Navigating the choppy waters of change – a Headteacher’s perspective – Rob Campbell

A guest post from Rob Campbell, the Principal of Impington


Headteachers are, by nature or character, a resourceful, pretty determined and usually upbeat bunch. I am sure there has been some research conducted that indicates that it is those teachers of certain traits or characteristics who are happiest taking on the challenge of becoming school leaders; when you think of all that there is to deal with, you certainly need to be fairly thick-skinned! So we are not, as a species, particularly prone to moaning or groaning.

I offer this as an introduction and to set the scene to this blog. I am in my thirteenth year as a secondary headteacher and, unless my (ageing) memory is playing tricks on me, I cannot recall a time with quite as much turbulence and churn in the way children will be assessed and therefore a disquiet (away from the public stage in most cases) in headteachers.

I recently met with a group of headteachers with whom I have been working closely for three years and the mood was in many ways the most sombre in our time of association. Prominent was the way in which governmental reforms are impacting on or set to impact on the students in our care. I know the driver for this change has been England’s apparent ‘decline’ in performance using international comparators (although it does seem to depend on which dataset you use). Every leader working in the English system wants the best for their children, that goes without saying, so we are not against change or finding better ways of challenging our students, but there comes a point when enough feels enough and I would assert that time is now.

In reflecting on this and in writing this blog, I realised that almost every year group in school currently (and those who teach them) is involved in or is subject to some kind of change over the coming year:

Year 12 First year of new AS/A Levels
Year 11 Final year of current GCSEs. Starting new AS/A Levels next year
Year 10 First year of new GCSEs in English and Maths
Year 9 First year of second phase of new GCSEs
Year 8 First year of all new GCSEs
Year 7 First ‘Ebacc’ cohort (if a school wants to be deemed ‘Outstanding’)

Naturally, students are affected by the assessments they have to sit but so too are the staff who teach them. As a breed, teachers quite like continuity and excessive change or disruption unsettles staff and increases their already significant workload. Any time spent getting their collective heads around new specifications and producing new teaching materials is precious and something that needs to be considered when assessing the impact of the changes currently taking place.

Linked to this is the current hot topic of teacher work load. Nicky Morgan has recently set up no less than three expert groups to look at this issue and it is at the forefront of most head’s minds when it comes to the welfare of their own staff. Teachers by their very nature are hard-working professionals whose sole focus is helping their students but they need help and support too. As school leaders we need to ensure our teachers are in the best possible position to deliver high quality lessons to our students, supporting them as much as possible to lessen any impact felt by teaching staff – the most valuable resource of any school.

If you ask any head it is the teachers themselves who know their students best and know what is best for them. They see them day in and day out and know what makes them tick. They know how they learn best and know how to get the best out of them. The value of this is not to be underestimated.

When Nicky Morgan started her tenure it was with an assurance that reforms would abate and that teachers would be (by and large) left to get on and do what they do best – teach. It’s debateable how much this has actually happened, but I strongly feel that this is what needs to happen to ensure the best outcomes for our students.  We need a world-class education system but the best people to manage and deliver it are school leaders and teachers.

In meetings with the two most recent Secretaries of State for Education both made it clear they wanted to do the best for the children in our care. On this point everyone is unified in agreement. So I hope the Secretary of State will be true to her words and allow the system the chance to focus on the people who matter the most – the children. At our meeting, it was this which served to buoy my fellow heads and I. In spite of the slings and arrows dispatched from outside forces, young people will always remind us of the joys that are to be had from the work we do every day.

With all of this in mind, it falls to school leaders to offer direction to their school and staff. Like the proverbial ship’s Captain plotting a course through a storm, teachers will look to their Head and senior leadership team to show them the best way to successfully navigate the choppy waters of change. After all, despite, and perhaps because of the changes occurring within education it is important that schools and school leaders stay true to their core business – providing the best possible provision for their students.

About the author

Rob Campbell – Principal of Impington Village College

Rob Campbell is Principal of Impington Village College, an 11-18 comprehensive school on the outskirts of Cambridge, a role he has held since 2007. He is the current Chair of the National Association of Head Teachers’ Secondary Committee and sits on the NAHT National Executive. He is also one of the founder members of the Headteachers’ Roundtable. He has recently completed a Masters in Education with the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge where he researched the impact of policy on the values and principles of Headteachers.

Oct, 29, 2015