As a new school year begins, the final days of the summer holiday will for many teachers and leaders have been punctuated by familiar sensations. Whether about to join the profession or battle-hardened by many a September start, most of us will have gone through bouts of sleeplessness, twinges of apprehension and those anxiety dreams about unruly tutor groups or lessons that spiral into chaos.
Heads and principals will have worried about whether their state-of-the-nation presentation to staff would hit the right balance of collective optimism and self-evaluation, whether there’s enough detail, too much, and how long it might last.
Thus a new term begins, and there will be few of us involved in cranking up an institution, a department, a year team, or the year of teaching ahead who won’t go through this predictable but unshakable run of emotions.
It’s like this every year, and once the training days and inevitable holiday conversations are out of the way the reassuring power of school routines will kick in and carry us into the hurly-burly of a new term.
I know for a fact that some school leaders are feeling more anxious this year than usual. I know because they’ve told me. They’ve seen a level of turbulence in their GCSE results which has left them unnerved, vulnerable and prone to blaming themselves. It’s something that hasn’t gained huge media attention, but it’s there – a part of the emotional rollercoaster of school leadership.
The same thing happened to our school last year, and whatever anyone says about a dip in results, it’s hard not to take it personally, to see it as some cosmic judgement on your own leadership.
Our results at GCSE dipped to a level which felt to me at the time disastrous. I felt aghast, humiliated, on the verge of resigning. August gloom was then compounded by a difficult January Ofsted inspection at the middle school we oversee.
Yet I realise looking back that all of this worried the staff and me much more than it did most parents. They saw the many smiling students who had done well in their examinations. They recognised a school that was remaining true to its values rather than introducing any knee-jerk tricks that might reduce our approach to an exam factory. They appreciated the breadth of our curriculum and the sense that – in the real world they inhabit – results will sometimes go up and sometimes down.
None of this, I believe, was complacency.
Rather, it was parents investing in our values, trusting in our overall direction, knowing that education is a long-term process, not a series of football season matches with the consequent pressure to dismiss the manager if some go wrong.
And whilst Governors asked hard questions and held us to account, they too reinvested their faith in our leaders at all levels – holding us accountable but giving us time to lick our wounds and rediscover our optimism.
I realise I am lucky. Our school enjoys highly supportive parents who subscribe to our view that what matters most is a good local school with a rich programme of extra-curriculuar activities. Our Governors expect us to take decisions that are in the interests of students rather than performance tables or Ofsted judgements. For them, it is a badge of honour that we resist many gimmicks, and remain feistily critical of many central initiatives.
Again, in this I am hugely lucky.
It means that the deep gloom of last year’s new school year has passed. But I in no way take this year’s exam improvements for granted, knowing that some very good colleagues in precisely the kind of school I would want to send my own children to have seen results dip by 15% or more this summer.
Increasingly, it feels like a lottery.
So we owe it to ourselves neither to gloat when our results are great, nor to give up when they seem terrible, but instead to remind ourselves that results are just one part of what we do – an important part, but one which it’s too easy to warp out of perspective.
That’s why once again my own forthcoming year – my thirteenth as headteacher – will be about working directly with students and staff, reaffirming and articulating our values, protecting ourselves from much of the political madness swirling beyond the school gates, and trying day in and day out to exude the optimism, joy and sheer fun that working with young people should involve.
It’s what I tried to do at the start my headship and what I’ll be doing in the year ahead.
Whatever your role in education, here’s hoping you have a great year.
Geoff Barton is Headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds and a NET Leading Thinker