The Invisible Gap

I personally took a major interest in mental health and the impact on learning a few years ago when it became clear that, for the majority of my pupils, learning was the last thing on their mind. More and more pupils were entering school with significant mental health issues and we were not in a position to support them effectively to enable the learning to take place.

We decided to educate both our staff and pupils about how to manage their mental health and over the past three years have done just that, introducing a mental health and wellbeing strand to our curriculum which is taught weekly from Nursery to Year 6, becoming the first school to be a therapeutic school and taking a strategic approach to developing wellbeing. Well being has become as important in our academy as academic learning and we are starting to see an impact in attainment and progress.

Lots of schools and academies have done the same- lots haven’t and have waited for the government to lead in this area. Whilst there is now a requirement for schools to support the mental health of their pupils for some they are a long way off doing this effectively.

These are the schools whose pupils will struggle during lockdown and for many this will only become apparent on their return to school. When people talk about the gap widening for some pupils during lockdown they are invariably talking about attainment gap and the impact on learning in terms of academic ability. I think there is another more pressing gap which will emerge- the gap between those pupils who are emotionally resilient and those who are not. Academic ability has nothing to do with this resilience- good mental health has. Those pupils who have been taught how to support their own mental health and wellbeing will be much better placed to deal with lockdown and the issues that arise. Emotional resilience is not something that can be taught online so whilst the arguments rage on as to whether teachers should be teaching using online lessons the real question ought to be whether children are coping mentally- never mind academically.

Whilst schools serving high % of disadvantaged children are being discussed in terms of how they will help their pupils catch up and the problems they will face on return to school, perhaps if we look at the positives- the fact that many of these schools have had higher levels of mental health support, because they have had to in order to enable children to learn, they will in fact be in a better place than others who perhaps have focused more on academic achievement?

The invisible gap may in fact be a benefit and close the gap of achievement.

Leadership- easier in industry?

Leadership- harder in schools?

So, someone just asked me if being a leader was ‘harder’ in a school than in my previous leadership roles in industry. I guess the easy answer is yes but there are many different strands to the question.

The first issue is defining the term ‘harder’- do they mean more difficult, more challenging, more time consuming? Intellectually harder, or physically or mentally harder?

In retail I had to contend with customers, staff, external agencies, managing budgets and sales targets. In education I have to contend with exactly the same- parents (customers), staff, external agencies, managing budgets and pupil targets. The difference is that there is an emotional aspect to managing all of these in education that just does not exist in some other sectors. Never did I wake up worrying about whether I had made the wrong decision as a leader in industry and it wasn’t because I didn’t care it was simply that a bad decision in retail just meant I had to work harder at meeting my targets whereas a bad decision now can potentially impact on someone’s future.

One of the reasons my role as a school leader is more challenging than my previous role running supermarkets is because there are less constants. Let’s face it, increasing sales of products is infinitely easier than increasing outcomes for pupils! Where retail is market driven and factors such as the weather, inflation and the economy can have an impact, generally once you get a feel for your market and seasonality it is fairly constant for large organisations. Education however is one endless stream of changes and you never get to fully understand your ‘market’ due to its mobility and other factors such as  changes in policy or government.

Leadership in schools is definitely more emotionally challenging for me- this simply stems from the fact that I care and there is so much at stake. I am dealing with and impacting on children’s lives now not just tins of beans and that is sometimes a very sobering thought. Whilst this makes leadership in education more challenging it also makes it more rewarding- I never got the satisfaction from my role in industry that I get now- meeting sales targets and budget forecasts just isn’t the same as seeing a child finally grasp a maths concept or read for the first time!

I know I have just touched the surface of a complex question but for me the answer is yes, leadership in schools is more challenging than my experience of leadership in other sectors but is also more rewarding, more exciting, more interesting and ultimately gives me more job satisfaction.

I can’t think of another role where everyday, regardless of my mood, I am made to laugh out loud by someone under the age of ten!

From Sausages to SATS

From Sausages to SATs – From Industry to Education

So, how does a manager of a TESCO supermarket become a headteacher in a primary school?

When I was younger, if someone had told me I would be a headteacher of a large primary school I would probably have laughed. I was not one of those people who knew from a young age that they had a love of teaching and it was not on my radar as a potential career.

It was only when I had my own children that the passion begun! I realised very quickly after volunteering in my son’s school, that working in a primary school was not only a job I enjoyed, but a job where I felt I could make a difference.

From Tesco to Teaching… A Transition from Industry to Education

My working life had started at a relatively tender age of 13, when my parents suggested I work at a local shoe shop to ‘realise the value of money!’

I went through the usual trauma at A levels where you have to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life but actually have no idea. I did the relatively safe ‘Business Studies’ degree at University – doesn’t everyone who has no idea what they want to do?

During university, I did my year’s placement in industry working at Tesco in their staff development department and probably out of habit joined the company on graduation training to be a store manager.

Over the course of the next ten years I had various positions within the company, managing different departments and finally managing my own store. I had some fantastic leadership coaching and development as part of my role although at the time did not recognise its quality – I just assumed this was what training was!

A very timely campaign by the government to encourage people into teaching and a realisation after volunteering at my children’s school that there was more to life to tins of beans got me training to be a teacher in 2001 on a SCITT scheme.

I qualified a year later and worked in various settings including a referral unit and across two different authorities to gain experience. In 2010, I took on my first headship at Birstall.

Is Leading a School Different to Leading in Industry?

I often get asked if leading a school is different to leading in industry/business and the honest answer is no. There are many similarities.

There are vital skills that I think you need as a leader regardless of which industry you are in, however sometimes working in industry means you have better access to leadership training and these skills are more effectively developed.

There is a real need for these skills in education but often the training is not as developed.

When I first started my leadership career in education, I was amazed that in a profession that was so important to growing our nation, very little accountability existed.  By that, I mean that there was little performance management or performance targets – something that is the bread and butter of managing people in industry.

The ‘closed door’ approach was common in teaching, and even as an NQT I was amazed that teachers may only be observed once or twice a year. Targets seemed to be set, but progress was not necessarily checked and even when targets were not met, nothing much changed.

Over the years this has changed and there is certainly a much higher sense of accountability now in the teaching profession and performance management now echoes that in business.

Other differences in leading a school relate to the ‘customer base’. Customers within industry vote with their feet and companies spend fortunes doing market research, customer trials and seeking customer feedback in order to refine their product for different demographics. Unhappy customers means low profits.

In education, this often isn’t the case – how often do we really consult with parents about how we run our schools? Our ‘customers’ in education are much harder to define, no general demographic exists for the children attending our schools.

However, we have a lot to learn from listening to parents of pupils.

It is often harder for our ‘customers’ to vote with their feet, as often their children attend their local school.  In terms of dealing with more difficult customers though I have to say education wins hands down! Our customers are far more emotionally involved and as a leader of a school you have to have highly developed conciliation and arbitration skills.

Timescales and organisation is something which is crucial in both education and in industry. In industry there is a necessity to be highly organised and often you are working to tight timescales with little notice.In teaching this is a life skill!

It is one area which if you get right makes the difference in how you and your organisation are perceived. Timely correspondence and communication as well as sticking to timescales with staff and parents gives confidence in both the leadership and the school.

Working with colleagues and stakeholders at different levels is another vital aspect of leading in education and business. In business it is common to be leading a team of people and then have to do a presentation to customers or a board member the next.

In teaching, the same skills are needed to communicate with peers, staff, pupils, parents and governors.

The ability to turn water into wine as regards to budgets is an essential factor to successful leadership in education and industry. In industry, it is all about saving money, cutting margins and making profit.

In teaching, we certainly have to be good at saving money. Especially when leading in education. My experience of working with budgets has meant that getting the most out of generally tight education budgets has been easier. It is only in recent years however, that any training in schools has focused on money management and for many headteachers this is an area of real worry and low skill.

From Leading in Industry to Leading in Education 

So in essence, if you are an effective leader then you can, in effect, lead anywhere – as long as you have an understanding of the sector you are working within.

Education has many similarities with the business sector and many business skills are useful. However, it will never be the same as business, and leaders who do not understand that will not be effective in education.

In my case, I can only say that leading people to build children’s minds is much more rewarding than leading people to build sales.

I hope the skills I learnt in industry have made me a more rounded leader and headteacher, and as they say… Every Little Helps!