W/b 16 January 2023

Monday 16th January

How reasonable is it to work long days in term time?  Teachers and boarding staff certainly work long days in any given week during term.  Equally, I have been told by those outside the profession that, “Teachers get good holidays”.  This is not untrue, but it doesn’t appreciate what is expected of the profession or the demands of term time. 

UK working hours are calculated over a ‘reference’ period, normally of 17 weeks, which means “you can work more than 48 hours one week, as long as the average over 17 weeks is less than 48 hours a week” (UK Gov website).  With half-term and end-of-term holidays, our working hours tend to balance out, I think.  A hardworking colleague, my line manager at the time, once compared the long hours that we (mostly happily) worked during term at a busy boarding school that taught Saturdays with the hours of friends in other jobs.  I don’t remember the numbers now, but we felt it was comparable over a year and that you take the rough with the smooth.

Such thoughts are in my mind at the start of this week because (i) I enjoyed a good, productive weekend that gave me some family time but that also included quite a lot of work. (Headteachers and teachers are not alone in working part of their weekend, of course). And (ii) because this week is “Care Bear Week” at RMS, a week when you can put yourself forward to be given the name of a colleague who you will anonymously support during the week. Given it’s the third week in January, a week before Pay Day, with the daylight hours short and the weather bitterly cold, Care Bear Week is a lovely idea. You might take a colleague’s Duty for them, and/or buy them a little gift or bake them a treat, and/or leave some inspirational quotes or kind words on a card for them. And in return, somebody anonymously does that for you too. These small acts of kindness make a difference.

I’ve never really been convinced by arguments about the exceptionalism of teachers. There is teacher busy, and certainly teacher tired, but the same is also true for hospital staff, social workers, tradespeople, office staff, single parents, etc. There are a few things that are particular to schools, e.g. one is that we all get exhausted at the same time. That’s not normal. Before I was a teacher, I worked in jobs where colleagues went on holiday at different times, so you never had all the office exhausted at once. Whereas there comes a point in each term at every school when on top of their regular teaching, tutoring, taking of clubs or teams and duties, everybody has also been working extra hard marking mock exams, writing reports, and attending Parents’ Evenings, and every dedicated colleague is shattered. It’s usually about two-to-three weeks before the end of each term, and it’s why teachers need frequent breaks from the intensity of term time.

So, Care Bare Week is one of the ways that we can show a little support for each other, and first thing Monday I dropped off something in the pigeonhole of a great colleague.  Later on Monday afternoon, a few slices of homemade Millionaire’s Shortbread turn up in my office.  To get all William Carlos Williams: they were delicious, so sweet and so thoughtful.  

Other than kindness and cake, today’s tasks involved: returning marked essays (which always feels great); updating colleagues about the next steps in our Google evolution; more conversations about the Five-Year-Plan; thinking about the coming months for our Development Office; a meeting with our Director of Finance and Operations that brings a couple of surprises; and hearing the Cadogan House staff plan the “ideal structure of the day” in our Prep School. Not bad for the nonsense PR stunt that we’re told is ‘Blue Monday’.

Tuesday 17th January

We have pupils in for scholarship assessments this week.  Academic, Drama, Music, Art, and Sport.  It’s a busy, complex week, but my ‘role’ involves nothing more than chatting with the pupils and hearing how it’s going for them each time I walk through the New Mark Hall where they’re based.  Marc in Admissions and Rachel, our Head of Senior School, plus her team, have it all in hand. 

While in some ways I miss the fun of meeting brilliant new pupils during this week, that’s not my job anymore. Over the last couple of years, we have evolved a new structure at RMS which is better for our pupils. We have a Head of each School (Nursery, Prep, Senior, and Sixth Form) and these four fab colleagues get to know each of their pupils and families very well, while also managing the operational day-to-day running of their school.

My role as overall Head of RMS now includes more time for exciting important meetings like this afternoon’s one with our landlords, RMIGET, about how the repair work is progressing on roofs, on our Great Hall, and in the underground tunnels that support the heating. Occasionally, I struggle to remember why it was that I asked to change my own role in this way! Then I remind myself it was because “we have evolved a new structure at RMS which is better for our pupils”. Mentioning our landlords is me introducing a new character into this weekly blog. You’ll hear more of them, I expect. Everybody’s working hard together with good intentions, but on a 100-year-old, 300-acre site, nothing’s straightforward with the landlords.

The day ends with two meetings. The first is about the structure of boarding and contains lots of ideas from a couple of good colleagues, but no convincing case for urgent change is made. The second is “just a catch-up” with Rachel, Head of Senior School, but lasts the best part of ninety minutes simply because some weeks there is a lot to catch up on.

Wednesday 18th January

Before Whole School SLT today, I am prompted by a colleague to write to our parents about the “occasional misuse” of WhatsApp groups. Most parents get it right, of course they do, but occasionally a parent in any school nowadays uses WhatsApp to do the twenty-first-century equivalent of “taking a petition to Mrs McCluskey”, getting a tad dramatic and going a bit Grange Hill by trying to drum up support for their pet peeve. I take my colleague’s point, but I’m not quite sure how to address this with all parents when it’s one or two in a thousand who occasionally get it wrong.

Whole School SLT provides an update from the Heads of School on how they are progressing with (i) aligning the day for our Nursery and Prep School for September 2023, and (ii) considering the structure of the school day for 2024. The first seems comparatively straightforward, although we do want to hear more from parents and colleagues. The second is a larger endeavour, if we go there. Along with everything else that she does, Rachel is leading a Working Party to canvas opinion and check desirability and feasibility.

Later on, I get to watch the first of two lessons this week. It’s a joy, and I’m in awe of the expertise, manner, and skill of a colleague. However, the Year 13 pupils are not quite firing today, and I say at the end that their teacher is working harder than some of them in this important week before Year 13 Mocks. The pupils say that they have been more focused on revising the first of their two papers than today’s topic. This could well be a fair point. We’ll see how they get on next week!

Our pupils at RMS really are wonderful and very conscientious overall. While I’m on standby for taking detention after school today, it turns out that nobody is in detention this week and so I can head down to our Sports Hall to watch a few Year 6 netball matches, and some Year 8 hockey.

Thursday 19th January

I join the Senior School and Sixth Form SLT meeting to hear them talk about wonderful pedagogy ideas, and the possibility of us becoming a Prue Leith cookery school – very exciting.  This joy is counter-balanced by a follow-up LADO meeting.  Every year, over Christmas, something that could be serious tends to land in your Inbox.  This is fine, all part of the job.  While of course it’s crucial to get some downtime, it’s simultaneously true that you’re never fully “Out of Office” as a Head.  The “thinking about School” is pretty much always in your head, every single day, often just scenario planning about something that could happen, or could be better, or ‘Might go wrong and how we can ensure it doesn’t?’  Occasionally, at home, my children will ask me “Why are you shaking your head, dad?” when I haven’t realised what I’m doing, lost in school thoughts and possible scenarios, or thinking about an actual problem because even good human beings with the very best intentions sometimes make mistakes and get it wrong.

This year, just before Christmas, there was a call from, and then later a Zoom with, a LADO (Local Authority Designated Officer). A LADO is the person responsible for co-ordinating the response to concerns that an adult who works with children may have caused them or could cause them harm. While these are most often Mays and Coulds rather than Dids, or do not actually involve any RMS pupils or employees (as in this instance), it’s nonetheless always serious stuff that saddens your soul.

Thursday Evening brings the first Senior School Parents’ Evening of 2023.  Our Year 9 students, and their parents, all together with colleagues in the Platinum Jubilee Hall.  I have always enjoyed a good parents’ evening.  As a teacher, I love the opportunity for honest feedback, deserved praise, and appropriate prompts to pupils in front of their parents.  As a Head, I love being there to catch up with our parents, to hear from the students about their evening, and also to get a rare chance to sit down and catch up with my colleagues during times when they are in-between appointments with students.

Friday 20th January

This morning starts with a request for a call from another Head, which I make straightaway, as we all try to do.  I appreciate the honest conversations most Heads can have with one another, whether about a pupil or colleague, or just an issue with which one of us is grappling. It’s all confidential of course, and that’s part of why we can be so honest on these calls.

I catch up with a couple of colleagues about a pair of pupils that will help inform a couple of emails to parents over the weekend. Then I get the pleasure of watching an Early Career Teacher (ECT) who is doing really well. The HoD and I watch it together so we can feedback helpful thoughts early next week. I am conscious of a recent interview with John Hattie that said his videos of teachers in England showed “89% of classroom time is spent with teacher talking. Teachers asked around 150 questions a day, most of which required less than three-word answers. That’s the norm. Most teachers don’t know that, and they deny it. But the evidence is undeniable”. It’s an interesting statement. My ECT colleague is not making this mistake. She has clearly been working hard to develop her pedagogy, but in her classroom it is the pupils that she has working hard, while she is already comfortable with silence while the pupils think and work. In many respects, this is all really encouraging.

There are more meetings with colleagues, and with parents from our Prep School and our Nursery to hear their experiences, and a Friday Assembly after which my recipient of Care Bare Week approaches me to ask if she should be thanking me. I claim not to know anything of what she’s talking about but I am fooling nobody. She is a great teacher, and the whole initiative has been wonderful with colleagues across all sections of the school getting involved. My last actions in my office for this week are enjoying birthday cake with a small group of our boarders. This is a tradition we follow for every boarder every year, and it always a pleasure to hear from the students for whom the school is their home. As yesterday was also my birthday, I then head home at 6pm to enjoy a Friday evening with my family. It’s been a good long week in term time.

W/b 9 January 2023

Monday 9th January

I wouldn’t wish to be a headteacher who doesn’t teach (to start with a double negative).  Couldn’t do it.  I’m not judgemental about those who don’t, but it’s not for me.  I enjoy the interaction with the pupils far too much, which is perhaps a selfish reason. I also think it sends a nice message to pupils and colleagues.  The rest of SLT (who all teach more than my one class) sometimes tease me that I carry my English books around like a prop, to performatively announce “I am a real teacher!” like Pinocchio insisting he’s a real boy.

Every week begins with my Year 8 English class first thing on a Monday morning. I only teach one group, five double periods a fortnight, but I’m their sole teacher and there’s a serious responsibility that comes with that. Sundays are a time for marking and planning each week so that no matter what the week throws my way as Head, I’m prepared to teach English to Year 8, double negatives and all. 

This morning is their last lesson on Romeo and Juliet before a final assessment tomorrow.  Writing an essay on Shakespeare is really bloody hard when you’re twelve.  And it’s been three weeks off over Christmas since we last studied it so I’m not expecting them to be at GCSE standard just yet.  I am concerned they’ll find tomorrow’s unseen extract question tough.  We do a Diamond Nine exercise on the play that hopefully helps them recall Shakespeare’s presentation of violence without giving away the question.

I have a meeting with Anne late morning.  Anne is an incredible colleague that we are lucky to have with us at RMS.  She is organising a conference for 300 teachers at RMS later this year called “We Collaborate” (this is the kind of thing she regularly does), and today is putting pressure on me to build a Professional Development Centre at RMS.  Anne says it would show that we take the professional development of RMS staff seriously.  Anne is of course right to hassle me in this way, that’s partly why she’s here, and we are going to do this.  Mostly though, Anne energises everybody that she meets; she is extremely emotionally intelligent and just plain wonderful like that.

On my lunchtime walk around school I come across a pupil who needs medical support.  Two of her friends and I take care of her in the short term, but I also call our medical team and they arrive within five minutes – all is well.  We are incredibly fortunate to have a medical team on site. 

I then find myself chatting with Year 9 pupils at the end of lunch, and almost accidentally following them into their Year Assembly.  I am now off-piste and not following the day’s route that my PA has planned for me, but Mrs Beedell is Head of Year 9, and Mrs Beedell is one of the most positive people you can meet.  Her assembly today is on, “10 Reasons to be Cheerful in January” and she is comfortable in her role of leading the pupils in this way.  Her ten messages of positivity in January include, “You can catch up on Sleep”, “The good TV series start again”, and “It’s a great time for good walks”.  Year 9 jump on board with the positive messaging and give me a recommendation of “Ginny and Georgia” as an example of a great new series on Netflix that I should watch.

Tuesday 10th January

Year 8 do find the Shakespeare assessment tough.  This is allowed.  It is a GCSE question, and afterward I let them know that as they were writing, Year 11 students were sitting their GCSE English Literature mock examination.  We have three more years to get this right.

Once the teaching finishes, today is a more “grown-up” one involving calls with our lawyer, a complaint, and a potential disciplinary issue or maybe, hopefully, just a misunderstanding.  There’s always more that you can’t talk about than you are able to share as a Head.  That’s just part of the territory.  I then switch my focus to the filming of an introduction to our Five-Year Plan at RMS.  We will be sharing this with our community on Friday, and this video introduction is a little more formal, and more corporate than the roles I am most often asked to perform.  A retired Head said to me last year, only half in jest, that “headship nowadays is all PR and HR”, and while I disagree with this reductive view of a rich and highly varied role, I knew exactly where she was coming from. 

Wednesday 11th January

It’s not a usual morning that begins with successive meetings with three governors.  I don’t think it’s happened before, but today they come swinging around the corner like they’re Benny Goodman.  One meeting is a regular catch-up with the Chair, another to let me know about something we may have got wrong, and the third about the Five-Year Plan.  Momentum is building towards its release on Friday.

Term time in every school is relentless, an unforgiving brute.  One week into term, and the late nights already have me consuming two large pots of coffee in the morning and then pudding with my lunch.  On a good day, lunch is a time for conversations with pupils, and today I get a little time with Year 4.  They are tempted to play by large muddy puddles.  I tell them that the second month of the year used to be called Mud Month before the Romans arrived in Britain, and that’s enough to set them off imagining a world before roads and lights and “with mud so deep it was like walking through quicksand just to visit your neighbour”.

My afternoon is spent liaising with colleagues who are showing great support for a boarder, a few regular line management meetings, and then drafting a paper for a meeting next week.

Thursday 12th January

Whole School SLT has sixteen people crowded around my table.  It’s a larger group than is normally present, but we are considering IT at the school, and I want many voices involved.  Our servers are getting old and could be replaced but the advice is to put everything in the cloud, using Google Drive.  It’s more secure and more efficient, and all makes sense in so many respects, especially as teachers use Google for all lessons nowadays.  We’re going to take between now and September to get it right, with lots of training for those support colleagues less familiar with Google, but even so, we all know this will be a big thing for some colleagues who are used to storing files on the school servers and have never been near Google Drive.  Emails and our calendar will change too, which could be a game-changer in a positive way for our parents, but some minds will be blown.  I understand this will be the case – it will be a big change for us all.

I catch up with a pupil who was in the recent film of “Matilda” just to hear how she’s getting on in Year 9.  There’s a meeting with the Head of our Prep School, as they are considering lengthening the school day for September, and another with the DFO about builders, swimming pools, and bursary applications.  All exciting DFO/Head stuff!  The Head of our Senior School has been extremely busy all week, meeting 192 lovely Year 6 pupils who are applying for a place at RMS next September, and we catch up late on so I can hear how things have been going for them/her, and where she’s at with her thinking.

Friday 13th January

An appraisal with a colleague who wants to be a headteacher excites me greatly today.  You miss out on teaching the pupils when you move into senior management, but seeing colleagues develop is still a big thrill.  I also get enthused by a phone call with our new Director of Marketing and Admissions who joins us in March – she is full of ideas, energy, and positivity.  And our Five-Year Plan is shared with the community after a great deal of work.  Over 500 voices contributed to a new Mission statement, Vision, and strategic plan.  Pupils, colleagues, parents, alumnae, and governors were all involved.  We are excited about it.  If you are interested, you can see what you think of it here.

W/b 2 January 2023

Tuesday 3rd January

School reopens ahead of Inset tomorrow and pupils back Thursday.  My first thought on entering the building is, “Is the heating working?” as we’ve had problems in recent months.  I walk down corridors touching all the radiators and smiling, relieved that all is well ahead of tomorrow.

My plans for the day are placed on hold when I reach my desk.  There is one of those tricky, unexpected problems waiting for me as if it has just jumped out of an interview in-tray exercise.  It requires immediate action.  Welcome to 2023!

With Inset not until tomorrow, it is mostly Support colleagues in today.  It’s good that the School gets a day to set itself up so that we know the essentials are in place before everybody returns.  I say “the School” and “set itself up”, but of course the too-often invisible work of great Support colleagues is the truly important work without which schools could not function.  Much of my morning involves walking the school and literally or metaphorically shaking hands as I wish colleagues “All the best!” and ask about Christmas and time spent with families and friends.

The Head of our Sixth Form pops in about a couple of staffing matters.  I then have a long call with HR, again about staffing matters.  We truly do have wonderful colleagues here at RMS, but in a school of 1000 pupils and 300 staff there are most always human matters of one sort or another: births, sickness, babies, death – all the stages of family life every week of the year. It is this work that gives HR teams and headteachers a strong awareness of the most important things in life.

With one thing or another, by the time I go home for dinner I haven’t yet got around to writing my introductory words for Inset tomorrow.  No problem as my role is little more than the warm welcome really.

Wednesday 4th January

Today was a lovely Inset Day.  An 8:25am start is always a shock to the system for colleagues after a nice Christmas break, but as Insets go it was a good one.  One big reason why it worked in Senior School and Sixth Form is the tone set by Mrs Roberts, who organises these days so very well.  Structurally it worked too, with initial messages to all staff kept short, an external speaker who was a solid 7/10 and ran an active session, and then an afternoon of Dept time, which is always appreciated.  

I attend the three-hour Senior/Sixth pedagogy session on effective Stretch-and-Challenge strategies in the morning.  Sitting with colleagues (ideally those who you don’t usually sit with) and enjoying hearing different voices is one of the nicest things about the day, and I am on a lovely table filled with great colleagues, half science, half humanities.  One great line I hear and that stays with me is, “Perhaps we need to rebrand what it is that an exercise book is for” as we discuss the merits of learning from making mistakes, and how best to militate against the fearful culture of perfectionism.

I then dash to our Prep School for a two-hour session from the charity ADD-vance on “Understanding Autism in Girls”.  This is a session full of good knowledge about a topic of great importance, but by its conclusion I am reflecting on how tiring it is sitting still and learning for five hours – goodness knows how the pupils manage it every day of the week!

Thursday 5th January

The pupils are back, and so our school really comes to life.  I love the first day of a new term, every single time and without exception. My only disappointment is that I’m not teaching today.  The big hit of the day comes from our Catering team who welcome the pupils back with a “Build-your-own-Ramen” option at lunch that goes down very well.

Behind the scenes, one of my meetings is with colleagues considering IT Planning.  We are a school that once used a little bit of Microsoft and some Apple but then became heavily invested in Google Classroom during the pandemic.  We need to think about rationalising our technology ecosystem.

While it looks like a short week on paper, tonight is an 8pm finish for HoDs as it is Year 9 GCSE Options Evening.  A late one on a cold January evening, but very much worth it for the pupils.  They need information, reassurance, and chance to hear from a good range of different subjects.  All this is provided for them, and while operationally there is always “Just this or that” to tweak, as a Head you quite often stand back and watch with pride as these events apparently “run themselves” so very well for pupils and parents.

Friday 6th January

There are a series of conversations this morning about how best to share our Five-Year Plan with parents next week.  Abi in Marketing wishes to move it away from a PDF “with lists of words” to something more interactive including moving images on a hidden website.  She convinces us of the merits of this option, and I am very pleased with the early work on this that she shows me later that day.

There are more meetings about human beings for me: a colleague receiving serious medical treatment; feedback to somebody who we didn’t offer a job to; and a handover chat with a great colleague who is moving on to an exciting new job.  Much as we will miss her, it is a good move for her and I wish her every success.

First week back ends with another late finish as it is the Year 14 Celebration Evening.  This is a lovely night run by the Head of our Sixth Form and her Deputy, celebrating one more time a wonderful year group that attained fab A Level grades in the summer before heading off on the beginning of their great adventure. 

The students love the chance to all meet up again with friends that they haven’t seen for a few months.  Their parents get to reflect on how proud they are of their incredible daughters, and I am told a few times from parents now with quieter households how much I need to appreciate every moment of my own daughters’ lives, yes, even those challenging teenage years.  There is good food and wonderful conversation at a great celebration.  Everybody goes home happy.  It has been quite a long ‘short’ first week back, but a very good one which is always what matters most. I deserve a Saturday trip up to Anfield to watch the 3rd Round of the FA Cup with my eldest daughter and my father together on The Kop.