The end of term and a whole new chapter

Caroline BarlowCaroline Barlow, SSAT Head of Innovation, writes…

Nine months ago I wrote my first blog – What is innovation; do we really want it? – in my role as head of innovation for SSAT. At that time I had no idea what adventures the year held in store for me. I now sit in July at the end of an incredible year and on the brink of a whole new chapter both for me and for SSAT.

At this time, I find myself coming full circle to the reasons why I came into the profession and why I am drawn time and again as a professional to the cohesive, innovative dynamic of SSAT; students and teachers at the heart of everything that we do.

I sat this week in the annual awards evening for the school in which I have been a leader for 11 years. It was as always an emotional and heart-warming event, such is the privilege to share with parents the incredible achievements of their children and how their support has enabled us to achieve amazing things together.

At events like these it always strikes me that it is the total breadth of achievement that makes up the whole; those who excel in a subject, those who show commitment and compassion for their community, those who can share their talent for art or music with an audience.

Inevitably there is a story behind every award and every student, and often every family that has taken them to this point of public celebration. It is a special privilege of our profession to share these stories and these moments.

But they do not happen by accident; behind every successful school, at whatever stage in its development, there is a robust and unique set of principles and values that provide the signposts and grounding; the reassurance of direction when the road ahead is unclear, the clear reason behind every choice and the fundamental essence that makes that school, those staff and these students magnificent.

behind every successful school, at whatever stage in its development, there is a robust and unique set of principles and values

Redesigning Schooling in 2013 was, for me, a turning point for our profession. It was a movement that united many voices across the country’s different sectors and geography to come together and determine the principles on which we wanted to design the education for young people going forward.

Born from personalising learning and the Deeps, grounded in research and developed by practitioners, it has provided for many over the last few years a constant and core set of principles on which to base school design to keep students at the heart of everything we do.

it [Redesigning Schooling] has provided for many over the last few years a constant and core set of principles on which to base school design to keep students at the heart of everything we do

It has been my absolute joy this year to travel the country and speak to highly skilled professionals who are implementing these principles in their schools; to capture and share their work as it develops in the series of Redesigning Schooling in Action case studies.

Regardless, or in spite of, ever changing and never ceasing directives, threats and false promises from our political leaders, up and down the country teachers and leaders are designing their schools, curriculum, assessment and professional development, holding firm to their core principles.

up and down the country teachers and leaders are designing their schools, curriculum, assessment and professional development, holding firm to their core principles

Like the trees in the park that Kev Bartle referred to they are growing their schools around the fences and hurdles placed before us. This is possible and it is happening.

I have the great privilege to be able to start headship in September and I am buoyed and inspired by what I have seen this year. I have seen a profession under attack but instead of bowing under that pressure, splintering and fragmenting, it is regrouping and seeking strength collectively.

It is finding its strongest, clearest voices and holding, clinging at times, to the core principles that are strong and true. We are designing curricula, in spite of the enormous amount of change and restriction, that meet the needs of our students. Encompassing their need for greater achievement and outcomes with the breadth and balance that allows them to find and follow their talent as far as they can.

I have never seen the profession so acutely attuned to the importance and purpose of assessment that directly supports students, as opposed to solely supporting our needs as organisations.

I have seen leaders dedicated to providing their staff with the expertise and autonomy to become better every day – because they can, by reaching out to our research colleagues to inform and guide what our instincts tell us.

We are told that we need system leaders who will be heralded and applauded; we have them. They are already in our schools, our alliances, trusts and networks.

We may not have enough right now and indeed there must be better ways of gaining more and keeping the ones we have, but some are in post and are working hard every day to gain the skills to become those system leaders, reaching out to take a hand of support that might be offered them from those who have trodden the path already.

We are told that we need system leaders who will be heralded and applauded; we have them. They are already in our schools, our alliances, trusts and networks

We can deride the lack of support from outside the profession and we cannot solve the ills of society alone but we can be part of the solution where we do have the influence.

Our influence, therefore, can only get stronger the more we work together. Whether in school, across regions or nationally, we know that ‘collaborating will make us stronger… There’s no point in working in isolation.’

However, as leaders and teachers we have a core purpose and we cannot change the system in isolation without it being to the detriment of that core purpose. In an ideal world I need:

  • Informed support that knows me, my context and my school
  • A quick and easy way to stay informed and up to date; policy change comes thick and fast and if I am to interpret it I have to stay on top of it
  • Access to innovative thinking that will challenge me and excite me; I want to know how to do things differently that will help me be better
  • Access to simple, affordable and effective tools to help me do those things that will be better
  • Connections to those locally and nationally that have similar issues, priorities and contexts that I can learn from, share ideas with and develop practice alongside
  • Connections to those more experienced and knowledgeable than me – I am at the start of my headship journey; I have so much to learn from those who have gone before.

I don’t see that coming from government anytime soon. I do see it in the very wonderful colleagues I have had the honour to meet and work with this year across the country. I see it coming from schools, for schools and by schools. Rooted in principle, first and foremost keeping students at the heart of everything we do.

I will admit to being slightly nervous (I’m told that’s normal) at the prospect of September. For a few more days there is a whole month between me and the start of term but that will go sooner than I think.

I am also excited and honoured by the prospect: I have a fantastic staff to work with, a school that is already a very special place, and I count myself a very fortunate individual.

If this week’s awards ceremony reminded me of anything it is that as leaders we are but the stewards of our schools – they belong to the students, parents and communities in which they sit.

Our most important role is to hold true to the principles which best represent the needs of that community; as Mhairi Black, the 20-year-old MP for Paisley & Renfrewshire South, reminded us in her magnificent maiden speech earlier this week, we need to be the signposts which stand ‘true and tall and principled’ pointing the way for better.

It is not easy, but we can do it and we can do it so much better if we do it together.


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