Chelsea Flower Show is not the only place where blooms need to be nurtured.


‘You’re going to reap just what you sow’

Perfect Day Lou Reed

Today is one of those weird days. A member of my staff has gone for an interview for a promotion. It’s the first time it’s happened since I’ve been a head. There is secretly a bit of me that is gutted by this. There is a bit of me that is thinking ‘Well why don’t they want to stay here?’ ‘What’s wrong with here?’

I have to ignore those bits.

Over the last three years I have seen this teacher develop. I have seen them challenge themselves, I’ve seen them make mistakes I’ve watched them fall over a few times. At points I’ve picked them up and set them off again, increasingly now they do it for themselves. They dust themselves down, climb back on that horse and trot on. Whether they get this job or the next at some point if I’m doing my job properly they will rightly move on and go on to impact on more schools and more children.

The moment has just made me stop and think about my job. Fundamentally what is the role of a headteacher.

A member of my governing body and I sat chatting about this just last week and he talked about his time in the police and his analogy really struck. He talked about being a gardener and growing  people,  they often start as seeds and we if we do our job properly we turn them into beautiful blooms and that is when they get picked by others and we get a load more seeds.

I have regularly talked about the need to help teachers to be great. Creating a reflective, supportive culture which challenges our teachers to try to be excellent everyday. It is more than that however. We need to clearly understand their aims and what they really want. It’s really important that the growth is bespoke to the individual. In schools there is often a treadmill towards leadership, the fact is that it’s not the right path everyone.

We have a habit in this country of  promoting people to the point of incompetency. Could we not looks at things in a different way.

Why not let people be really good at the thing they do, use that to its greatest impact and reward appropriately. I had lots of headteachers who did just that for me.


I have been very lucky I have had a range of  experiences that have ultimately led me to this point. My journey has been a round the houses route to headship that took 23 years to reach its destination. I had my first five years in the lovely sounding Marton Grove in Middlesbrough working with a wonderful head called Chris Gent.  He gave me space to develop and improve. He helped me improve my teaching. He also had the most effective “I’m disappointed” routine I have ever seen. I definitely stole that from him.


He pushed me to just get better at the teaching then he when he thought I was good enough he pushed me forward as a lead-teacher.

I was then seconded to Archibald  a school that was at that point in special measures. I was there for an absolutely brilliant eight years. The head Pat Irving was fantastic at building the team and recognising the skills the staff she had and using them to the best effect for the school. It was a joyous time. More than anything in my school I aspire to the team ethic that was instilled in us. I have never laughed more than I did there, I have never sworn more than I did there. The staff room was a place of laughter and support.

Archibald Leavers Video 2005

The trust and faith that Pat showed in me has had profound effects on how I try to lead my school. She both challenged and supported me to be the best I could be, at this point being a head wasn’t even on my radar. She helped me become a good teacher, and let my passion for English impact on the whole school. She also took no prisoners and was always the crap umbrella that let us get on with doing our job. In 2006 that hard work led to an ‘Outstanding’ judgement in Ofsted. I don’t think I have ever been in a school or met a staff that deserved it more.

I then took a sideways move and had a shocking couple of years. I was according to my wife unbearable to live with. The lurch from Archibald to Pennyman was almost too much for me to take. When you’re sat in the middle of something that is ripping you apart in the most destructive way, when you can’t see the wood for the trees, when you lie awake at night because the of it, it can be really hard to see the positives. Pennyman was all that for me. I struggled daily to even go into the place. It was unrelenting. It made me need to get out of schools for a while. Looking back however I learnt so much about leadership there. Mainly that I don’t ever want to be that kind of leader. I was micro-managed to the n-th degree. and there was no trust. Think being a head is in a bit of revenge on this person who had no faith in me.

At that point I left the classroom. I was lucky I got a job as a literacy advisor in Hartlepool, working with  “The Debbies.” This restored my belief in my ability, but also was the point I realised how great a job being a headteacher was. I was inspired by these people managing complex organisations and people. I also for the first time realised I got the bigger picture.

I then moved to Saltburn as a deputy-head teacher and began really to develop the skills of leading. The key bit for me was and still is the understanding of the people you work with. It was a tough but great four years, we got an RI judgement almost straight after I arrived. The head Janet never once blamed the staff. She took it on her shoulders and worked tirelessly to move the school forward. She built us back up, she stuck to the vision of what she believed and carried us on that journey.

Which 23 years later leads me to where I am now.


So how can we grow our own staff. I  think it’s important, that to develop people, the opportunities are there and it’s the culture that gives authentic experiences. Building capacity is best thought of as both a process as well as a solution for schools seeking to grow. If schools want to get better they must look to make the individual parts better.

  1. Create common goals – (Do you all believe in where you’re going?)
  2. Get to know your staff – (aspirations, ambitions, strengths, challenges and be the person who allows them to be great.)
  3. Look for common links between personal aspiration and school goals. How can enhancing one benefit the other. (Improving you improves us)
  4. All of the learning must be embedded in a trusting environment , in which relationships form a safety net of support and challenge. Make the growth authentic. (Let them have a real impact)
  5. Be aware that in the beginning, however, people are taking risks, and no matter how valuable things may be, in practice barriers may go up when new things are suggested. (be the net under the tight-rope walker)
  6. Let them lead. Don’t micro-manage. (STEP AWAY)
  7. Value that there are different ways for staff to impact on your school. Not everyone wants to be a leader, be creative in how you build your school capacity. (Understand how to grow your different plants, make sure the soil is right and they get enough water)

…building capacity an ongoing process by which individuals, groups, organizations and societies enhance their ability to identify and meet development challenges in a sustainable way…

Keep growing them seeds.



Evidence is important but great teaching is still art…TES article arhive #4


Here is link to TES article about the science and magic of teaching…

“In the rush to promote research-based teaching, we must not forget the artistry that builds relationships and gives the profession magic, writes Simon Smith

Teachers are working in interesting times: we are certainly becoming an evidence-based profession. I am, however, more convinced than ever that there is more to teaching than that.

“In the rush to make teaching a science we mustn’t forget the artistry and craft of the job. Watching a great teacher is a wonderful thing.”

My recent, somewhat small pearl of wisdom on Twitter received a flutter of replies, but sometimes 140 characters is not enough. So what exactly was I getting at?

Time for some clarification. First things first, I believe in teaching: more importantly, I believe in great teaching. Being a great teacher isn’t easy. It’s a complex job. WC Fields famously said, “never work with animals or children.” But as well as providing the greatest challenge, the greatest joy we have within teaching is that we are working with young people…”

Evidence is important but great teaching is still art


Books are dangerous, powerful and beautiful. They should also be used with caution…Making careful judgements about class books.


Why do we have the urge to rush children away from being…er…children.

As I stand in the queue to watch Guardians of The Galaxy Vol2( I have two teenage boys) I’m struck by the number of tiny children here. A quarter of the audience must be under the age of eight. The film is a 12A that means it’s judged suitable for people 12 years and older. If the parents in the queue have deemed this day-glo superhero sci-fi fest as being suitable then who am I to disagree, I don’t know their children. The guidance is however there for a purpose to support us in the choices we make for our children.

The same goes for computer games. I’m pretty sure most of us have seen parents picking up a copy of Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty regardless of the rating so that little Johnny can play it because all of his friends have it. Many parents often don’t even question it and it’s certified 18 rating.

Actually I feel the same about books and maybe even more so. The best books are way more affecting than games or TV or Films. I have laughed, cried, been horrified and felt despair more with books than any other medium. The best books are windows to human emotion, glimpses into the human experience. Books are dangerous, powerful and beautiful. They should also be used with caution.



I’m pretty sure anybody who has ever reread a book from their youth will have found the experience to be very different. I was read Animal Farm at the age of 9 by my Year 5 teacher at that point to me it was some fantastical fairy-tale about talking animals. On reading it now it is a truly different beast that holds universal messages of the dangers of  power, corruption and greed. I loved it at the age of 9. I truly adore it at the age of 46.


Last week I was involved in a really interesting discussion on twitter. The crux of it was about suitability of texts for various year groups. I have to say I think I came out on the prudish end of the scale. It started with discussion about The Lie Tree, but also pulled in A Monster Calls and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as well as others. Personally these are books I wouldn’t use in Key Stage 2. For 11 year-olds I think personally that some of the subject matter or the themes are unsuitable. The books require a level of emotional understanding beyond some of the children.

My big concern really is twofold. Firstly that we are pushing books at children that whilst they are able to read them they cannot really access their true beauty and depth because they are not really emotionally ready for them. Much of Shakespeare fits that for me. Romeo and Juliet is wonderful, but why not read around 13/14 and they have some idea of that flush of emotion. My second concern linked to that is that why are we doing it and who are we doing it for. Is it really for the children or for ourselves. I previously worked with a Year 6 teacher who when ‘Twilight’ was all the rage, pushed this onto her Year 6 girls. I won’t get into the relative merits of Twilight but I will say that the book was and in my opinion still  is wholly inappropriate for 10 year olds. Is it a badge of honour for us? The use of the book was an attempt to look cool with the kids and was a bit of an ego-trip for her.

I understand that there is however  huge challenge for primary teachers currently. The need driven by our assessment calls for children to be accessing challenging texts to stretch them. I’m completely on-board with this,  my worry is that this  potentially makes us use things which may not really be suitable.

Of course every class is different. I have read books to one class that I wouldn’t contemplate reading to another. I would also say even with classes I knew really well I still didn’t have enough insight into their lives to understand the potential impact of some of the things we might choose to read.  As a teacher we have to make a judgement call. To be able to do this you need to know and understand the book really well.


In my head I tend to rate books as  you would rate a film. I know it isn’t the same but there should always be a question of thresholds. It is vital that staff know the book and understand the themes of the book. My measure is always my own children. I am the Dad whose kids watch a fifteen rated film when they are…fifteen. My kids don’t play 18 rated computer games however much their mates are. I know this may not be the best measure but it’s the one I know the best. I judge my book choice on whether I as a parent would have been happy for my child to be exposed to that book, whether my child was emotionally ready for the content and the themes of a book. I know it’s not particularly scientific but it makes me approach books with caution and a healthy respect.

Remember the best books open doors to understanding. They are dangerous and wonderful. Please read with caution.