Reflections Of An Ex-Principal

Four-and-a-half months ago I left the Principal’s office at Bedford Free School for the last time. I took with me two carrier bags’ worth of stuff and an awful lot of very happy memories.

BFS had been such a significant part of my life. I was lucky enough to be able to turn an idea conceived with a group of friends into a proposal approved by the government, and see it become a real-life project and then a real-life school.

By the time I’d left, BFS had been open five full years, was oversubscribed and top of the town three times at GCSE level, and had been approved to form a multi-academy trust and open another school. We’d made mistakes along the way, but learned from them fast, built a wonderful team and worked hard for our successes.

On a more personal note, as I left the building on August 31st my eldest daughter was due to start in Year 7 a few days later. Aside from anything else, I knew that I still had a big interest in the school thriving into the future.

Why did I move on then? It was simple really. Having dedicated seven years to BFS, with the approval of another free school and recruitment of a partner primary into our MAT, things were entering the next stage of development. Advantage Schools, as we renamed ourselves, was ready to grow into a family of schools over the next few years, and I felt as though it was a good point for someone new to come in and lead it through this phase.

I had nothing lined up when I decided to leave, but I was confident that something would come up, that I could help to make a difference with. When I was contacted a few weeks later about running Parents & Teachers for Excellence, it was a real no-brainer, and I will be forever grateful to have been offered the chance.

There has been awful lot of fun had since September, but an incredible amount to learn too. I’d been a teacher for 15 years, and it was always more a lifestyle to me than a job. And while I was very comfortable with the education and campaigning side of things, it was glaringly obvious to me that the world of Westminster and policy ‘wonkery’ was very different.

I decided early on that rather than rushing into things, I would meet or talk with anyone and everyone I could who had experience I could draw on, or who could point me towards others who could. I have thus spent a lot of time chatting and drinking coffee with extremely lovely people, to figure out how PTE can best make an impact for the better.

A few things really jumped out at me during this time. Firstly, that I was completely institutionalised into school working habits. Not a surprise really, given how long I’d been in education. However, I’d been a Head for five years, and that role has a lot more flexibility in how you manage your time than a classroom teacher, so I felt like I’d already adjusted to having greater freedom. September and October taught me that this was definitely not the case! To handle this, I now I write out a to-do list at the start of the week, and revisit it every day. I’ve also taken a lot from two blogs about managing time: here and here.

The next thing that was brought home to me was how much I missed everyone at Bedford Free School. Again, not a surprise, but I was taken aback at how intense the emotions were in the early months. Don’t get me wrong, I love working with my PTE colleague Mike, but not seeing JanePaul, Bridget, Esther, Lucy, Tim, and so on… that was hard.

And the kids – oh how I have missed them!? I can honestly say that I only ever had one day in 15 years in schools that I didn’t enjoy. I thrived on the energy that flows from students. Yes, they could drive you up the wall, but they never ceased to make me laugh and inspire me. And you could always go home after a long day and have a sense of how things had gone – they’re quick to give you feedback, in any number of ways.

The next takeaway from these early days is how lovely and generous people are with both their time and advice. I have been blown away at the friendliness displayed towards PTE and me by a whole variety of people, whether or not they are supporters of what we are trying to do. Be it expertise, contacts, research, or simply acting as a sounding board, individuals and organisations have been receptive when we’ve made contact; I’m looking forward to being able to return the favours at some point as we establish ourselves over time.

And my final lesson? Simple but very, very, important: decaffeinated coffee is your friend. I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but I learned this the hard way.

In summary then, I’m in post, I’ve settled down, and thanks to the help and support of a whole bunch of kind people we’re ready to kick off a bunch of projects for 2018. PTE exists to ensure educational excellence for every child, and the last few months have left me even more convinced than ever that the country’s parents, teachers, and schools contain within them the means to achieve this; it’s a matter of sharing more widely what we already know. Our 2018 workplan should hopefully go some way towards doing this.