By Annie Grant
‘Why is school leadership like a London bus?’ asked Jenny Smith, headteacher at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow (which featured in Channel 4’s Educating the East End).
Jenny’s question was directed at the fifteen aspiring headteachers, from across London and Jersey, attending the first session of the 2017/18 ‘Aspiring Leaders Course’ at Swiss Cottage School Research and Development Centre in North London.
It was a packed programme. After welcoming everyone to the course, Margaret Mulholland, Director of the Teaching School at Swiss Cottage, spoke about the changing nature of headship, with a shift from an exclusively school focus, to a focus on wider systems, with regional and national responsibilities – a theme she picked up and expanded on later in the day.
Next, Vijita Patel, Principal at Swiss Cottage, spoke about the nature of successful school leadership, including leadership styles and behaviours. During her talk, she asked participants to think about their ‘non-negotiables’ – those aspects of pupils’ experience that they would never compromise on, because of external directives or budget cuts. After a lively discussion the group came up with their list.
Vijita told the group that, as school leaders, they must hold on to these things, and make them evident in the culture of the school and explicit and visible across the curriculum.
After an introduction to their assignment and a chance to chat over lunch, the group were treated to personal perspectives on school leadership from two London headteachers.
Kate Frood from Eleanor Palmer Primary School in Camden, described the principles that underpin and drive her leadership, including – a focus on people and relationships; fun and fundamentals; a strong focus on teaching and learning; a close connection to the classroom; every child matters; love; common sense and humanity; first impressions; attending to small things; a can-do attitude, using data, and having deadlines.
And, finally, as part of a very personal account about the lows and highs on her own journey as a head, Jenny Smith posed that question about the bus. It generated much discussion and the analogies came thick and fast.
‘School leadership is like a London bus,’ asserted one group, ‘ because the driver (headteacher) always drives the bus (the school) forward to its destination (vision) – sometimes the road will be steep and the journey will be slower, sometimes there will be diversions, people will get on and off – but the bus keeps moving forward.’
Another group suggested that the headteacher might not necessarily always be in the driving seat, but might instead (or also) have a different role – ‘the engineer’ – making sure the structure of the bus is sound and paying attention to the smooth running of the engine (systems and processes).
Jenny concluded the day by urging participants to be the kind of leader they want to be. ‘You determine that path, she said. ‘You are the one that shapes that journey. Don’t try to fit into another mould of leadership. You need to own the role and believe in it, or it will never work for you.’