I decided to go out on a Tuesday night in the middle of exam season. Before you get carried away with a largely inappropriate vision of me out on the proverbial, my days of wearing purple wigs and sashaying the night away to trance music are long behind me. My idea of a night out these days involves some sort of teaching event that carries the promise of a glass of wine or two and sure enough, one came along last week in the form of a panel event organised by Teach First on ‘Women in Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’. I was happy to accept their invite to be a panel member, alongside Hannah Wilson, one of the co-founders of the WomenEd movement and Henrietta Baldock- Chairman of European Financial Institutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch – one of Teach First’s partner organisations. We were ably chaired by Fiona Rawes, the Director of Community Impact at Teach First, who ensured that as many voices were heard as possible at this important event.
We dealt with two official questions on the night, as well as a raft of well-thought out and provoking ones from an audience that was made up of about 100 women in teaching and business and precisely 2 men. Hannah and I wryly noted that had the event been entitled: ‘Leadership: Education, Business and Beyond’, there may have been a greater balance between male and female delegates. I do wonder whether taking out the gendered title at these events is the right thing to do. We were due to talk about the lack of female headteachers and how to raise aspirations in the girls we teach. To me and many of the women in the room, this isn’t an exclusively female issue. As the night progressed, the ideas became more and more central: for more women to enter into positions of responsibility in schools, in businesses and in politics, support from male colleagues is essential.
When I left, I realised we had covered so much in the time given to us as panellists that it would be hard to capture all the ideas and questions in one place. What I can do is provide a run-down of my points in response to the main questions. And possibly leave with you with more questions to consider.
Recent figures, released by the Future Leaders Trust, show that the overall proportion of women taking on headteacher positions is not reflected by the number of women in the workforce. A government report on the school workforce in England, issued in 2014, showed that the state education sector is 74% female, yet only 65% of headteachers are women. If these percentages were equal, there would over 1,500 more female headteachers in the UK – a number that the Future Leaders Trust believes could potentially fill many long-standing headship vacancies.
Recent research by the Guardian showed there are more men called John running FTSE 100 companies than all the female bosses put together. Among chief executives and chairs of FTSE 100 companies, there were 17 men called John (or Jean) – and seven women.
What in your view is the most important way we could influence a change with leadership positions?
In a groundbreaking study in 1975, Don Zimmerman and Candace West tracked the interruption rates in conversations between men and women. The study can be read in its entirety at the link provided but the findings can be summarised succinctly in these tables:
Source: Zimmerman/West, 1975
Interruptions are interesting interaction mechanisms. They serve to assert dominance and control in a conversation. Ask a Year 10 student how Lady Macbeth asserts her dominance over her husband in Macbeth and she will tell you that she interrupts and questions. It is ironic that she is seen as a manifestation of a witch for doing so and ‘corrected’ at the end of the play for her foolish attempt to control her husband and usurp the Elizabethan natural order. The rota fortunae turns. Exit Lady Macbeth. And yet we have a study here that shows that mixed gender conversations are rife with interruption.
How does this contribute to our understanding of where all the female headteachers are? I explained that the results of this study, and all of the subsequent studies that proved the same phenomenon, are still being played out in education institutions and businesses today. Women make up the majority of the teaching workforce and disappear as you climb the ranks into senior leadership, headship and governance – a fact reinforced by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian here. If the daily experience of leadership in schools for women is working in environments not only physically, but verbally dominated by male colleagues, then why would anyone want to do it? It is exhausting and demoralising. And we might not even be aware of the issue and the reason why.
Rather than just pose the problem and pondered, I spoke about solutions. The solution doesn’t involve flinging down your meeting agenda and storming out of the room, neither does it involve shouting louder than your interruptor. It is the rain that grows flowers, not the thunder (thanks Rumi). Women have to train themselves to deal with interruption so they can be heard.
If this was the only problem then we’d be fine because women would just do this and make progress. I talked about ‘Askers and Guessers’ at the WomenEd Unconference in last year and I came back to the topic on Tuesday night. I read Oliver Burkeman’s article in The Guardian a long time ago and was citing the concept of Askers vs Guessers as his idea. Only on re-reading the article last week did I notice that the original idea came from Andrea Donderi, a woman, on a discussion forum. Irony klaxon.
The idea is simple. And it resonates with me as a female leader so completely because I am a Guesser. I have waited for promotion and hoped someone would notice my work and assumed that if I just worked harder, longer, better, then I would be promoted. And I stalled. This wasn’t a result of male oppression. This was me, not realising I could move into being an Asker.
If we want more women in headships, or being CEOs of MATs and global banking institutions, we have to coach and mentor them to be confident Askers.
Following an excellent @SLTchat this evening hosted by one of the women who is pioneering the @womened Unconference in October, I sat in my mid-July humidity-induced stupor, thinking it through. There is something about thinking in pyjamas that is such a luxury when you are a teacher.
I wanted to unpick why it is that women are less likely to be on senior leadership teams. It is a complex issue, endorsed by many statistical studies. We cannot deny that the workforce is predominantly female and yet, senior leaderships teams are statistically more likely to be male. Now, before you all jump at once, no, I’m not going to go into the evidence here (look it up and come back to me) and no, I’m not saying that all leadership teams are dominated by men. I am saying that we have a problem that can be attributed to many things. As with most complex social issues, we can’t pin down one reason why it is the way it is. But we can start to think about what happens in the mind of a female leader when she is seeking promotion, or when – more pertinently, she doesn’t feel like she can.
When I was twenty five, I wanted to be a Head of English. This thought came from a miserable kernel of ambition I have nurtured inside my ribcage for most of my life and an unfortunate stinging remark by a male headteacher – “I don’t think you have any leadership or management qualities.” Cue inner fury/despair. I decided to leave this school and seek promotion in that way you do when you are young and think if you leave a job, you’re irreplaceable. I had been heavily involved in the leadership of the English department at that school and was the second in charge. It was time to move on and yes, prove that I could lead and manage. And of course, the school would crumble without me. Probably.
So, I dusted off my interview skills. I applied for Head of Department posts and I settled on a school I thought was really going somewhere. I wanted to work there – mostly because of my magpie instinct. Shiny and new has always been appealing for me and this place was shiniest and newest. Little did I know that it would be the worst decision I would make in my career. They didn’t appoint me as the Head of Department, but instead, offered me the post of second in charge.
This is one of those moments you look back on and think – was I actually deranged when I said yes? Had I temporarily lost my mind? Had photocopier fumes, coffee and East London smog addled my brain? I wasn’t desperate; I could have stayed at my school, I could have applied for other jobs. Something inside me was convinced that I wasn’t good enough. So I took the job and worked with a Head of Department that was eventually ‘managed out’ because he was lovely but incompetent.
But it took three years before that kernel of ambition re-lit itself. Three years in which I could have made real progress in my career but I didn’t.
This is one story of many and I am not about to argue that women’s careers stall because they make bad, wounded-ego decisions and take roles that they shouldn’t. I am saying that might be one reason why some women don’t make the progress they want to. It takes confidence to stand up and say that you are worth more than a school is offering. I didn’t have that then. It has taken years to get myself to that point.
Discussions about women who think they can’t have children and a successful career make me want to weep and yet, there is something entirely familiar about that feeling. I don’t have children, so I can’t provide an authentic, first person view of what it might feel like to want children and stay in a profession that moves so quickly that even taking a day off can feel like a lifetime.
And there is what I want to explain. I imagine – and correct me if I’m wrong and this is just my own paranoia playing out on a page – that the thought of being on a leadership team in a school and stopping to have a child is frightening. I imagine it is a bit like the modern phenomenon, FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) – the reason why we stay glued to our phones and Facebook and Twitter because if you stop, you might miss something really big. Take that feeling and apply it to a school. You go on maternity leave at a school and half the staff might leave (not because you aren’t there, I hasten to add, that’s just silly). They might not be there when you get back because – and this is the crux – schools carry on whether you are there or not! Policies and practices might be different. Alliances might be formed without you. Relationships might strengthen and it might be hard to get back into your old role, part time or full time.
Successful women want to be seen as reliable and present. In schools, whether we like to admit it or not, we judge people on how long they are in the building. So another fear relayed to me by a female colleague who has just announced her pregnancy – I might have to leave the building to pick up children and therefore, people might judge me for not being as hardworking as they are. It almost does’t matter if colleagues are judging or not, it seems that it is the fear of judgement that puts some women off the whole decision.
All of this comes down to one thing: confidence. I don’t deny that very real barriers exist for women who want to balance home life and career – lack of flexible working hours or part time posts, perceptions of women in leadership (ball-breaker, bossy vs emotional/fluffy), but there is one thing that is in us to control. That is our ability to step outside of our own timidity and move towards what we want with confidence. That is one barrier to success we have the power to remove.
In the middle of my Year 13 tutor group’s UCAS application season, I am reminded of the abject misery of the university application process. The tiresome slog of a personal statement that some say is not worth the paper it is written on, the endless sessions on mock interviews, the reminders that missed homework or lateness to lessons may result in a failure to achieve a university place (as if admissions tutors are strategically positioned at the gates of each Sixth Form, marking down the minutes) – all of these things remind that I’m glad I’m not 17 and applying for university again.
It’s not the paper work that is the problem. The biggest issue that my students have faced is a total lack of awareness of the range of courses and careers that are available to them should they wish to apply to university and I do not blame the students at all; I was exactly the same.
At the point when I had to make my choices, I wanted to study English Literature at university but that was as far as it went. I may have uttered the word ‘journalism’ in a panic to a tutor once, or perhaps to my mother, who was more than a little frustrated at my lack of desire to make a lot of money doing something scientific. “All your friends are going to be pharmacists, or optometrists,” she would remind me, as if I hadn’t noticed that my A-Level choices of English Literature, French and History would not be the perfect stepping stone to a white lab coat.
As usual, I see a metaphor in all of this. My students are able to tell me that they want to be a doctor, or a lawyer (when they’re not saying ‘footballer’ or ‘singer’). They see an entire field of study as their final destination – they see the tree. But they have a limited understanding of the ‘branches’. Have I ever taken the time to sketch out those branches for them? My students know there are careers, but not about the careers within careers. And to be honest, they are sitting at the bottom of those trees, looking up in confusion.
What experiences do students have of specific and personalised careers advice? An article in The Telegraph this afternoon serves as a depressing reminder of the gulf between careers advice in the state sector and careers advice in private schools. That gap is even more stark between schools with high proportions of students from low socio-economic backgrounds and private schools, where the connections of a wealthy parent or two makes work experience in Year 10 a stratospherically different learning curve for the differing sets of students.
Personalise the Programmes
To close this gap, work in state schools needs to start early – and the key term for our students is personalisation. Our students have aspirations, but lack the connections and confidence to be able to seek out the branches of the careers they may be interested in. When a child arrives in secondary school, they need to sketch out the branches of those trees for themselves, to learn the range of jobs they could aspire to. This cannot be done in a twenty minute session with a careers adviser they will never meet again. Pastoral teams have to make time for this in tutor time, in assembly and in those one-to-one conversations with their tutees. Using technology as a tool to unlock the world of work is a starting point; one organisation, BigAmbition, specialising in digital careers has proactively sought to work with students to develop a quiz that asks questions about personal working preferences and personality – the Dream Job game is a way to start thinking about the branches of the tree that is ICT.
Think beyond university
Considering the cost of a university education, the figures on drop-out rates in tertiary education in the UK makes for sobering reading, particularly when you examine where the majority of students are dropping out of their degrees. Students at lower-ranking universities are more likely to drop out than at Oxford or Cambridge. One only needs to extrapolate a little to know that some students are being given advice that leads them to the right degree choice and others are not given enough advice that enables them to make education choices that are sensible and sustainable.
The sad implication is that it is unlikely that it is privately-educated students who are either attending the lowest-ranked universities or dropping out of them. So, choices become important – and those choice start with GCSE options in Year 9. I have seen schools hand students a piece of paper with a coloured blocking diagram and tell them to hand the slip back with a parental signature. Who do our students talk to, if their parents aren’t aware of the implications of GCSE choices at 14? Starting on an inappropriate pathway potentially leads to failure – and that failure has financial implications at the age of 18 or 19. There is no point in saying: “all of our students will go on to university” like that is the be-all and end-all of education. It is our responsibility to ensure that if they choose to go, they are going to the right place and studying the right course.
Get work experience right
For some students, Year 10 work experience is two weeks off school, sweeping floors in a supermarket. While learning the value of all fields of work is important, quite often, student feedback shows that students are frustrated by their work experience. It’s not an insight into the field they are interested in – and this is partly because the responsibility for administration and sourcing of placements is handed to external organisations. The work experience placements my students benefit from the most are those they’ve found themselves or those that have been recommended by their tutors. It is clear that state schools need to bring work experience back into the hands of the people who know the students best – their teachers. If that means hiring a full time member of staff to co-ordinate work experience and to source appropriate placements, that is what needs to be done.
It is not difficult to see that the fundamental difference between state and private education is the level of personalised careers advice that students are given. I know the statistics on the effect of parental income and education background on the trajectory of their child, but I cannot help but think that we are able to redress the balance between socio-economic groups if we attempt to see our students as individuals who need guidance earlier on, and in more detail. How hard can that be?
You lucky, lucky people. If you have been appointed as a Head of Department, you will of course be looking forward to starting your journey towards changing the lives of myriad young people through your chosen subject. And what a journey that is going to be! I’m not even being sarcastic, folks.
If you’re anything like me when I was poised to start as a head of department, you probably believe that it will be a journey akin to those seen on the big screen. In your head, you are Frodo with the ring, you feel an uncanny affinity with Dorothy on her Yellow Brick Road and you ‘get’ Odysseus and his quest deep down inside. Realistically, at different times, you will be all of those characters, but for the majority of the time, you may end up channelling Chevy Chase in a National Lampoon movie.
Being a head of department is one thing; being an outstanding one requires the ability to balance the everyday with the long-term, whilst fielding the various demands on your time effectively. You will find your attention pulled in so many directions that you start to feel that you aren’t a good teacher anymore, that your own pupils are getting a raw deal. That fades after a while, when you start to become more comfortable with the role and start to manage your time so that you’re not fire-fighting, you are ahead of yourself. How you get to that point is the important bit.
There is a wealth of material that will provide insight into what it means to be a middle leader. Reading round the job is a good idea, even if it is to disagree and know that you will do something differently. A good source of research into the role can be found in ‘The Role and Purpose of Middle Leaders in Schools’ (2003). It dips into research about primary and secondary middle leadership, as well as middle leadership in further education. The advice below is not scientifically measured, and you’ll probably find similar advice from many different sources. To save you the job of having to dig up material in the next few days, I’ve noted down the key things that I wish I had been told before I started in my role. I apologise for the ridiculous metaphors in advance.
Decide on your philosophy and use your influence to make it real
Some people say that it is a good idea to develop a philosophy about how your subject should be taught in a department meeting with everyone present and in consensus. This almost never happens because the vision cannot be arrived at by committee. Inevitably, compromise and dilution means that the direction shifts and it is easy for all to become dissatisfied.
The direction and philosophy of your department comes from you and you are its biggest force. Decide what you want your department to look like and be the rising tide. Even if there isn’t buy-in at the start, it comes when people start to realise that your ideas and your approach works. Of course, temper your ideas by putting yourself in the place of your team – sometimes a rising tide can just drown people. And that wouldn’t be a good thing in your first post. You should aim to ensure that your ideas are as visible as they can be – sell the philosophy to staff and students alike through display, through handbooks, through web material, through communication home. It will give your department a distinct identity and you’ll be surprised at how grateful people are to know where you stand when it comes to your subject.
Get out of the bunker because you are not the cog, you’re the wheel
The vortex that is the day-to-day leading of a department can suck you in and place you far away from the important aspects of your new job. If you retreat into that bunker, you may forget that your department is one of many propping up the whole school. Your numbers count, the staff you lead are deployed around the school in various roles – this means you need to place yourself clearly at the top of the tree. When you are told what the improvement plans are in briefing or on the INSET days, don’t just jot them down or glance at the accompanying sheet – note down how you and your department can help to achieve those whole school goals. No matter how big or small your department, you help to create the public perception of it through your results and through your interactions with parents and the local community. Make the effort to get out from below the canopy regularly – it will give you an insight into what you need to do next. Then talk to people about how you can be part of the whole.
Find your foot soldiers
John Donne’s ‘No Man is an Island’ is surprisingly appropriate reading for a new head of department. Not only does it cover the ideas in my point about being part of the whole school, it tells us that we need to delegate. You may already know who your foot soldiers are – if you don’t, make it your business to find out. Behind every good head of department you will usually find one or two dedicated foot soldiers who are capable and have steady hands. I find that they are often two or three years in, without any additional responsibility and they, not you, are the rock on which this department is built. Developing a strong and trusting relationship with your foot soldiers is rewarding for both parties – on one hand, you will find that you can delegate without worrying that things won’t get done and on the other, you will be working towards preparing those team members for further, more established responsibilities. You have to be the person who not only sells the vision, but also the one who sells your team members. Think of yourself as a career pimp.
Talk about impact and actually mean it
Your line management meetings and meetings with the head, if you have them, should be focused on one core thing: impact. Frame your discussions about what your department is doing and plans to do using that word. Impact. The impact of this intervention will be X, the impact on parental engagement will be X, the impact of developing this staff member will be X. It’s really obvious when someone uses that word in their discussions about what they’re doing in the department and they are using it because they think they should. Think about impact as the thread that runs through your plans – it’s the thin, red line. I find it helps imaging a red line through my middle of my head. I go back to the red line when plans have become nebulous. That may just be me, though, so don’t feel the need to do the same!
Find your inner benevolent dictator
Placing yourself as a head of department is hard at the start because you’re used to being in the mix. To a certain extent, you have to shift your thinking significantly. Without wanting to sound harsh, you are in charge and so if you don’t get invited to the pub straight away, there’s a reason for that. When you do get invited (and you will), it will probably because you’ve earned the trust of your team by being the best benevolent dictator around. You know what you want and you expect it to be done – when it is, you defend and promote that team until you are blue in the face. Getting frustrated when things aren’t done doesn’t mean ditching the ‘benevolent’ part of your new title. Sometimes, not having the ‘big chat’ straight away with someone who has made a mistake or not done something is best. Show that you trust them to make it better – actually saying that without sounding like an idiot is quite a feat though. When you have earned the trust, you can make it loud and clear what you expect and not be afraid that people won’t respond. When you are given an affectionate dictator nickname, you’ll know you’ve made it to the right place.
Be down with the moving and shaking
You don’t need to manage leading a department with doing a Masters, or attending lots of different courses – but you do need to be the expert in developments in your subject. Using Twitter and online education fora are quick and easy ways to stay abreast of the important aspects of your subject. The ukedchat hashtag on Twitter throws up pedagogical gems – have you heard of SOLO, or flipped classrooms? Do you know how your subject is taught in private education, in charter schools, or in Finland? If anything, joining networks means that you get different perspectives on what you are doing. Learning about the moving and shaking earns respect, especially when you apply what you have learned successfully in your own department. Beware – using Twitter to fuel your department plans can be a bit like trying on too many clothes at once. You look like a washing basket, you’re all sweaty and people will look at you funny. One item at time, people.
All that is left to say is good luck! Before I sign off, I just want to go back to that journey analogy – okay, you may feel a lot like Chevy Chase in a National Lampoon movie. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Have you ever seen a National Lampoon movie that didn’t have a heartwarming ending?