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  • Writer's pictureKeven Bartle

Coalface Compendium 1: Leadership

A weekly round-up of under-the-radar news stories that recognise the challenges headteachers and school leaders face at the coalface, and the ways in which they rise to meet these challenges.

The first group of regional stories I wanted to draw attention to in this post are stories that might be seen as being after-the-news or alongside-the-news. These are stories of Heads and school leaders who are picking up the pieces after the media circus has left them or those who are dealing, at a local level, with events that are also gaining national attention.

It makes sense to start with the tragic story of the coach crash involving students from the Wirral in Merseyside in which two people lost their lives, one of whom was a 15 year old student. This article in the Wirral Globe focuses on the work of the headteacher of a school whose students were also on the coach. He speaks, in measured terms given he has privileged information, about the support he provided the family of an injured student over the weekend. He also discusses how he and his team have liaised with police, the NHS and transport providers for supporting the students in returning to school on Monday, knowing that it will be a "difficult day" with a strong sense of "angst". He speaks of how the focus is on "everybody pulling together" to help students cope with the impact of the accident.

An article that runs alongside, and perhaps challenges, a national narrative is one around 20mph zones near schools. In this article, from the BBC, a headteacher from Harrogate argues for a blanket approach around schools following seven recent accidents which have left two children hospitalised. On 20mph limits, the headteacher and his staff "see the need for this daily". The school he leads, however, borders a road where the 30mph limit has not been reduced as a result of "national and council policy" as well as "the volume of traffic". It is an example of how conflicting national discourse and local concerns can challenge the work of those who are seeking to keep children safe as well as educate them.

One of the challenges facing school leaders is how they continue coping when the headlines have moved on. This article in Lancashire Live shows how the RAAC crisis that emerged at the start of the school year has impacted the headteacher of a primary school. Although not one of the schools listed by the DfE, this headteacher had the school surveyed and discovered that one of their buildings might contain RAAC. The decision whether or not to close the affected building was "agonising" and he "didn't sleep and had visions of the ceiling collapsing on pupils". Naturally, the headteacher made the decision to close whilst attempting, for the next two weeks, to "desperately" gain more certainty from the DfE. This certainty was not forthcoming due to bureaucratic wrangling about whose responsibility it was for having full surveys conducted. Eventually he used his local MP to press the issues and received confirmation, the same day, that the buildings were safe. A happy ending, but at some cost.

A range of local media articles demonstrate the ways in which external pressures impact on headteachers and school leaders in running their schools effectively. A Coventry primary headteacher is worried about drug-taking near her school and the impact this has on students and families. A primary headteacher from Glasgow had to mobilise her families to support in the clear-up of an act of "mindless vandalism" of the school's nursery. The headteacher of a Black Country school had to use the local media to rebut "completely fictitious" social media reports of riots, stabbings and fights at the school. And a headteacher from Wells is working hard with his local peers and the families of students at the school to tackle the scourge of "bubblegum-flavoured vape" products that are clearly being marketed to students with little regulation. In each of these cases, the partnerships formed by school leaders help to bond their communities but do not necessarily get to the core of the issues that they are facing. Responsibility for this lies beyond their control.

For anyone who doesn't appreciate the pressures that leading a school places on those who take up this challenging role there have been three stories this week that haven't had the widest of reaches that are illustrative.

The first is this report about the former headteacher of St. Olave's Grammar School. Following complaints back in 2017 that led to legal challenges to their selection processes between Year 12 and Year 13, the school was found to have "unlawfully excluded underperforming students". Whatever the feelings the reader may be about this case, it is striking that it has taken six years for the Teacher Registration Agency to come to a conclusion about whether the headteacher in question should be allowed to continue within the profession. It is a very stark reminder that there is a huge amount of legal jeopardy that comes with the role of being a headteacher and school leader.

The second article, in the Inverness Courier, concerns a headteacher who is "gutted" to be resigning his post after nine years in role. He is said to be moving on due to a "host of circumstances" which have "come together at the same time". In spite of loving the students and the community at the school, and feeling "very supported" by them, he has made the choice to leave. The report mentions that three of five Inverness secondaries are now without permanent postholders, throwing up concerns about retention in the Highlands.

Finally, and perhaps most poignantly, this past week also saw the unveiling, by the Parent-Teacher Association of Caversham Primary School, of a clock in memory of the headteacher Ruth Perry. As this article for the BBC shows, the clock is seen as a "perfect tribute" for their former headteacher as it overlooks the playground and reflects the continuity of the culture she established. It is a bitter-sweet example of the best thing about being a headteacher or school leader as well as the worst aspects of the role and how it can affect those who do it.

This post is called 'coalface compendium' to recognise that headteachers and school leaders face (and often overcome) challenges which are not reflected in the main news stories of the week. Dominant headlines often resonate strongly with school leaders, but life at the coalface, away from the glare of the headlines, can feel lonely and isolated. Hawkins and Proctor, in their book on Supervision in the Helping Professions (2020), use the same metaphor of working at the coalface to illustrate the importance of supervision for those in the helping professions. Just as miners fought for the right to be able to wash off the dirt from their labours during working hours, those working at the contemporary coalface ought to be able to 'wash off' the emotional 'dirt' of their work before going home to their families.

My hope in writing this post is that headteachers and school leaders will recognise their own coalface in these under-the-radar news stories. There is much to celebrate in these stories about how individual headteachers and their staff are rising to the challenges that face them, for the benefit of the communities they serve. Although some of these stories show the negative side of the role of school leader there is something inspiring about the ingenuity these leaders display, the way in which many of them draw upon others to help them, and the way in which they keep their communities and values front and centre. The stories are shared to help those reading them see that they are not the only ones who are managing, sometimes with great amounts of uncertainty, profoundly difficult issues.

Knowing you are not alone is important, but it is not sufficient. If you are a school leader coping with, but sometimes struggling to cope with, such issues as those raised here then is here for you. Have a look at our page on 'reflective supervision for school leaders', speak to your line manager or Chair of Governors about it, and use our contact form to get in touch. We would love to hear from you.

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