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Hope - the Words of a Wise Headteacher

Hope by definition is (noun) a “feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen” and (verb) “want something to happen or be the case”.

If there was ever a time in my short 51 years on this little planet, I think “hope” is now at the forefront of most of the population of the world. Covid has done that, something we can't even see. A microscopic bug that should make us all realise how fallible we are.

When I was first asked to write a piece on “hope” my immediate feeling and reaction turned to arguably the greatest film of all time, “The Shawshank Redemption”, a film which deeply resonates with me on many levels but mainly in its core theme…hope.

“hope, is a good thing maybe even the best of things and good things never die”.

Andy Dufrense | The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

I’m a foster carer, I’m also a former Headteacher so forgive me if I wander between the two public sectors. In 2010 the then Head of Ofsted Sir Mike Wilshaw said to a gathered group of Headteachers in Hampshire, “We need more mavericks in the public sector, the independent sector has them and we desperately need more in the public sector”.

At that point in my career, I was the Deputy Head of an inner-city 3 form entry primary school that had just had a “good” Ofsted inspection the previous year. The Head was 3 years from retirement and was watching the clock, the staff had switched off and the school was heading downhill fast. I was constantly approaching the Head with the issues in school and wanted to deal with them, but the message was “NO, leave them alone”. It was time to go. Hope was fading. Not only for me but for the children and staff of that school.

I was lucky enough to gain my first Headship in a school that was in the bottom 3% for attainment and bottom quintile for progress. Hope had gone, acceptance that they were “always going to be bottom of the pile” had set in. Within 2 years we were on the 50th Percentile and in the top 15% for progress in the country. A very nice letter from the Prime Minister arrived and was promptly filed. The school had gone from an Ofsted judgement of “Inadequate” to “Good in all areas “ in 15 months. It would have been quicker but Ofsted took 6 months to come back! Hope had returned with aplomb!

I was asked consistently “How did you do it?”.

There are many aspects to the answer of course but for me the main one was the well-being and empowerment of my staff and the same goes for my role as a Foster Carer.

If I feel supported, backed up, cared for, secure, valued, important, safe and hopeful then the resulting “care” (I hate that word – we do so much more than care!) I provide is of an exceptional quality for the most vulnerable of children and young people.

It is crucial that ANY leader, be it company boss, local authority, independent fostering agency or government, recognises that they are not the most important people in the building, the people on the ground are, the carers. Those that work day in day out with the children are the most valuable resource that you have and need to feel important and hopeful. Without carers, you have no care system.

I’m the son of a Chartered Accountant so, sadly, I love a good set of accounts. It has always been common sense and obvious to me that 'people' take 75% (or so) of the budget. Therefore why on Earth wouldn’t you make sure that this most expensive asset you have isn’t loved, supported, cherished, nurtured, and given the hope that things can be better?

Your 'people' need to be happy, secure, safe and valued. Because if they aren’t happy or empowered to care, then nothing will get better for the children or the carers and the system will fail to improve. The promised review into the Care System is on its way (hopefully) and we must all “hope” that the recommendations from the report are acted upon in law, statutory. Those of us that work in the care system all say it’s on the point of collapse after years of underfunding. We continue to hope.

The Blame Game

I’m a great advocate of the work of W Edwards Deming and his 14 principles, and the main lesson I learned (and apply to this day) is that 4 out of 5 times when something goes wrong it is the system, not the people that are to blame. We are far to quick to apportion blame to a person and not look at the system (that’s a whole other topic). If you want a top-performing care system then you must look at its systems and make them as efficient, effective and simple as they can be for the benefit of the staff.

The number of children coming into care each year continues to grow: 75,370 in 2018 up to 78,150 in 2019 and 80,080 in 2020. A ten year high. Never mind the explosion in referrals since the start of the pandemic. There are around 42,125 foster families and the number of people willing to care for them decreases each year (The Fostering Network). Why? Something is wrong with the system. I’m hopeful that these simple figures are enough for you to recognise something needs to be done.

Emily Dickinson once wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all.

As we enter another year, for those of us on the ground, hope stands at the forefront of all we think, say and do. We are constantly bombarded with images, soundbites, politicians and those that would fit into their system preaching a confused and ill-thought out rhetoric which tries its best to dispel our hope.

As T.S Eliot once said, “most of the trouble in the world is caused by people who want to be important”. They will not succeed. That 'thing with feathers' is singing in my soul at the moment, it will never be silenced. As Tom Bodett said, “they say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world: someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for”. Hope will spring eternal for the good people of this planet.

So what can we do?

Thoreau says “simplify, simplify”.

We have a system in fostering that is incredibly complex. Just look at the number of people around a child when they come into care, and it certainly does not put them on an equal footing, particularly the carers that spend 7 days a week with the children. So many times I have been run roughshod over in meetings until 50 minutes into it I say “I’m a Headteacher”. The embarrassed silence can be deafening. We have a system created by a system, for the system. People whose overarching need is to tick their box and move on, with little thought to the child or those left to deal with the consequences. Not the children or those in it. If there is one thing I hope for in the Care Review it’s to simplify.

Many moons ago someone much cleverer than me decided that all teachers should be given Planning, Preparation and Assessment (PPA) time. This should be done in 10% of their teaching time. This was important to me as a leader. If my staff can’t do all this then there is something wrong with the system. My experience showed me that all they do is fill in planning forms for the following week even if they were yet to see what learning would look like in the current week (Shhhhh… don’t tell the teachers that never in the history of Ofsted have they asked to ever look at planning). Simplify it, my best teachers handed in one side of handwritten paper, scanned in for the week they had just done. On Monday morning they Monday-planned and possibly Tuesday. For the rest, let the learning and curiosity guide you. Simplify.

Marking. Feedback, and feedback immediately; verbally and sometimes written but feedback. Simplify.

I shortened the hours of the school day. If you can't get it all done in the time you're 'at work' then something is wrong in the system. Simplify. My staff room was made to look like a Costa Coffee shop, (other coffee shops are available), 80 inch TV screen, sofas everywhere, bar stools and tables, soft relaxing décor, very small notice boards and NEVER, EVER those chairs that line up next to each other.


Empower your staff to not be afraid, fear purveys through education.

Tell them it is ok to get something wrong, tell them they can go outside, tell them they can do what’s right for their children, give permission to get “off timetable” to follow the children’s needs and lead.

Encourage staff to try new things, there is no fear of failure, build full-size Anderson shelters, bring in scrap cars for the boys to fix up and sell, build go-karts to have a race around the playground, build and make things that inspire children. Give them hope!

Forgive me but the “Great Fire of London” has had its day and “Grenfell” is far more relevant for today's children.

If everyone from the bottom up is leading, empowered and has no fear, you will get a school or care system moving fast in an upward direction. If all the leadership comes from one person (the Head) you’re going nowhere. Hope creates passion, which creates a spirit of collaboration and joy. And, when you are doing something that gives you joy the feathery thing inside you never stops singing!

Trust staff; give them hope; collaborate with peers from other schools; be honest when something isn’t right; support each other with no fear of retribution or reprisal from anyone.

Collaborate with other colleagues in terms of CPD - and I don’t mean a 1 or 2-day course where the only thing you remember is lunch and the box is ticked. 'Swap' staff for a term so they learn new strategies; refresh people who need it; learn that it is ok to make a mistake; accept that one size does not fit all (phonics, writing schemes, Maths schemes, form filling, which does nothing but cover someone’s back). Look at staff, carers and children as human beings with a heart and a passion for learning. Only then will you get 'well-being', then you get inspired teachers, inspired learning and hope.

For now, I'll leave you with this: Andy’s best friend in Shawshank was Ellis Boy “Red” Redding who said “ I find I’m so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope”.

Phil Sharrock is an Education Consultant, former Headteacher, visiting Lecturer at Birmingham City University and proud foster carer.


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