Leadership profile: A 28-year learning curve

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
What an innings: Phil Hallman is pictured with some of the pupils at Saint Martin’s Catholic Primary School. He has clocked up 28 years as a headteacher (image: supplied)

Phil Hallman is one of the longest serving headteachers in the country having clocked up 28 years across two primary schools. He speaks to Emma Lee-Potter about his journey and what he has learnt...

When Phil Hallman was appointed to his first primary school headship in 1991 he had no idea that he would eventually become one of the longest serving heads in the country.

In 1999, after eight years as head of St Oliver Plunkett Catholic Primary School in Warrington, Mr Hallman became head of Saint Martin’s Catholic Primary School in nearby Runcorn. He has been there ever since and believes he has “one of the best jobs in the world”.

He describes his team at Saint Martin’s, who have clocked up 400 years’ service at the school between them, as superb. “I’ve been doing the job this long because I enjoy it so much and have wonderful people around me,” he said.

Saint Martin’s has won its fair share of plaudits over the years but Mr Hallman has always been far more interested in ensuring that the pupils enjoy coming to school than in pursuing prizes.

“It’s the children who matter, not the fact that you have a banner outside that makes you feel good,” he said. “We’ve never chased awards here. I’m far more interested in the children getting the experience than having a badge to say they’ve had the experience. I want the children to be well-rounded and to do their very best.”

When Mr Hallman took up his post at Saint Martin’s 20 years ago it had been through a tough couple of years. The school is in the Murdishaw district of Runcorn, an area of high deprivation. Around 45 per cent of the 210 pupils are eligible for Pupil Premium funding and 30 per cent receive free school meals.

The head worries, however, that more children should be entitled to free school meals. “We are continuing to try to get families to apply,” he said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult for people to get them.”

While some new heads bring in their own staff straight away Mr Hallman took a different approach.

“It makes a difference when people feel good about themselves and I was determined to utilise the strengths of the teaching staff we had,” he said. “We have phenomenal staff but when I first came here the biggest issue was helping them to move forward after a difficult few years.

“Consequently, the standards and expectations, particularly at key stage 2, weren’t as high as they were capable of being. We looked in detail at where there were gaps, in English and maths in particular, identified the pupils and then tried to motivate them to achieve more.

“It concerns me that a lot of new heads like to appoint their own staff. When that happens, you lose what’s already there. Relationships are the absolute key in schools. When you have a class of children your understanding of each child is vital for them to be able to achieve their maximum. It is exactly the same with staff. You’ve got to take the time to build your relationship with staff and get them to trust you.”

Mr Hallman did not originally plan a teaching career. From the age of four he wanted to be a priest and he went to a seminary at the age of 11.

At 18 he decided “to take a few years out” and went to Christ’s College (now Liverpool Hope University) to study divinity and history. He then set his heart on teaching and did a PGCE before taking up his first job in a primary school in Stockport. Within five years he was appointed as a deputy head in Wigan and three years later he got his first headship.

Mr Hallman is determined to ensure that all the Saint Martin’s teachers are happy and feel valued. At one stage the single-form entry school had job shares in five of the seven classes (two sisters currently do a job share in year 2).

“It was important because we were able to keep the superb staff we had,” he said. “It meant that all the teachers were fresh and had a good work/life balance.”

He believes that one of the school’s greatest strengths is its sense of community. He works closely with other schools and in recent years has been a local leader of education, providing school-to-school support and mentoring. For a while he was the extended schools remodelling advisor for the local authority and helped to develop multi-agency teams in the area.

“We had a school nurse, a counsellor to work with the children and parents, a learning mentor, a behaviour and attendance monitor and a family support worker,” he said. “We’ve been able to keep most of that going but unfortunately we haven’t got the counsellor any more because of the funding.”

Saint Martin’s has built strong relationships with parents too. As well as a breakfast club and after-school club for the pupils, it runs a twice-daily parents’ café and offers activities for parents like knitting and arts and crafts.

Above all, Mr Hallman is a great believer in making sure that the pupils at Saint Martin’s have fun. The key stage 2 children go on a residential trip each year, subsidised by the school – everything from staying in a youth hostel in Ironbridge in Shropshire to sleeping overnight on HMS Belfast in London (part of the Kip on a Ship programme). The pupils take part in a host of sports competitions and everyone does drama once a week.

“It’s having that broad curriculum that enables us to achieve the results we do academically,” he said. “For me the priority is for the children to be happy. If they are happy they work harder. And if they are happy then everybody is happy and they can achieve.”

Asked about his personal ambitions for the future, Mr Hallman simply wants to continue to enjoy his role.

“Will I make it to 30 years as a head?” he said. “I don’t know. But if that becomes my aim that would be about me – and that is not what I’m about. Having spent seven years in a seminary the Catholic church invested a lot of money in me – and yet I didn’t become a priest. However, I’d like to think that having served as a headteacher in Catholic education I’ve had a different vocation to the one I originally thought of.”

In his own words: Phil’s advice for new heads

  • Remember: it is a marathon and not a sprint. Do not try and do everything straight away. Think about the longer term and look at the bigger picture. There are too many people who want to micro-manage and if you do that you lose sight of the whole thing.
  • Relationships, relationships, relationships. Make sure that every single member of staff feels valued, whether it is the support staff, your deputy, your chair of governors or the bin man. Take the time to talk to everyone. I always make sure I go and have a chat with supply teachers.
  • Do not forget why you are here. It is the children who matter. We are here for the children and they are the most important people.
  • Be prepared to listen and be prepared at times to be wrong.
  • Treat people how you want to be treated.
  • Make sure your staff invest in themselves. Thank goodness the importance of mental health and wellbeing has been recognised in recent years. I have driven myself into the ground a couple of times because I have tried to do too many things for too many people. But because I had invested in the people here they supported me and got me out.

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education writer.

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