“Why I still have hope for our Education System” – James Pope

This blog comes from former Headteacher of Marlwood School, and Director of InspirEducate, James Pope

As I write this it is a cool spring day during the Easter holidays and I am sat in my newly created office, carved out of a basement room at my home.  I imagine a collective professional mind, paused and taking breath, recharging the batteries, enjoying time with family, friends, perhaps sneaking in a holiday abroad or counting down the weeks until the summer one.
This holiday is an odd hiatus to the frenzied school year.  The majority of the year is done and yet the most pressurised period of time is still to come for students, their parents and school staff alike.  The time left is short and for that we are relieved, and yet the time left is short and for that we are not relieved – another example of the contradictory nature of school life in the 20teens.
For many it will be a period of reflection, looking for new jobs, promotion or a different challenge, finally deciding to take the plunge and retire – or just looking for a way out.
At the Headteacher’s Roundtable conference recently I spoke of the moment, just over a year ago, where, commuting to work, at the end of another testing term, the Basement Jaxx song ‘Where’s your head at?’ blasted out of the radio, the song rattling around my head like an earworm, as it has done for the most of the past 12 months.
So, it is a year since I spent Easter reflecting on that question ‘Where’s your Head at?’… following a series of events, a perfect storm of circumstances that had dried up the last of the resilience in my well.  I made my decision, that in itself is documented and digitised for all eternity.
What of the others?  At the same conference I spoke of the hundreds of other School Leaders, unseen and invisible, behind me on the stage.  Those who made contact after the airing of ‘School’ and those that hadn’t, the common denominator being that the system had crushed them and spat them out, left them to fend for themselves, with nothing left but a couple of decades of experience and memories, probably of a time when they were successful and valued for it.
What they also have in common, at least those that I have spoken to, is a strange feeling created by the abruptness of their removal from the battlefield – fighting the good fight one minute and, for a whole range of reasons, no longer fit for battle the next.  Of course, there are also those who fight on, a frightening number of them doing so whilst waiting for their personal ‘hammer to fall’, poor results, OFSTED an unsolvable financial puzzle to solve, take your pick.
So, here I sit in my new office, forging a new career for myself and wondering if I will take the plunge back into headship.  I have never ruled out that possibility, but things would need to have changed, so have they?
No, they haven’t, but let’s just say I have hope, and here is why.
It feels like we have acknowledged we have a problem, as we all know this is the first step to recovery.  Over the past 12 months I have heard more people talking about the problem, we have stopped sweeping it under the carpet and pretending it doesn’t exist.  I acknowledge that this might just be my own awakening awareness, but I believe it is more than that.  I am privileged enough to talk to a lot of people these days, across the whole of the sector and the tone and content of those conversations has changed – we seem more able and willing to say, ‘It’s not ok’.
The Department for Education appear to be listening to the growing clamour in regard to mental health and well-being and in some cases at least trying to take action.  The best example of this is the Early Career Framework but there are other messages drip feeding out into the system from the Secretary of State and DfE civil servants.  It’s a small step but the optimist in me sees it as a significant one.
I believe that Ofsted, in launching the new framework for consultation, have also implicitly acknowledged there is an issue to be addressed.  I am cautious about this, because I have fallen for it before (fingers burned and all that) and because I do not think they have gone anywhere near far enough in their overhaul of the system.  Again, it’s a small step and it remains to be seen if they will be able to get their own house in order to resolve the issues of inconsistency that plague the inspection process – but remember this is about hope!
I also believe that the growing chorus of voices singing about school funding will not be able to be ignored for much longer.  The stock response of ‘more money than ever’ is sounding more and more lame and delivered in such a way that it now sounds even those delivering it don’t believe it.  We must keep pushing this collectively and I think there is an opportunity that school funding will be prioritised in the spending review (I know Brexit still trumps all and the long grass is waiting for the funding football to be kicked into) – but remember…. This is about hope!
Lastly the biggest and most significant reason I have hope is forged around the people I meet on a weekly basis working in and around schools up and down the country.  The sincerity, determination, clarity of purpose, morality and values of those School Leaders I get to meet regularly is the single biggest reason I have hope.  Most work diligently changing the world for young people in their setting, aware of the impact it takes personally but battling on regardless.
It is easy to look to our political leaders to seek out and plead for solutions to the situation we are in but to rely on them to do so would leave me feeling hopeless. I don’t, I feel hopeful, and that is almost entirely down to the brilliance of those I see doing the job I still regard as the best job in the world.
If we are going to repair the broken pot of Education and make it more beautiful, then we will need to be the gold that does it. The hope comes from knowing we can do it.
That is why, I will continue to fight to ensure that the appropriate coaching support is made available to each and every headteacher, to ensure that the unseen ‘disappeared’ do not continue to grow exponentially.
I fight alongside an increasing number of others, too many to name here, who all share my determination to ensure that whilst challenges remain, we should at least make sure our Headteachers are adequately supported to address them.
And who knows, when this battle is won, maybe then I’ll step back into the other battlefield, the one I was trained for!

Working as a coach with School Leaders I’ve witnessed first-hand the emotional cost for School Leaders when their emotional needs are not properly met; anxiety, self-doubt, poor decision making and a diminished sense of personal and professional fulfilment.
This can’t continue. Active steps must be taken. Our profession needs to change and show that it knows how to best support our School Leaders. So that they can not only survive, but also thrive in their attempts to deliver the best outcomes for our children.
Our leaders are properly supportedstrategically, operationally and emotionally to ensure they can keep going even when the challenges get tough.  Social workers have supervision to help them process their toughest cases, and corporate executives have space for “lessons learned” and continuous improvement between projects.
However, in spite of the fact that the business world has now embraced the benefits of coaching for leadership development, few in our education system have been afforded the opportunity to reap the benefits of this form of support.
That’s why I’m now offering completely free Coaching calls to give leaders a chance to experience first-hand the benefits of coaching and the role it could play in supporting both their well-being and their personal performance.
The calls provide a confidential, safe, non–judgemental space to spend 30 minutes exploring ways to:
– Achieve a greater sense of clarity about your direction as a school leader
– Gain a clearer perspective on any challenges that you may be facing
– Identify positive steps for moving forward

Book Your Call

 If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!


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