads around” because the exam involved more “tangible” concepts.
Johnson claims that PiXL was not telling heads to “do this and get 20 per cent on your results”. Rather it was asking: “Who are the young people who will leave your school with hardly anything because they are struggling?
“It was a mechanism for them. But obviously, it grows legs. Then it looks like we’re trying to cheat the system.”
On the ECDL, she said a school leader’s story of how they had boosted attainment by enrolling some vulnerable pupils in the qualification spiralled into some heads entering entire cohorts.
“No one ever said, ‘do it with 150 pupils’. And we don’t tell schools what to do.
“We say, ‘here’s what people are doing… use your own knowledge of your school and your kids to make that discernment’.”
But Johnson said the organisation, which has 2,500 members who pay between £1,625 and £3,375 plus VAT a year (frozen since 2019), “has evolved” since she took over.
While she still wants to “provide practical things for school leaders to help them improve life chances”, its focus is on “doing this across character and culture as well as academic outcomes”.
Although she and her father shared the same values, she has been “more relentless” in pursuit of “integrity, kindness, humility, pursuit of excellence and constant talk about how we all behave”.
She now commands a team of nearly 50 staff across separate primary and secondary, alternative provision and post-16 divisions, as well as a TV platform and leadership-themed podcasts.
As well as access to resources, members get three national conferences per sector a year and a networking associate to work alongside the senior leadership team.
PiXL is a limited company by guarantee, which means there are no shareholders and it “tries to invest any reserves back into schools”. If it were to be disbanded, any money left would go to seven children’s charities.
But it is a profitable enterprise. In 2022, PiXL generated £7.2 million in revenue with an operating surplus of just over £1.1 million. Its five directors were paid £400,000, with Johnson paid £130,000 that year (similar to the maximum level on the headteacher pay scale).
She describes the support as, “when things are getting to feel a bit too much, our associates and our staff team are here to walk alongside school leaders, with no motive and no political agenda”. An example she gives of this is dealing with RAAC.
One of the biggest challenges for school leaders now is the “whirlwind [they’re] caught up in”, she says. With many “absolutely exhausted” and seeking to leave the profession, now is the “time for them to make time to think” – and Johnson has written a book urging them to do so, Time to Think: The things that stop us and how to deal with them, out this week.
“They leave our conferences and network meetings thinking, ‘I’m gonna change the world’. That’s what PiXL does. You can talk about resources, but they’re just notes or PowerPoint slides with pictures on.
“What’s important is the sense that people are not on their own, that we’re giving guidance around how we can lead better and be better as human beings.”