Ask The Expert – CPD

  • Ask The Expert – CPD

Q I took a headship position in a large, struggling urban academy at the start of the 2013/14 academic year. After a good deal of work raising staff morale and motivation, plus some changes of personnel, we feel now that we have a really strong team in place to deliver both the academic education and pastoral care our students really need. Where we are still have trouble, however, is with the historic ‘us and them’ culture of the school. Our young people, in short, don’t trust us. I suspect that they are used to feeling unimportant and ignored; how can we start to move towards building a community within which the student voice is known to be valued?

A First of all, congratulations on successfully building a team of highly motivated staff that are helping to deliver your vision for the academy. The problem you are encountering now is not an uncommon one, especially in schools that have gone through a difficult period of transition. The important thing is to lead any change in student culture, based on sound and transparent principles. Without these, any apparent culture-shifts are unlikely to be sustainable in the future. Work with a group of students (perhaps including some who are disengaged) to determine these principles together.

It’s also important to be clear about the level of participation you’re asking students to partake in for different activities. Roger Hart offers a ladder ranging from manipulation, decoration and tokenism at the bottom; to informed, consulted, directing and leading at the top. Students don’t always need to be at the top of the ladder though; there will be times when it’s appropriate you’re just meaningfully informing them. The danger comes when students think they’re leading, when actually you just want to tell them something or seek their opinions.

Above all, know the real culture change to embed student voice takes time. Start small, and do the ‘little’ things that will be visible to the students. Of course, we all want to move school councils on to discuss learning and pedagogy; but having a school they feel comfortable in is the first step to achieving this. Try having a ‘you said, we did’ display, clearly showing how the school is responding to students’ views. In time, with such wonderful staff, we have no doubt that you’ll build a culture in which students feel valued and trusted.

Q I have been teaching (history) for just over five years now, and the topic of ‘my next career step’ has started to come up more frequently in discussions with colleagues and my SLT. I do feel that I have more to offer, but at the same time, the thought of any kind of leadership role frankly terrifies me. I know my subject, and I am fully comfortable in all my classrooms – but I just don’t feel I have the necessarily skills to move upwards, and the idea of ‘learning on the job’ sounds like madness to me! What can I do to help me feel ready for that ‘next step’?

A Don’t be so hard on yourself. If colleagues and your leadership team are asking you these questions more and more, they obviously believe that you are capable and would add value to the school by applying for a leadership role. Of course, any new challenge is always daunting, but there are things you can do to prepare yourself to meet them.

If you don’t feel ready to take on a whole role, why not speak to SLT about taking on a discrete leadership responsibility instead? For example, working with the school council or other student voice team can be a great first step on the ladder. Or you could offer to lead a particular initiative (such as lesson study, action research or the use of learning technologies in the classroom), or lead a CPD session for staff. All of these would help boost your confidence, without putting you too far out of your comfort zone. It can also be a good idea to shadow a member of middle or senior leadership, which will help to demystify the role and understand how they manage their differing responsibilities.

There is also a lot of external support available. You should never be put in a position in which you don’t feel you’ve received adequate training to carry out the role successfully. Talk to your head of CPD about the options available to you; you have an entitlement to professional development. SSAT, amongst other providers, offers programmes for aspirant and existing middle leaders: have a look at what’s out there.

At the end of the day, you’ll never feel fully ready. Remember your first lesson five years ago; we bet you didn’t feel 100% prepared then – but look at you now!


Tom Middlehurst and Chris Smith are the research team at SSAT - the UK’s largest and longestrunning schools’ network - where they also support schools with student leadership, In responding to readers’ questions here, Tom and Chris drew on the experience and expertise of staff across the organisation, and best practice from SSAT’s network of schools.