W/b 20 March 2023

Monday 20 March 2023

When I started writing this blog-diary-thing, in January of this year, I was conscious that I had to find and walk the fine line between (i) a credible, honest account of the life of the headteacher at RMS, and (ii) not oversharing things that my colleagues wish I wouldn’t disclose, or that I simply shouldn’t share because they are too private/sensitive to an individual or the school. 

And I try hard to respect all of that, to walk that line, inevitably skipping some issues and conversations each day/week, sometimes giving it a week or more before publishing until I have the perspective that distance provides, and by having asked the colleagues who I work with most frequently to let me know if I have ever typed something and got it wrong so I can apologise, remove it, and learn from it (fortunately, to date nobody has done so). 

Some days/weeks you can be more open than others.  However, this week, at this stage of term, there are a few things taking place that have kept me and the team pretty busy but that I can’t talk about.  Which is fine, insofar as there was more than enough happening that I can write about. I share this point only so that you have an understanding that some days or weeks in any school there’s more that a headteacher can’t type up than the words I can.

The week starts early, with two fairly sensitive meeting in succession before I head off to teach.  One of the great things about teaching, for all teachers, is that whatever issues that you have going on personally or professionally, when you close the classroom door and walk into a room full of young people you have to leave everything behind and immerse yourself in them, in their context, their learning, their development.  And most often, the pupils very quickly take you to a very good place.  Young people energise older folk, I have always found.   

After Monday Briefing at break, I have a Zoom Parents’ Evening appointment with a family who couldn’t make the actual Parents’ Evening in person.  Their daughter has her own particular context, (as all young people do), and so it is time well spent by us all.

Emma, our new Head of Marketing and Admissions, has put more than a dozen items onto our shared Google doc ahead of our meeting.  She wants to learn, to soak everything up as soon as possible, and I love this.  I then meet a colleague worried for their subject, unnecessarily, and we chat for a good while, and then there are some lesson observations of potential new teachers.

One of the best conversations today is hearing from our two newly appointed Head Pupils, Hattie and Maya.  It was a particularly competitive process to select our Prefects, our Pupil Leadership Team and in particular our two Head Pupils this year, and these two are exceptional.  I want to hear how they felt through each stage of the process, how they felt when they heard the news, and how their parents and grandparents responded to the news.  It is a special time for a family.  And it is all an absolute privilege to hear.  These are pupils and families who have given a lot to education.  I am so very pleased for all of them.

I call my predecessor as Head here, Diana Rose, for a catch up about a few matters, as we do from time to time (she pops in the following day too, because she is in town for an appointment, and the conversation is, as always, so very stimulating and useful).  Diana gave seventeen years dedicated service to the school; she loves it, and she is the only other person who really knows what it is to be headteacher at RMS in the twenty first century.  I value every conversation I have about the school with Diana.

I catch up with Clare, our Head of Sixth Form, who talks through a few matters related to students needing support. Clare also talks through the pupils most disappointed by not being appointed Prefects or Head Pupils, and the coaching and feedback that we have planned for them, which is good to hear. She ends by slipping in that a magician is booked for Year 13’s final day at RMS, and that I am needed for the finale.  It sounds ominous, but of course I am up for it.  As a male Head of a girls’ school, one part of my role, or at least how I interpret it, is to be made fun of in the nicest possible way.  Being sawn in half, or some such, is a couple of months away yet, so I can put it out of mind for now.

Tuesday 21 March 2023

RMS was founded in 1788 by Bartholemew Ruspini.  We are one of the oldest girls’ schools in the United Kingdom and world.  Today, the descendants of Bartholemew Ruspini, an extended family from America, have travelled to see the school that their ancestor founded, and to see how it is prospering 235 years on.  It is another enjoyable meeting; their pride in what has been created from the dreams of Ruspini is evident, and it is lovely to witness.

Having been teaching Year 8 and then meeting the descendants of our founder, I only just manage to get out the office for the final thirty meetings of a neurodiversity event for RMS parents.  Claire, our Head of Learning Support here, has organised a morning for all parents whose daughters are or may be neurodiverse to come in and to hear from parents of older neurodiverse pupils so they can (i) feel less alone and know that others have been through something similar to the things they are experiencing as parents, and (ii) hopefully better understand what their own daughter’s experiences are like.  Afterwards, we are approached to ask if we will facilitate this group of parents meeting regularly in school.  While you can never allow any group of parents to become the equivalent of a ‘pressure group’ on the running of a school, we do certainly wish to offer the ongoing support of parents sharing experiences and learning from one another, and so we make sure that this can happen at RMS.

I have a Zoom meeting with the CEO of the charitable foundation that owns the land that our school occupies to update him on a few matters, and then get out the office to watch a thrilling football match between RMS and St Clement Danes school.  RMS dominate possession, hit the bar and post multiple times without scoring, and SCD defend superbly.  Goals are overrated in football; this was a thoroughly enjoyable game from two determined teams.

There is a call with our lawyers about an issue, a call with the CoG, and then I get the privilege of heading to The Space to watch a rich and varied Boarders’ Concert. As the last 48 hours indicate, sometimes being a Head is a mix of incredibly rewarding conversations and events where you get to see or hear from incredible pupils or wonderful members of our our community, alongside some more high-pressured or high stakes conversations. It’s a thrilling, demanding, incredibly rewarding job. There must be stress involved, but for me it is the stress of scenario planning/considering what could go wrong X days, weeks, or months down the line, and always carrying around the thoughts of how we best avoid any of that, rather than the stress of any given day or meeting, which I think I am fortunate not to feel in any significant way as these are things I can control or influence. I might be wrong but think that by nature I focus my energy on the things I can control, and that this tendency is good for the job I am in.

Wednesday 22 March 2023

Another typically busy day for the school.  A helicopter arrives on site as a former pupil who is now a pilot in the forces lands to give a talk to pupils.  Sadly, I am not there to see it, caught up in other matters.  The pupils enjoy it, I am told, which is all that matters. 

Early in the day, I meet with an incredible student who was not made a Prefect. She has given a great deal to our community, and I now feel that in a very strong year of exceptional students, we made a mistake and missed a great one.  It can happen. I don’t have any blame or ill feelings towards anybody who contributed to the process with the best of intentions, but I do feel that I should have spotted this oversight along the way.  I hear from and talk with the pupil, and I don’t think I’ll share more than that, except to say I am glad that we have spoken.

Birthday Tea with boarders who have celebrated or soon will celebrate their birthday is a treat at the end of the day.  These take place every few weeks at RMS.  Like teaching, I enjoy hearing from the students, immersing myself in their thoughts and world, whatever that is at any given time, be that joy, sadness, or silly nonsense.  As I say, young people energise older folk, I have always found.  It’s a very special rewarding part of working in schools.

The day ends with a gymnastics showcase, a wonderful evening, with RMS pupils of all ages and abilities showcasing their often-incredible talents.  It’s a joyous night, but along the way in my tiredness I am slightly rude to a person in a reply I give to them.  I apologise afterwards, and all is well.  It wasn’t the worst offence, but I’m annoyed at myself for having made it.  I mock myself for the hubris of my earlier thoughts about stress and thinking that I manage it well.  

Thursday 23 March 2023

RMS is situated in an expensive part of the UK to rent or own property.  We are fortunate to have some flats and houses on site.  We currently have more staff wishing to live on site than accommodation available.  Priority is given to new joiners who have travelled from far away to join us, which makes sense.  Without going into tedious detail of contracts, I have to have a series of “tenancy review” meetings over the last week or so to let longer term residents know that depending on appointments to new posts it may be the case that we have to ask them to live off-site from next September.  These are worrying meetings for these colleagues who, even though they know they are only offered accommodation on-site for 2 years at a time, would always like it to be for longer.  I try to manage these meetings as sensitively as possible.    

It’s a very busy day, today.  In the morning there is a SLT meeting, a meeting with our DFO, a catch-up with the new Director of Admissions, a meeting with a colleague whose employment we are discontinuing for personal reasons that I can’t go into here.  And then, amid this, a walk to The Space to rehearse my ‘singing’, aka words-spoken-with-emphasis, with the Years 7-8 open choir for the start of Hakuna Matata that they will perform wonderfully at the Spring Concert later this evening.  As I walk in, I notice there are cameras filming this day, and the pupils cheer, giddy with excitement, as I enter, mistakenly believing I will be dressing up as a meerkat!  The many voices of rumour.  I happily would have done had I been asked in advance / somebody hired a costume, but sadly for the pupils, this is just a rumour.

Later in the afternoon, there is a full board meeting with governors. I have been asked to guide the Board to three ‘Discussion Points’ at the start of the Head’s Report I sent to them.  The one I will share here is titled: Impact of the roofing work on the School, and some of the key points are:

  • The work on the roof of The Great Hall has not yet started.  Preliminary work of various types has taken place but as I type the Trust have not gone out to tender for the roofing contract on The Great Hall. 
  • We have been unable to use The Great Hall since December 2021.  
  • Increased inflationary costs have also been referenced.  Is there a disinclination to move at pace?  There is a spurious logic to this, in my opinion.
  • The timeframe for using the temporary Platinum Jubilee Hall may need to be extended, and planning permission sought again.  It costs in the region of £200K per year.  It is hoped that MCF will fund this, but conversations do need to take place.
  • The longer the School is expected to function without The Great Hall, the greater the possible impact on areas such recruitment of new families and on the parental satisfaction levels of current families.  It also impacts on staff morale the longer we walk around closed corridors to lunch every day.  Work completing and reopening the Great Hall needs to progress with appropriate urgency.
  • Work repairing our beautiful Chapel looks like a luxury in comparison with the Dining Hall, Maths corridor, and Great Hall, but should not be forgotten.  The longer the first three roofs take, the greater the delay to addressing the Chapel.

We also cover fees, reputational risk, the challenges of recruiting in Ruspini/Early Years, mock examination performance, the evolution in support leadership teams at RMS, and issues with teacher recruitment for all schools.  The unfortunate truth is that at present there are are simply fewer great teachers: 36,262 left the teaching profession in 2020-21, greater numbers are moving overseas to teach, and recruitment numbers are down by 20%, leaving a catastrophic shortfall.  Outside London, recruitment is down by nearly a third compared with 2019-20.  In the last five years 102,588 teachers have given up teaching before reaching their 40th birthday.  The total shortfall over that time is 6,367 Physics teachers, 3,112 Maths teachers and 3,519 Languages teachers (all these figures are from The Guardian 25/2/23). 

At the most recent meeting of South West Herts headteachers, it was said that “If the current trajectory continues, there will simply not be the teachers to teach our pupils.  The numbers leaving vs the numbers coming into teaching in our area is unsustainable.  It is the single biggest challenge we all face.”  HMC are running webinars on the theme of staff recruitment issues – that’s HMC independent schools.  As the Heads at South West Herts told me: “If you’re having problems then the rest of us are ______”.

And then, finally, a long day in a buy week ends with the most glorious pair of Spring Concerts, firstly in Cadogan House, our Prep, and then in The Space with students in Senior School and Sixth Form.  We have three incredible music teachers in Mrs B, Ms Mac, and Mr Werner, and they have raised musical standards so much in their time at RMS.  I sit back and enjoy our pupils enjoying performing and their parents loving hearing them.  Evenings like this are as good as it gets as a headteacher.

Friday 24 March 2023

A long week ends mostly easily and enjoyably with the important second round of interviews for the role of Pastoral Deputy in Cadogan House.  In between the interviews, there are two sensitive meetings, and then at the very end of the day, my PA and I attend another meeting that would a year ago have been tense and tricky, but now is with a family on much better terms with the school. 

Have I mentioned before that the weeks as Head at RMS can be very intense, sometimes challenging or stimulating, but also so incredibly rewarding?  While I sometimes miss not teaching more (not the marking obvs, but defo the teaching), I wouldn’t wish for any role other than Headteacher at this age of my life and for the years to come.  I think I am so very fortunate to be in this most rewarding of roles at such at incredible school.

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