W/b 6 March 2023

Monday 6 March 2023

Each week passes fast, and most days are intense this term.  Monday morning sets off at a brisk pace and no sooner have I waved it off than Thursday evening arrives, exhausted and without much pause for breath in-between. Every Thursday evening this term I have noted with a, “Friday? Tomorrow! Already?”.  It is really not a complaint; I enjoy feeling the life of school intensely and term time demands busyness.  Everybody who works in a school is all doing important work for children who only get one shot at this. With four weeks to go, there’s a lot more that this term will fling our way.

Every human being is worthy of attention.  I know this to be true.  How can I make the time to appreciate their why, their who and how, and show that I care about where they’re at, from, and between when each week goes so fast and most days are term-time intense?

I meet with a colleague suffering Long Covid.  I can only imagine.  Truly.  Life is exhaustingly hard on all such individuals and there are times when they simply need to rest, or not come into work, of course.  And then also there are the demands placed on colleagues who are covering lessons and work for absent colleagues.  And nobody is to blame for any of this, but it creates greater intensity for all amid marking, reports, Parents’ Evenings, racing to finish GCSE specifications, to do our Duties, to teach and show the children and young people that we care about them.

I meet with a new colleague taking up post in the key role of Director of Admissions and Marketing, Emma.  Starting a new job, in a new school, and a new town, far from your last role…I think I remember it well.  There is so much to take in and to process and yet you feel you need to do.  I share with Emma an observation that Sci-Fi writers will often have a character arrive on a new ‘world’ so that as readers we too can learn about this world along with them, and how, quite often, a character’s first impressions of the characters in this world revolve and change as they (and we) learn that all is not how it first appeared.  The point of my anecdote is to encourage Emma to take the time to get to know us, to learn about and increasingly appreciate her team and our community rather than feel she has to do.  The time to do will come, of course, but mostly schools are about people and the getting to know her team and RMS will best serve Emma well.

I am aware of (but not often self-conscious about) appearing to reference literature quite frequently in my conversations with colleagues.  I don’t do this to impress (and mostly it bloody doesn’t!), or for any nonsense show-off ego reasons, but because that’s how I learnt so much and so that’s how I think.  The part of your mind that reads a story is also the part of your mind that reads the world.  I’m fairly confident that the writer George Saunders taught me that lesson.  Alongside the lesson that he, and all the other great writers who made me care about their characters taught me: that great fiction is a vital moral-ethical tool that changes you, that makes you care more about others, makes you more aware of your responsibilities.  I could go on.

I realise the answer to the question, “How can I make the time to appreciate everybody, their why, their who and how, and show that I care about where they’re at, from, and between when each week passes fast, and most days are term-time intense?” is that I can’t.  Or, at least, not on my own.  But as a functioning part of each of the many teams that I am a part of, together we have a chance to show we want to listen, to appreciate, to care.  A school community is a collective.  Part of my role is to ensue all of my teams, and all of the leaders in our school, and all of the teachers and support colleagues in the school fully appreciate this.

The day takes a different turn when I have a Zoom with the person that I referenced upsetting on the 23rd February.  They are an agent, i.e. a person who helps families find the right school for their child.  Many agents are good people playing an important role for parents who wish for a great education for their children, but who don’t understand the nuances of the British private education system, such as why league tables actually tell you very little to nothing beyond how academically selective a school is at point of entry. 

I would very much like to have a very good, professional relationship with this agent, however in truth I have increasingly realised that they are not truly putting the best interests of a pupil first, and I now know (and they know full well that I know) that there are times when what they have said to me about parents and students is not the same as what they have subsequently said to parents.  I don’t like this.  I need honesty and integrity rather than performative grandstanding, and I certainly need the best interests of the students put before all else.  The meeting ends with me hearing his polite British reserve that he deploys to avoid directly facing up to the truth.  That is fine; an interesting sentiment one might say!  I come off the call reflecting that I know my colleagues at RMS will continue to do what is right for this student, and that I know that we will never work with this agent again.

I am a member of a “Reform of Assessment Working Group”.  It’ a group that know GCSEs are not fit for purpose and is working towards reform.  But I will have to write about this another time.

Tuesday 7 March 2023

Today is a “School in Action” day.  This means that prospective families can come and see us on a regular wet Tuesday in March rather than us putting our best face on for an Open Day.  It’s a regular Tuesday morning English lesson that parents see passing my classroom (which in some ways is a pity because on Monday the pupils were all over the school making a series of Sherlock Holmes trailers, but there we go).

There is a part of the morning where the Head of Senior School, Ms Bailey, and I give a short talk to prospective families.  While such talks are important, they are an easier part of my role because we are what we say we are at RMS.  I mean, occasionally we might not be if we get it wrong, but overall we absolutely are a values-led school that puts time into ensuring that every pupil thrives and that truly is prepared to think differently in order to do what is best for our pupils.  Of course, in my role I have a responsibility to recruit great pupils for RMS, but that is greatly over-weighed by the larger moral responsibility to help each family find the right school for their daughter.  I really don’t wish to persuade you to join us if we are not what you and your daughter are looking for in a school.  If I didn’t know that when I started, there are two cases from my early days when families that chose us didn’t really want to be at a school like RMS and in both cases it didn’t/hasn’t really worked out.  I chat with prospective families throughout the morning, hearing about their daughters and each of their daughter’s interests.  The better I know RMS, our pupils, staff and parents, the better I have got at representing what we are and, perhaps more importantly, at being clear about what we are not. 

In amid all of this, there is also the first day of our House Music competition. Two weeks ago, I was scheduled to observe sessions in the morning and afternoon of each day.  That would have been bliss.  Sadly, really sadly because it’s not at all what I want, events mean I only get to see and hear one session.  That session was a joy.  I think as a Head I am happiest when I am seeing the pupils perform in one forum or another.  And despite being a northern man socialised to keep his emotions in their place, I almost always well up when I see pupils performing in one respect or another.  I love it, and I am sorry to have to leave.  When I learn how to do this job well, I will be able to spend all day watching pupils learning and developing.

The day ends with a Remuneration sub-committee (2:30-4pm), followed by a HR sub-Committee (4-5:30pm), followed by a Curriculum sub-committee meeting at a local school where I am a governor (6-8:30pm).  What?  Goodness me, it’s a long one and I’m tired by the drive home.  I’ll spare you the discussions of the last six hours, quite interesting as a number of them were in relations to pupils’ well-being, staff salaries, and suchlike.

Wednesday 8 March 2023

The day starts with a SWHSSH meeting, that is a meeting of South West Hertfordshire Secondary School Headteachers (SWHSSH).  It is a group I really appreciate having been a part of for the last year or so, meeting with wonderful headteachers of the schools that are geographically closest to RMS.  Yes, they run state/maintained sector schools and RMS is private/independent, but we have far more in common than that which is different.  Most of the time, our issues are the same.

This meeting we are joined by Dean Russell, MP for Watford.  He wishes to hear the issues of schools in and around his constituency.  The messages that he hears from us include:

  • “Herts SEND is broken and underfunded.”
  • “If the current trajectory continues, there will not be the teachers to teach our pupils.  It is simply unsustainable because the numbers coming into teaching are unsustainable.  This is the biggest challenge we all face.”
  • “The narrative around teachers that is coming from the government is unhelpful.”
  • “There has been an explosion in county lines this year.”
  • “The pay award for teachers of 5% last year left us all in deficit budgets and using reserves.  This year is manageable, just, but the reserves won’t be there next year.”
  • “Schools are getting a lot of pushbacks from parents.  Social media rewires adults too, and it gives a different medium for them to get out their narrative on events, which aren’t always true or based in reality”.

Nobody is pulling punches.  As I say, they are a great group of wholly dedicated school leaders working hard to rise to the many challenges faced by schools nowadays.  Speaking personally, I am unconvinced by Dean Russell’s replies.  I heard a lot of jolly anecdotes and pre-prepared soundbites that weren’t relevant to the issues we were raising, but nothing that was credible or convincing to me.  There’s nothing party political in this; my wife once ran the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty, and I know there are good and bad constituency MPs in all political parties.  It was good that Dean Russell attended SWHSSH, but I would have liked him to listen more carefully to the messages being shared beneath the civility and politeness.

I meet with Rabbi Aaron Goldstein in the afternoon.  That was another pleasure in my week.  He is full of warmth, openness, and ideas of how he and his colleagues can work with our pupils.  I appreciate him taking the time to come and visit us, and am conscious that this is an opportunity I must take for the school, continuing to connect us with our community and increasing pupils’ awareness of all faiths.

Thursday 9 March 2023

It is a day for a key appointment at RMS, the final round of interviews for the new Academic Deputy in Cadogan House.  We have one applicant withdraw the night before, which is always frustrating, for personal reasons we are told, but no matter as a long day of interviews ends with us securing the appointment of an excellent candidate.  I am already looking forward to seeing her impact next year as part of a new team of two Deputy Heads around our Head of Prep, Melanie Horn.

My notes from my meeting with Alina in HR today include a potential restructure of a role in one area of school, which is always a very delicate matter; adjustments to how we staff boarding in order to make it more sustainable for a very dedicated team; discussion of how we replace a PA; DEI matters and how these link into recruitment; a serious safeguarding issue; advertisements following a retirement in Mathematics; the challenges of recruiting in Early Years; how professional development can best link to appraisals; and where we are at with appointments.  A the Head at SWHSSH noted yesterday, with more teachers leaving the profession and the government not hitting recruitment targets, finding great teachers is increasingly difficult for all schools.

The British Boarding Schools Network runs from 9-11 March in a hotel near Heathrow Airport, allowing schools to meet overseas agents in a speed-dating format that provides helpful introductions and market intelligence.  We have a team of three or four colleagues here every day, and I am in attendance from Thursday afternoon to Friday evening.  Thursday includes talks such as, “What does it take to build and sustain successful school and agents in a post-pandemic world?”.

Merrick Davidson, the director of AIBC in Thailand, tells us that the pandemic impacted Thai families’ plans, but they are now getting more inquiries again.  He wants “flexibility and understanding when considering applications because the playing field has changed” and stresses the importance of openness (which pleases me greatly), saying, “Any schools wanting to develop a partnership with us need to be upfront and open.  Show me your oldest as well as newest facilities.  Be transparent re nationality breakdown.  What is the dominant nationality in a boarding house?” 

Merrick’s third point is about Communication: “Effective and timely communication is a must.  We can’t wait several days for a reply. If you are not responsive, families will go elsewhere.” His final point is that “Schools who are more international-student friendly are those we build partnerships with, stressing the need to open at 9am rather than 7pm the day before school opens (because international students may have landed earl morning from a long-haul flight, saying “We don’t like Exeats.  We do appreciate a half term programme.  Don’t organise your Zooms for 11pm in Bangkok.” 

These are all great points, and Merrick is a plain talking agent who I like hearing from.  We have already responded to most all of the above points, with the one caveat being that I do need to balance the interests of international students with the needs of an extremely hard-working boarding community of housemistresses, boarding tutors, and support staff.

The dinner in the evening give me a chance to meet more agents, hear from the BBSN team about their plans, and to get to know our Admissions team a little better away from the pace of a working day.  I retire to bed early though as I know how busy tomorrow’s “speed dating” will be.

Friday 10 March 2023

Conversations with agents, all day long, fifteen minutes at a time.  It’s good, it’s interesting hearing their stories, and their perspective.  My first time here, six years ago, I talked too much.  Now I listen more, connect better, learn more.  The day is also interesting because I get to spend more time with a comparatively new colleague in our team, Asuman, and to see her working.  It’s good.  Asuman was an agent herself before she joined RMS as Admission Officer; she absolutely gets the agents’ pov, and agents appreciate this.  I like being able to see and appreciate the great work of my colleagues, and seeing Asu, Emma, and our Head of Admissions, Marc, in action over two days together is a very good end to the week.

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