The 5 Mistakes I Have Made As A School Leader

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Mistake Dirty Shirt


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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What mistakes have you made as a school leader?

Last week I shared reasons why I resigned as a deputy headteacher. I have been inundated with messages of support and on my travels I have soon discovered I am not alone. My social media presence offers the opportunity to be seen and heard – and speak on behalf of thousands of others.

I’ve decided to air my ‘dirty washing’ and share the top-five mistakes I believe I made during 17 years in school leadership.

5. Grading Lessons

On 1st September 2014, in a new role as a deputy headteacher, I took great pleasure in announcing to my new colleagues that we were abandoning lesson grading. For many months, I had worked alongside others behind-the-scenes to challenge this policy with OfSTED.

Leading at whole-school level is a true honour, but it also comes with great responsibility. What I had failed to consider, was shifting culture and habits is harder than refining ideas, and much of the battle in my school was about changing attitudes and quashing any requests for, ‘I know we don’t, but if you could, what grade you would have given the lesson?’

Throughout the first year, we languished with 3 formal observations per year (not graded), and followed a traditional appraisal model that most schools still follow today. It took almost 3 years to get to a position where coaching was starting to replace one-off observations and all forms of learning walks. When we finally found an alternative, it came at a cost when external pressures i.e. a Requires Improvement outcome and Jihadi John in the press made any motivation for observing one another the bottom of the priority list.

Conclusion: Teaching and learning trumps everything we do in school. Banish gradings and formal observations and give teachers time to develop a coaching culture within their working week.

4. Professional Development

Teachers should not have to be spoon-fed their professional development. We have a duty as professionals to seek out our own subject knowledge in order to enhance our pedagogy. This is not a view shared by everyone, and many teachers will be put off by what’s available in and outside of school. I accept that.

When not in the classroom myself or observing colleagues, the vast majority of my time was developing in-house CPD programmes at all levels. Looking back, I know that the CPD menu and Speed Dating CPD formats for training definitely made an impact with colleagues – and well-beyond our school gates. However, back at base, the motivation levels were a struggle.

Conclusion: Despite creating an incentive to reward professional development, this was a moment where I realised I was losing the battle for staff engagement. The crux of the issue was professional development was not a priority in others, and that a culture change was required, not a set of templates and CPD systems.

3. Work Scrutiny

It took me years to formulate a fair and reliable methodology for work scrutiny – in three separate schools – starting with conversations on the floor with all staff; developing templates and forms to ensure consistency. A highlight was sharing ‘what not to mark’ as we developed a bespoke approach to marking allowing flexibility in key stages and subjects.

We filmed teachers and students. We created middle leader working groups to share and compare ‘what Mr McGill’s marking looks like?’ and ‘what Ross’ books look like in all of his subjects’. It was powerful information, but beyond a forum together, I think we did little with this information across the school.

We also failed to develop and promote what other forms of assessment and feedback could look like – even though this was blindingly obvious in DT, music, drama, art and PE. On reflection, I also wished that we had time to communicate with parents and students what ‘the school was not prepared to mark’, but this was another item on an endless list of jobs.

Conclusion: There is no evidence that work scrutinies improve learning. They only serve to improve how a school monitors and reports consistency, and in turn, increases teacher workload.

2. Appraisal

I’ve led whole-school appraisal in three large secondary schools in London and although I’ve enjoyed the inner-workings of quality control and assurance, whatever system was created was never bulletproof. The greater challenge was creating a system where staff engaged with appraisal. This culture shift rested not just the systems that were created, but with each appraiser, and middle leaders are the real test of whole-school systems.

Some years later, there is no evidence to suggest Performance Related Pay improves classroom performance, and we now work in a period within schools where headteachers could abandon appraisal altogether in its current format. It all depends on if those at the helm wish to give teachers autonomy to develop their own research-informed questions?

Conclusion: If you do not commit time to train middle leaders to a rigorous standard, any whole-school system will fall at the first hurdle. Engage middle leaders with every whole-school decision.


Imagine the scenario. Eighteen-hour days over a three-day period. Little or no sleep and the stakes are high. You’ve begged on the morning of day two for a conversation with an inspector, to share your work (over the past three years) to find you’ve been granted a moment to discuss how you’ve reduced workload and the impact that it’s had; squeezed into a 40-minute learning walk and a quick chat on a playground bench.

Over three years as our Mark Plan Teach policy evolved, I developed a sense of pride, not really knowing that a non-statutory policy would go against us in an OfSTED inspection – an evaluation of the consistency of teaching and learning and leadership and management versus what was written in black and white. I was even asked to produce a document on the day which I entertained. (Hear why in this podcast).

In the debriefing, an inexperienced lead inspector (with no secondary school experience) flicked through the inspection handbook – literally page by page – and a ‘Special Measures’ decision ensued with all school leaders and governors gathered. The words were deafening.

I can still feel my headteacher’s eyes piercing the side of my face – we knew what this meant for both of us – and I can still hear him saying to me at interview in May 2014, “I’ve taken a big risk with this school.”

NAHT statistics confirm that school leaders are walking away from teaching or taking a demotion in large numbers. Nearly one-third of leaders appointed as new secondary heads in 2013, left by 2016; at primary level, 1 in 5. headteachers.

The research is clear. If OfSTED judges your school as Inadequate, there is a 3.4% attrition impact on staffing versus 0% following an Outstanding judgement. Recent polls by YouGov shows that parents agreeing that ‘Ofsted provides a reliable measure of a school’s quality has fallen to its lowest‘.

The time for OfSTED reform is upon us.

What I regret most about this moment in my career, was failing to speak out in a room full of my peers. I failed to challenge the feedback. “What do you mean? There’s nothing we do in this school that is good for our pupils and teachers?” (Note, I was not in the lead inspector’s full debriefing)

Conclusion: Don’t waste countless days and weeks creating a non-statutory teaching and learning policy. Keep consistency and expectations to a simple set of guidelines, introducing these to new teachers at induction and revisiting them in departmental meetings. It will only go against you once OfSTED’s Machine Learning algorithms have predicted the outcome.

So, what are your mistakes? After all, no one’s perfect – not the system or the people who work within it.

7 thoughts on “The 5 Mistakes I Have Made As A School Leader

  1. The advice based on some of my mistakes is around the meaning of words. Meaning is really very localised. What you think a term or a word means you can bet there are other interpretations based on a local context, experiences and a shared group membership development. You think you are communicating clearly and people look as though they understand but you have both agreed on a course of action based on a somewhat different understanding. It is not until you come to the implementation phase that all is revealed! So if you turn up to a school as a newly appointed leader make sure you are both speaking the same language, you have a common agreed understanding of teaching terminology and ideas, before you get carried away.

  2. Any tips or advice on changing the culture around CPD and highlighting to staff how useful and important this time can be?
    Can you suggest any articles that might help with this?

  3. We’ve all made leadership mistakes – For example, I was under the impression that all my colleagues would show a growth mindset towards videoing themselves teaching in order to reflect on practice and reduce the need for formal observations. I was wrong. I totally underestimated my colleagues feelings towards this process. However, the ability to reflect on and learn from instances such as these shows tenacity and the ability to admit that you were wrong is an important leadership attribute. I never made that mistake again – I made different ones instead :).

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