A headship masterclass

Written by: HTU | Published:

Alison Peacock has now led her school through three outstanding Ofsted inspections. She is clear that professional courage and a focus on enabling learning progress is key. Emma Lee-Potter reports

Clarity of vision, professional courage and the ability to hit the ground running. In Alison Peacock’s view, these are just some of the key elements of successful headship.

They clearly work too. When Ms Peacock was appointed as headteacher of The Wroxham School in Hertfordshire in 2003, the school was in special measures. These were lifted within nine months of her appointment and she has since led the school through three outstanding Ofsted inspections. The most recent was in May this year, when inspectors concluded that she provides “inspirational leadership”, that teaching is “outstanding” in all year groups, and that the pupils’ behaviour and attitudes to learning are “exemplary”.

Her approach to primary education has been so successful that Wroxham was awarded Teaching School status in 2011. A National Leader in Education, Ms Peacock established the Cambridge Primary Review Network with Professor Robin Alexander and is co-author of the 2012 book Creating Learning without Limits, a study of her transformative leadership of her school.

Above all, she is adamant about the need for children “to be genuinely valued”. Even though she trained as a primary teacher, her first job was at an Essex secondary school. She vividly remembers writing year 7 reports at the end of her first term when a colleague came in and said “don’t forget you can’t give any child in this set higher than a D grade”.

“I remember thinking ‘this is ridiculous. I have got 25 children in the class and how demotivating would it be to be given a D?’ Also, they weren’t all the same. They weren’t achieving at the same rate and some of them were doing so much more than others. 

“That started me on the path I’ve been on ever since, about this notion of how damaging labels can be and how they can limit how children feel about themselves. The most important question is ‘how do you enable children to make the next step in their learning? – it’s not ‘how do you measure them?’”

There’s no doubt that Wroxham School, which employs 55 staff and has 240 children on its roll, is an inspirational place. There can’t be many schools with a Celtic roundhouse in the grounds and a multi-coloured double-decker bus in the playground. 

“After our 2009 Ofsted inspection the only thing we needed to improve was our library,” explained Ms Peacock. “We didn’t have any more space so we thought ‘why not buy a bus?’ We bought ours on eBay for £2,400. It was during a coffee break and Roger Billing, who used to be deputy head, suddenly found a bus with a ‘buy now’ button. I phoned the chair of governors and they agreed so we pressed the button and a huge cheer went up in the staffroom.”

So what are the key pieces of advice that Ms Peacock would pass on to other heads and those aspiring to become school leaders? 

Clarity of vision is vital

“You need to have absolute clarity of vision about what you want your school to be about. When I came for my interview one of the questions was ‘where is this school going to be in five years’ time?’. I used two PowerPoint slides to explain my vision and they are still on my office wall. The first thing I said was that I wanted the school to be a happy learning community. It’s really important that children want to come to school, that they feel safe, happy and laugh a lot – and the same with the staff. But I also recognised the importance of high academic standards, an engaging curriculum and high-quality teaching. Schools are about everybody achieving and everybody celebrating everybody’s success.”

Hit the ground running

“Getting to know the school and getting to know the people is crucial. You can’t afford to sit back and wait for people to come to you. Headship is about actively seeking to understand what the core priorities are, what the children are interested in, what they are worried about, what the teachers’ strengths are, what they might like support with, what the governors’ priorities are. These are the kind of things that help you to shape the institution in the way you need to shape it.”

Show families that you really care

“We get 100 per cent attendance at our family consultations. If families say they can’t come then we arrange a time when they can, even if it is first thing in the morning or last thing at night. As soon as children are confident enough, they talk about their work and in years 5 and 6, they present their work to their parents and tell them about their challenges and their successes. If you show a family that you really care about their child and that you are there for the family as well as for the child then in my experience that’s almost always what’s needed.”

Headship doesn’t have to be lonely

“When I did my NPQH (National Professional Qualification for Headship) one of the session leaders told me that headship was a really lonely job and I remember thinking that perhaps it wasn’t the right job for me. But in the 10 and a half years I’ve been a head I have never felt isolated. There have been times when I’ve felt under pressure but I haven’t felt that pressure all on my own. I have always worked with my colleagues and felt the trust of my colleagues.”

Professional courage

“Being a headteacher is about making sure that the curriculum is as vibrant as it can be while meeting the demands of all of the programmes of study. It’s about being able to look at what is being offered and saying ‘how is this going to work in our school?’. You need professional courage to do that – and it needs to be courage borne out of knowledge, which is why I think things like doing a Master’s, getting involved in research projects and working with people with a theoretical knowledge of education is a good idea too.” 

Give people a voice

“Listen to people, give them a voice and understand that if they are angry there’s usually a reason why – whether they are children or adults. It’s about being responsive and developing a relationship.”

Working in partnership with the community 

“As a head you have the ultimate responsibility for gathering the community together and keeping it a harmonious place – and that takes work. It’s also about being open, listening and not getting on your high horse. In the last 10 years I’ve got to know a lot of families in the community as well as other professionals around the school and other headteachers. It’s helpful to have people you can call and say ‘this has happened. Please can you help?’”

Be creative

“As a leader it’s important to recognise your creativity and allow yourself to come up with different solutions, not necessarily to think that you’ve got to do it by the book – because there isn’t a book. An outstanding lesson is one that gives you a tingle factor, where you can see children electrified by the prospect of what they are going to do next, and where they are really engaged, excited and absorbed. The same is true of leadership. It’s got to be dynamic, fluid and responsive and what works one week won’t necessarily work the next. You’ve got to be prepared to adapt things. There are always new challenges and new ideas about how to enable children to learn more effectively. That’s what’s so exciting about the job.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education journalist.


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