‘Misery loves company, particularly when she is herself the hostess, and can give generously of her stores to others.’ By Helena Mills

I know that I have been miserable recently and as a result I have probably made others feel miserable too. This year I have had the pleasure of spending a great deal of time with passionate, capable and very talented colleagues, but sadly I have often slipped into talking about how tough it is being a headteacher.

It has felt that too many of us are anxious and reeling against the ropes. Even some of the more experienced colleagues I have met have said this is the most challenging time that they have known in education. We are all facing the same challenges: shrinking budgets; recruitment difficulties; some changes that are a little bit too quick even for those of us who love pace!

I know that I am not alone in spending a disproportionate amount of time on the negative aspects in our current education system.

I am a firm believer however that one should endeavour to accentuate the positive as a part of my modus operandi. Having a bit of time to reflect over the half-term I realised that I have failed to acknowledge all the fantastic opportunities our system affords us. In challenging times people really do pull together, and this year I have witnessed at first hand several examples of this collaborative approach.

School leaders seeking comfort and solace with their peers are actually becoming more collaborative than they have ever been. Fears that the free market approach may lead to a fragmented education system, with competitors working in isolation, is not my experience of education at the moment. Indeed I find the opposite to be the case.

If I look close to home, our trust, with the co-operative principle of solidarity coursing through our veins, is a prime example of a collective approach to the task of educating our students. I have never seen such sharing of resources, successes and remedies for the mounting challenges. Headteachers are falling over themselves to give up their time even though three of our primaries are in direct competition for places.

This spirit of collaboration and sharing of ideas does not only manifest itself within our little group. We are benefiting from working with a range of experts from within our community, Essex. I am working with two inspirational leaders trying to establish an executive educator programme for people within our region to ensure we have leadership capacity for the future. Essex Local Authority has become involved in our school improvement programme with the very talented and experienced primary commissioner offering advice about how we can ensure our Year 4 and 5 teams are meeting the expectations of the new curriculum.

Looking more widely, our trust has been strengthened greatly this year as a result of the support from an excellent colleague and his team in Swindon, which has been crucial to developing our operational systems. This assistance has enabled the education experts to get on with doing what they know best: teaching and the curriculum. Further, we have worked with a multi-academy trust with expertise in special educational needs about how we could share joint facilities during our free school bid. Collaboration amongst school leaders is an absolute gift.

Leaders need to be brave, we know that. We also need to be optimistic not just for the children we serve but also the young professionals we are developing.

Read the Secret Teacher’s article on moaning that was featured in ‘The Guardian’ this April or Peter Hyman’s article ‘The Courage of Our Convictions’ as a reminder that we need to keep focused on the important things. Yes, it is difficult leading with shrinking budgets. Having just come to the end of a painful restructuring process, I know the impact that this has on individuals and on schools but we will achieve nothing without brave optimistic leadership.

So I have decided that June is going to be great. We have some really interesting developments, including the appointment of a new curriculum and assessment director who is going to help us plan an inspiring curriculum, relevant to our pupils in Harlow.

We have a team of inspiring teachers in English and history working with Martin Robinson, author of Trivium, to transform our approach, developing children who will be academically successful and more. We are looking at transforming feedback. ‘Minimal marking and maximum feedback,’ as our new curriculum director suggests, has to be the way forward.

Misery is going to find herself all alone from now on.

Helena Mills is CEO of BMAT, an academy co-operative trust in Essex, and is a NET Leading Thinker.


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