The Life of a Deputy Headteacher: The Finale

Reading time: 8
School Leadership Deputy Headteacher Thinking Man


In 2010, Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit from a simple Twitter account through which he rapidly became the 'most followed teacher on social media in the UK'. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

How can teachers support and challenge the status quo to build a fairer system for all?

It’s been six months since I resigned from my school leadership position as a deputy headteacher and when I wrote part 10 of a leadership series of reflections. This post explains why I have made the transition from school leader to university tutor and teacher trainer, how I have utilised those skills and adapt to work in a different way. At least for now, this is the last in the series of The Life of a Deputy Headteacher.

Bittersweet Inspection Outcomes

It has taken me many months to get over the fact that an OfSTED outcome resulted in the closure of my school. A school sixth form performing within the top 10% of all schools nationally, and sitting in the middle 40% for progress 8 at -0.01. But then, it’s ‘not all about outcomes’ so we are told.

I’ve probably had bad luck with OfSTED inspections too. I’ve lived through 9 of them with the last being the most unfair – observing how inspector unreliability and bias operates within the system and how it still exists, even if it is a rare occurrence. Worse? This continues to prove a self-fulfilling virtue (or stance) OfSTED appear to take – the moral high ground – demanding high standards for all even when your backs are against the wall.

Datalab research suggests “inspections are data-led, or are at least producing judgements broadly in line with historic assessment data.” There’s a good reason many challenge OfSTED’s notion of artificial intelligence being used to predict where inspectors should visit next. It’s a cost-saving exercise using a whole heap of prior data to calculate schools at risk. Yet, OfSTED won’t share the parameters of how this is calculated. And on the question of inspection reliability, research by the Department for Education reports that 8% of OfSTED outcomes are inaccurate. I feel for those schools. If ‘reliability’ cannot be guaranteed, then we still need further modification of the system.

Where Are You Now?

For those who choose to take on schools operating in difficult circumstances, the lack of a context value added approach within the inspection framework fuels Football-Manager-Syndrome; that the end of your career is only one inspection away. This may explain my social media timeline (frustrations) and why I wholeheartedly disagree with Amanda Spielman – “You can’t come up with even one busload of heads who lose their jobs because of an inspection.” 

The fear narrative is very real.

Where does the lead inspector vanish when a school needs the support? If a team of inspectors can assess a school’s performance accurately in a matter of 24 hours (in total) on-site, why not give at least 24 hours back to support the school and help get them off their knees?

I’ve observed good colleagues who have chosen to work in challenging situations – one after the other – leaving this school, with others leaving the country and a state school system they have loved – all tarnished. Brilliant teachers our profession needs!

Soft Bigotry

Over the past few days, I have been involved in various discussions on social media. With teachers, inspectors and those who do want a fairer system for students – and for those colleagues who actively choose to work in tough schools. Others view this as a desire to lower the bar – accusations of soft bigotry in some cases (not expecting disadvantaged people or minorities to meet the same standard of behaviour or achievement set for most people – a more subtle and subconscious form of prejudice).

This cannot be further from the truth.

No-one ever reduces their standards deliberately. I’ve not met one teacher in 25 years who wants to see school standards decline. Not one. The crux of the matter for colleagues who choose to work in challenging schools, is that they just want to see a fairer inspection model that does not result in unnecessary teacher-wastage in the profession – ending careers prematurely. If you’ve worked in a tough school and have ‘been done to and survived’, then everything’s fine. “What’s the problem? Get on with it!” some shout out.

Others refuse to have colleagues on their premises because they’re deemed a failure, perhaps ‘chirping from high above’ on the ladder of success, perhaps because they chose to work in another setting or they came out okay. Who knows? But I do know this rhetoric exists. I’ll never get over hearing from the words of a Multi Academy Trust leader; “Our version of Outstanding is better than everyone else’s.”


This is the monster we have created.

Unnecessary Attrition

The research is clear. Label a school and place it into a category and 5% of the school staff will leave, compared with 0% when a school is judged Good or Outstanding. And I am not denying that there are poor leaders and/or teachers within the system, and school turnover is healthy, but I do wonder how OfSTED inspections actually may be driving attrition and the recruitment and retention crisis.

Secondary schools with a higher % of pupil premium students are also ‘more likely’ to be judged Requires Improvement. Get rid of the grades Amanda Spielman – and I’ll ignore the fact that ‘I told you so’ when I asked OfSTED for a new measure in 2015.

Can OfSTED Get It Right This Time?

With the OfSTED inspection framework due for an overhaul in 2019 and after a frustrating online discussion, I took it upon myself to poll my followers.

When OfSTED talk about a common standard for judging / inspecting schools, what is your view? (Outcomes in a wider sense; data, welfare and wellbeing; T&L etc.)

  1. One framework for all?
  2. or context considered?

The results speak for itself.

We Need People Like You

Until OfSTED change the dialogue, I won’t be signing up for headship anytime soon. And I’m not ruling out returning to school, but if I do return to work in those challenging settings I love, I know it will never be full-time (again) and my god, will I think very carefully about where I want to go and who I want to work with.

It’s great to see a Shared Headship Network evolving from a brilliant colleague I use to work with. And I do already miss school life to some degree, but the 9-5 repeat-repeat lifestyle after 25 years of teaching was starting to wear me down and I have been rejuvenated by recent travels and a wide range of environments in which to work.

My contact with students and colleagues has been replaced with collegiality in another way; I’m visiting more schools than ever before and I am still teaching in classrooms – primary classrooms too which is a fascinating experience – but the majority of my work now is supporting teachers which I believe is also a great honour.

Choose Life or Choose Bias?

Challenging habits, supporting teachers with practical ideas – especially marking – with lack of time and funding appear to be reoccurring themes in all sorts of school settings.

Having travelled all over the United Kingdom visiting schools, it is now my conclusion that teachers who leave the system do so simply because there is a significant trigger in their work. Something goes wrong. An incorrect judgement. A workload or mental health crisis. Whatever it is, something reaches a tipping point and it’s jump or swim.

Choose life? Choose your career or family? Toe the line or pay the mortgage doing something else?

The problem for most teachers, is that they are already drowning. It’s just harder for some schools to demonstrate progress when compared to all schools by value-added measures. As Paul Garvey writes, “It’s an enormous OfSTED straw man to cover up what they know full well – that inspection is stacked against schools working in challenging circumstances.”

Widening The Lense

The reason I left my school was three-fold.

First. Sixty-plus-hour-weeks were not enough to keep on top of things. After three years of doing this, I suspect anyone would break.

Two, a growing Teacher Toolkit community made the day job and time at home to keep this blog operating saw me working 18 hour days, seven days a week … and it was growing bigger and bigger. So, something had to give.

Three. In December 2017, I made a part-time request to work 0.8 a week. This was accepted prior to OfSTED, then place in jeopardy 3 weeks later after the inspection. After one week of reflection at February half-term 2018, it was then I knew it was continue in my current role and lifestyle, seek headship elsewhere or go with Teacher Toolkit.

With an increasing workload that had become normalised for 3 years, it was slowly eating away at my mental health. It took me six months before I could share this photo publicly. On returning to school I resigned and the inspection outcome was published three months later. It was there I knew I had to do things for me and my family from now on. So, I chose to close one door and open another – and I also knew I was lucky enough to be able to do so.

The pressure of school leadership alongside the demands of managing Teacher Toolkit made wanting to become a headteacher a more difficult decision to accept. Not many people will know, that I’ve been spending in excess of £1,500 per year (if not more) to make this website work. Why? Well, when one article is shared with 250,000 people, it’s very easy for a humble blog to crash. So, the need to increase server capacity and meet the demands for content, more writers and a team of freelancers does not come out of laziness, nor does it happen for free. The costs have increased tenfold since resigning as I have made commitments to make TT the go-to platform for teacher voice. For avid followers, you will know the real reasons why I started this blog in 2010. This was not something I was prepared to repeat …

In the last 6 months, I have been using the skills I have developed as a teacher and school leader in other ways.

I’ve worked with more teachers and have visited schools in the past 6 months that in my 25 years of teaching. It has been an amazing privilege and has widened my lense. The wonderful benefit of ‘giving back’ to teachers and schools in a training role, is that my presence is non-threatening. This is unique and something OfSTED inspectors do not bring; school leaders and teachers open up and share their genuine passions and frustrations. They yearn for practical ideas to be able to apply into their setting; they benefit from support and challenge and want recognition for all the wide-ranging work they do – without it being defined or fixed to a single word.

The Future?

I’ve been working with the University of Buckingham as a visiting lecturer and a PGCE tutor. I’ve finalised my fourth book contract with Bloomsbury and have four TT bloggers also writing books with John Catt Ltd. This on top of many projects, offering social media training and exposure, being a Teaching Awards judge and commencing my doctorate in education (accepted this week) at Cambridge University in October 2018, will see me being just as fulfilled, but making choices under my control.

This term I’ve also been part of the NAHT’s accountability forum group who will be sharing an alternative proposal for the profession. It won’t please everyone and certainly there will need to be ‘trade offs’ for all stakeholders. Yet for me, whether I’m a parent, a teacher, a school leader or a civil servant working at the Department for Education and/or OfSTED, if we want to genuinely raise the status of the profession and have teachers working in our schools, regardless of setting, we could do a darn sight better than we are doing if we simple choose to acknowledge that we do need accountability framework, but a fairer system that doesn’t end teacher careers or simply push individuals into a workload spiral of despair.

Ultimately, it’s all students who suffer, not just those living in disadvantage situations.

Recent research suggested that OfSTED’s credibility is dropping amongst parents with only 20% reading the full report! When I asked the DfE last month at the NAHT meeting, “How do you know parents want OfSTED reports in their current form?” the response was “We don’t.”

If we want to publish OfSTED outcomes for parents in their current form, and to maintain high standards for all students, then let’s save the taxpayer £millions and resolve the recruitment and retention crisis together. We simply need to get back to basics. And if I can help steer this conversation in my new role working with schools, casting my net wider across the U.K., then that’s what I’m going to do.

Maybe it was inevitable that balancing school leadership in a tough setting, against the demands of managing Teacher Toolkit would eventually see me stick or twist, but let’s all change the dialogue and start with the most obvious. End OfSTED gradings and let’s all avoid the poisonous sound bytes.

25 thoughts on “The Life of a Deputy Headteacher: The Finale

  1. A loss to teaching in one sense, I have no doubt, but a huge gain in the ripple effect of your contribution and input as a trainer. Which essentially results in a win-win for the profession and for you and your family.

    1. Thanks Mark – I guess the difficulty is that teaching part time is a challenge for teachers and also senior leaders. The profession does need to get smarter on this issue, as with social media, traditional day jobs will become obsolete and how we work in the future will change. I suspect this will filter down into the way we teach students in the future too.

  2. Great article Ross. There was one line that really made my hairs stand on end, even more than the photo ‘If we want to publish OfSTED outcomes for parents‘. Read this in context and then read it out. Imagine if parents were Ofsted judged? How the paradigm would shift then.

    The school I have recently left has just been judged RI from a previous good even though all kpi’s were on a positive trajectory after a period of instability. Every school requires improvement doesn’t it? Glad to say I am so happy to be ‘out’. Mental health is slowly being rebalanced.

  3. As someone who has resigned from Assistant Headship after a horrendous experience upon returning from my 2nd Mat leave, then taking a teaching role in a large dictatorship (I mean MAT) which I hated, I can certainly empathise. I’m reassessing what I want out of my career and work/life balence. If in 10 years, I’m exactly where I want to be, then I can hopefully say that it wouldn’t have happened without these experiences. It’s inspiring to me to hear your story whilst on my rocky journey. Currently searching out my educational niche!

    1. Hey Lynn – rest assured you are not alone; despite that being a poor excuse for the system. MAT dictatorship is a by-product of OfSTED accountability that is currently blighting 10% of all schools – approx. 50,000 teachers. That’s just over what the profession needs to recruit every academic year – go figure what the solution is 🙂

  4. A really interesting read Ross. Having returned to school after a 3 month mental health related absence I am asking myself a lot of the same questions I suspect you have asked yourself in the last year. I love working in the classroom but the management side of things as an AHT in a tough school is just seems less relevant and less about education every day. Very frustrating to be coming to the conclusion that the best way to survive after 22 years is to get out!

    1. Thanks for the comment. I know I am not alone and I am sad to read this – thanks for speaking out. One day someone very brave at the very top will do something transformational. I also think we’ll look back on this period of education with a cringe and wonder why on earth we allowed this to happen to ourselves. Attrition is a natural phenomenon in any profession, but there are things we are doing to one another that simply is driving good people away unnecessarily – and costing the taxpayer far more. The thing that makes me more frustrated more, is some folk are given ‘gongs’ for off-rolling children and sacking teachers with gagging orders so that ‘when inspected’, they appear more favourable in the current MAT dialogue. Trust me. In 20 years, we’ll slowly be moving back to wanting schools to operate within their local areas and ‘cooking and drawing’ will be important once again 🙂 Best wishes to you and keep your head up. It’s not you.

  5. That’s a shocking story Ross, but unfortunately not as rare as it should be. You put across with great clarity some of the challenges that are facing even the most dedicated leaders who choose to work in challenging schools. It’s hard enough to do that at the best of times–to do it without proper backing is impossible. I’m seeing more and more good teachers and leaders leaving the profession or downsizing in order to stay sane. That’s a good decision for them, but not great for the profession as a whole. What worries me is that the signals are not being read by those in power. Even when you have a situation such as this, where every teacher leaves a school it doesn’t look as though the message gets through–things just keep going in the same way.

    1. Hi Marcella – thanks for reading and adding a comment. That news story is shocking! On my travels over the last six months, I am starting to discover that the recruitment and retention issues are genuinely everywhere. Schools are facing hard challenges and what strikes me more than anything, it won’t improve until funding is resolved and OfSTED/DfE take workload seriously. Every time I live poll, marking habits/expectations, school leaders’ perceptions of what OfSTED wants and workload generate by OfSTED wants is everywhere. We could fix this overnight if people in power would make some brave decisions. Teaching is very hard and we all know this, but it is made incredibly difficult when the ‘powers that be’ do not recognise that some places to work are much more difficult than others, and worse of all, when some people celebrate the fact that they are succeeding within the same system – under a different set of circumstances – and then use this against another to suggest that one is failing or not quite up to scratch. I’m not denying there are some poor leaders/teachers out there, but they are in the minority by country mile … I don’t see myself stepping up to headship unless it changes.

  6. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this as it gives hope that there are people genuinely fighting for a fairer system. Also my 25th year of teaching this year and it’s been a colourful journey! I’ve been in plenty of measures schools and 2 where we weregraded outstanding for EY (my area). The irony is that my values & practice were similar in all of them! I do continue to self-improve and learn, you never reach the top of your game in teaching, and leadership has been a whole new learning curve. But I remain true to my values and am lucky to be with a great values-driven Trust (they are out there! You were a key note at our conference this year). When in a measures school years back one effort to ‘support’ teachers was to bus them out to another school (recently graded outstanding) and do the walk of shame around the classrooms to see what we ‘should’ be doing. I was horrified at some of the practices in EY! Again ironically, that school is now in measures 4 years later, same staff. Go figure!

    1. Hi Nicky – I remember the keynote very well. I am sure there are great trusts and schools out there. I just think I’ve had two bouts of bad luck, each lasting 6 months each. In both schools, I also had many years of happiness – just the system that ended the journey and not necessarily any individual. Also important to add, the my work as a blogger has grown exponentially and has become a 2nd full time job without knowing. This in itself is another significant reason for my own mental health, workload and also being in a position to be heard, but also have a choice to do things for myself. I know not everyone has that choice and I know I am fortunate enough to be able to do so. It may not be forever either… as I’m not ruling out returning to school, I’m just enjoying a sabbatical. You also highlight the irony of the system. I’ve done no different in any of the schools – it’s simply down to intake and how students are measured – which is why I now pose the question, ‘why choose to work in a challenging school if it comes back to haunt you?’ I’ve done challenging schools for 25 years – bitten twice. I’m not sure I’d go back and do it again, so I’ll be very choosy the next time – and definitely opt for a part time role so I can balance TT demands. Thanks for reading/comments.

  7. Hi Ross, very much like you I decided to leave teaching four years ago to concentrate on my own kids and only now am I excited about contributing back into education but on my own terms. I admire you honesty and ambition. The ripple effect you and your team are creating is fantastic so thank you and keep smiling because life is too short

    1. Hi Steve – thank you for your comment. It’s too early to say if I’m missing my own school environment – but I have to say the impact and experiences I am now having on others and myself is far greater. It comes with its challenges, but seeing my family more and feeling better about my workload and mental health in light of where I was 12-18 months ago are poles apart.

  8. I have followed you for some time and am sorry you have been having such a difficult time. I facilitate support/action learning groups for both Heads and DH/AHTs and walk away from each one struck by the astonishing dedication and commitment of those school leaders but also in despair about the impossible jobs they are expected to do.
    I would love to have a chat about it and how it might be possible to rebuild a broken system.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.