Lessons in Leadership: The Life Of A Deputy Headteacher

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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This is a blog about the Lessons in Leadership, some senior teachers can learn.

When thinking about what to write in this blog, I actually didn’t know where to start. There has been (and is) so much to do, and so much that I’ve had to learn as a deputy headteacher, that I could write about all of this information and fill an entire new book (makes a note to publishers). And what’s even more surprising, is that I’m only half-way through the academic year, six months into my new role in a new school. I have new-found respect for established headteachers and colleagues who are into their 2nd and 3rd headships.

Without going into the specifics, I have listed some of the key aspects that I’ve had to try and get to grips with this academic year.

  • Whole school teaching and learning; as well as my own individual classes, relationships, marking and all new school systems.
  • Staff development
  • Performance appraisal
  • Introducing a new pay policy
  • Managing several whole-school budgets
  • Developing a transparent and equitable cover policy
  • Overseeing daily cover
  • Whole-school staffing and human resources
  • Recruitment
  • Website re-branding, the virtual learning environment and the IT network
  • Moving into a brand-new building; packing and unpacking
  • and with this, re-developing a whole-school display strategy.
  • the list goes on …

Water Boar Paper Calm

Image: Wiertz Sébastien

These are the key aspects that have consumed my week-to-week strategic planning. Some of those jobs have ‘floated-my-boat’ and others haven’t; important tasks which clearly just need doing, but work I have enjoyed learning about no-less. Of the areas that have fascinated me, I have picked out the following four:


Joining the human resources meeting each week to discuss personnel has been fascinating. The complexities of leading a school workforce in line with statutory guidance and whole-school policies is a sensitive process, one that rarely gives any single solution.

Teaching and Learning:

We have of course introduced no-graded lessons, but we are yet to secure the more complicated aspects of monitoring the quality of teaching and learning across the school. I am working out the logistics of this process with a key group of staff and will blog our own solutions in the summer terms of 2015. As one may expect, being new to the school, we have worked alongside what currently works, what we know and what we don’t know; and have placed our best-foot-forward. In the medium term, we hope that with the removal on non-graded lesson observations, the introduction of IRIS Connect, Open Classroom and our weekly CPD sessions, we hope a culture of trust and transparency will start to thrive.

At the same time, I am aware that many bloggers and tweeters are not yet fully equipped with what currently exists in this new landscape. I will admit that I still feel as though I am on a back foot too, but like the reader, we are closer towards defining an evidence base of ‘good teaching over time’ aligned with progress over time using a range of evidence. This has been a huge risk for all of us; moving away from a generation of box-ticking feedback and one-off summative assessment. As I have stated passionately in many of my blogs before, we can move towards no-gradings and focus on developing the teacher, but not at the detriment of (not) knowing the needs of the departments and teachers within the school. It is vital that the school – not just an individual – has a firm grasp on the strengths and areas for development of all teachers within the workforce, yet also knows each individual teacher to a more sophisticated depth, so that every teacher can be even better.

Of course there are many ways around this problem. For example, last term I met with each head of department individually to discuss teaching and learning. This was an informal discussion to gather views of the processes and systems currently in operation. At the time of writing, we are now due to complete a second round of ‘official observations’ and before February half-term, all departments completed our first whole-school approach to book looks following our marking CPD session, Power from the Floor.

There is now a slowly evolving evidence base of information that is happening in classrooms across the school and I am confident that all of us will soon have a clearer picture of teaching and learning strengths and areas for development before the end of the academic year. There is much to do, and all are very big changes. It will not be a quick and easy fix …

At times, it does feel as though we are working with many individual spokes that make up the bigger wheel; in turn, each spoke will enable each (teaching and learning) area to move independently of each other, as well as together. It’s complicated, exciting and I hope one day, becomes exemplary practice.


I’ve not used SIMS Management Information System for three years, so firstly my skills in using this database have been rather rusty and a nasty learning curve. When I first attempted to organise cover – albeit on one of the highest staff (planned/unplanned) absences of the year, it took me 3 hours to complete! I started at 6.30am and had finished by 10.30am during the school day. There were of course mistakes, but nothing of significance to disrupt the day-to-day teaching of the school.

Thankfully, and most importantly, I have a superb cover manager, who has single-handedly managed to improve the management of cover, improving communications, reducing the need for teachers being used for cover, and also keeping well-within budget. We have successfully managed to work with 10-15 supply teacher agencies, whittling these down to a trusted few, managing short and long-term supply-teacher contracts, working between £120-175 per day for a supply teacher. I re-collect the days where we were quoted £225 per day back in September 2014. How things have changed! We are now in a position where we can complete cover report analysis’ and look at patterns of cover to inform teaching and learning.

Staff Briefing:

This area is very minor and almost laughable, but one that used to cause me slight stress. So much so, I have considered designing a ‘leading staff briefing’ 5-minute plan. My headteacher has been very keen for each deputy to take their turn, to stand in front of the staff and lead staff briefing. This has been a brilliant idea for leadership collegiality and a small part of my own experience in leading a school and its vision. I think back to the first time as a teacher and as a head of department, when I first spoke at a whole staff briefings in front of 100+ staff. It can be quite nerving experience. I once brushed off the importance of speaking at briefing as a middle leader and a colleague said, “don’t ever underestimate the power of an announcement…” They were right.

The first time, I led my staff briefing at my new school, I over-analysed how I would present myself, how I would stand, pose and project my voice. Only this week, was the first time I had felt very comfortable in the school in front of staff.

The information shared, ranges from very critical information to complete extremes, where there are lots of humour, hellos/goodbyes and rounds of applause. The various events that take place in a very large secondary school, mean that there is always a huge amount of information that can be shared daily and weekly with staff.

Lessons in Leadership by @TeacherToolkit

Lessons in Leadership:

Leading schools is a very complex business. Lessons in Leadership take place every minute of every day.

Before I started my job, @PivotalPaul said to me, pre-August 2014, that “QK is a sleeping giant.” I believed him then and now, after six months in, I believe him even more.

I know this because our students and staff are fantastic. We serve some of the most deprived communities in Britain on the occasions where I have been left at the helm alone, the school has ticked over like a purring cat! There is a context to every school. We know we have much to do, and much to streamline, tweaking school priorities with our heads out of the sand. Moving buildings is not an easy feat to achieve for anyone, and we achieved this despite numerous difficulties.

We survived a Section 8 OfSTED inspection in the 3rd week of the academic year. This was a challenge, but Observing the Observers was a very interesting process for me. I am soon to blog an area of contention regarding our overall judgement. However, despite the focus, our staff, students and school leaders are all learning lessons from the past, to learn actions for the future. I have said countless times before and I will write it once again;


p style=”padding-left:30px;”>“I am not the same teacher I was last year, or even last term. As teachers we must grow and evolve to meet the needs of – not only ourselves – but for our students and the needs of the department/school.”

@TeacherToolkit Teaching

Even Better If:

My parting advice would be this. We all have Lessons in Leadership to learn, whether you are a classroom teacher, a middle leader or a senior teacher. I don’t know all the answers yet, but I am doing my best to find out; to listen and talk with colleagues. Of course, some days are incredibly challenging and others are equally rewarding. No matter what, I do know that I am learning and performing as best I can, and I hope that I’m making a difference to my colleagues, to my students and to my school community. It’s a fabulous place to work.

I hope that in the next six months I can report back on some of the things that we have started to champion and embed. As for now, you will just have to wait a little while longer before this sleeping giant wakes up …


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6 thoughts on “Lessons in Leadership: The Life Of A Deputy Headteacher

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Ross, and it made me thoughtful, as the best blog posts do!

    Well done for reflecting so openly and honestly, for example on your initial anxiety about addressing staff briefings. It is, as you say, an important forum, a bit like an assembly, but just for staff, where you set out your stall and show your priorities and often your values. We had them every day in the school where I was a head, except on one day of the week when I went over to the Junior School for a staff briefing there. I used to lead them, though the SLT and then anyone else who wanted to could contribute. If I had my time again I think I would rotate who led them, as you do. I used to feel it was a good staff briefing if there was laughter at some stage – and not necessarily in response to something I’d been the one to say.

    Re: “I don’t know all the answers yet, but I am doing my best to find out”, I’d say you will NEVER know all the answers – leadership is a complex business and we learn throughout our careers, and beyond (as I’m now finding!) but it’s the journey that matters, the constant effort to be receptive, to learn and improve, which you demonstrate powerfully here. You do grow in confidence and competence but you never feel you’ve cracked it, and that’s one of the challenges and the joys of the job!

    Good luck in your on-going journey!

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