What went wrong with Birmingham after Tim Brighouse left?

I’ve been teaching in Birmingham for 12 years. When I started teaching, Birmingham was such a popular authority (and I was such an average NQT) that I couldn’t get a job there – I had to move to Hertfordshire for a year instead.


Back in Birmingham a year later, it was a magical place to be working. Tim Brighouse was (and still is) a true visionary leader. He cast a vision where every child could succeed and where teachers knew they could play a meaningful part of that success.


I met him toward the end of their tenure in 2001 – he had this habit of just turning up at your school, saying something perceptive and positive and leave with the whole staff feeling really good about themselves. When I met him he was taking a year to visit every school in the authority – a reasonable task you might think for the leader of all the schools in that authority, but when you consider that there are more than 400 schools in Birmingham, it’s a task that would mean visiting at least 2 schools every day.


In addition to Professor Tim, Mick Waters, recently head of the QCDA, was head of the advisory service in Birmingham (BASS). I remember the advisors that he inspired talking so passionately about their subjects that it rubbed off on everyone else. Today those same advisors, many of whom are taking redundancy of ‘going independent’, still talk about the halcyon days under Mick and Tim.


Now Birmingham Local Authrity is wracked for cash. Mick Waters BASS once had more than 300 people to serve it’s 420 schools, soon it will have less than 50. Where in other areas of the country some job cuts can be covered by not renewing secondments, in Birmingham the sheer size of the service meant that secondments were phased out over 10 years ago. In addition, the social services department, now the province of the dirctor of children’s services (the equivalent position held by Tim, but an area that he didn’t have to deal with) has failed two inspections.


I can hear the words of the Emperor in ‘The Gladiator’ played by the late Richard Harris, saying “there once was a dream that was Brimingham…” it is this idea that a large city with many different languages spoken and many differet cultures represented can somehow pull together and work towards a better future. That idea existed under Tim and Mick.


So what did go wrong?


I suppose you could blame it on a whole load of external factors: the economy, social media, 9-11; or even internal factors such as appointing too many advisors or admin staff.


However, I think it goes down to succession planning. Tim and Mick are both brilliant leaders, but the people who came after them weren’t quite as good somehow. Not quite as good at passing on a vision. I don’t know them personally, but I think one perogative of leadership is to be a leader of leaders – to be raising up the kind if people who can not only do what you can do, but can do better than you can do. Many leaders need a good manager or two to follow them round and make sure their vision is carried out – if those managers are never given the opportunity to develop their own vision then they won’t be able even to follow in their leader’s footsteps, let alone surpass them.


That’s all a load of pub-theory of course. I have no real knowledge of the internal workings of Birmingham LA over the past ten years. The real impact for me is to make sure that I can lead people well, whilst giving some the opportunities and skills to go beyond what I can ever do. That goes for my own children, students and staff alike.

My school leadership experiment


I’m not the kind of teacher who always wanted to run a school. I’ve met them though. I met a PGCE student a few years ago on the ‘fast track’ program who told me that she wanted to be a deputy head within 2 years. Fair play to her I thought. And if the addage is true that good teachers make poor school leaders then she should be a really excellent headteacher by now


Mind you, I was a pretty shocking student teacher myself (so I’m hoping that’ll make me a good school leader ;-)). My tutor commented on the positive relationship I developed with my students, but aside from that my lessons were poorly planned and taught; differentiation was minimal. In fact I failed my first teaching practice. A year earlier I had had no idea of becoming a teacher, but my inability to sell anything as a salesman and the fact that no record contract was forthcoming for my band, conspired with other events (too long and tedious for the purposes of this post) to mean that teaching became not just an option but a preference. A few months later I started teacher training. Unlike the PGCE student I mentioned in the first paragraph I had no notion or ambition of school leadership.


Since then I’ve worked for a whole range of school leaders in different contexts, all of whom have played a part in making me think I could do the job. It wasn’t even a dream to begin with, but it did become a dream at some point. And last Thursday, at interview, the dream beame a reality when I was appointed as deputy head at Paganel Primary School, following two terms of ‘acting-up’ in that role. Apologies for any pride seeping through in that last sentence – it comes before a fall, I know.


Aside from inspiring me (in their various ways) to take up school leadership myself, the school leaders have a further thing in common. There have been eleven in all, and nine of them have had broken marriages of some kind. The two that remain are the two that I’d least like to emulate.


Now eleven is no number to base any kind of statistical sample on, and I really shouldn’t be fretting. But I am slightly. What if it really is impossible to maintain a balanced family life and be a successful school leader? I don’t have the personal experience to prove otherwise. Marriage breakdowns and unfortunate events happen in all walks of life, but in 15 years of my teaching I know a far greater proportion of teachers who have maintained marriages and careers than school leaders who have done so.


So my personal experiment is this: can I blend school leadership with the rest of my life so that I’m still a good dad and a good husband? It seems easy at the moment, sitting in the garden on a bank holiday with the sun shining down on the children playing with water guns and the climbing frame, drinking iced squash. But tomorrow I’m deputy head again and the ‘real work’ starts…

How do we change something?


Every once in a while you hear something that makes you think “Ah! That’s how it is.” I thought that when I heard Mick Waters, former head of the QCDA speak to a group of Birmingham Deputy Heads last year. He left me with the memory of a quadrant graph (pictured above) of the four main ways he sees being used in schools to change things.


Schools have to change things. It’s inevitable. But how they choose to manage the change when it occurs varies from school to school.


Reference Control is when people say “We’ve got to do this because _________ says so.” The blank could be the Government, Ofsted, the Governors, the headteacher, the senior management, whoever – just someone else that you make reference to, without taking any responsibility yourself. A bit like when I said it was Mick Waters who gave me all this stuff – that way I’m not actually taking responsibility for this post myself ๐Ÿ˜‰


People Pleasing is putting your staff first. Any change is couched in such a way that it makes staff feel completely happy and positive about it – making sure conditions continue to be as comfortable as possible for the teachers. It’s a laudable aim, but one that should be held in tension with the needs of the students. You can’t always please everyone.


Commanding speaks for itself. Changes are ordered and expected to be followed. Great in a crisis, but can reduce staff’s ability to think for themselves.


Carefully Reasoned Argument is when leaders use logic and reason to argue why change is necessary and how it should take place.


All four have their place – and it could be argued that a well balanced organisation would use all four at different points in its life, or during the course of a year, or term. But you should watch out if one becomes dominant. Because if it does, it is likely that everyone will start speaking that way. The headteacher to the other leaders. The leaders to the teachers. The teachers to the students.


It strikes me that one thing in common with all four is that they all involve conversation. Talk. Dialogue. Change can only happen if the changers talk to each other.


So how do we change something?


One conversation at a time, using a balance of arguments.

Management is like a bar of soap


Management is like a bar of soap


If you hold it at one end, it slips out the other.


If you adjust and hold it at the other end, it slips out of the first.


If you squeeze it too hard, you just destroy it.


If you scrub too vigorously, you use it up too quickly and it becomes expensive.


Yet if you hold it just right, it does a perfectly adequate job and nobody really talks about it.


Management is about skill before effort. It is about doing the job and ignoring the glory. And you may have to drop the soap a few times before you learn to get it right.

Are you a hub or a connector?


Hubs are where many connections converge. Like the spider at the centre of a web, many strands come from that one point.


A connector is just the end of a wire. A simple bit of metal and plastic that plugs into something.


The temptation is to want to be a hub. You can be at the centre. Many different connections come into you. People are focused on you – you cannot be ignored. I feel that sometimes.


But connectors are important too. When I worked in automotive engineering (which admittedly was a few years ago) it was true that the second greatest cause of all break downs in cars were due to connector failure (the first was human error). Connectors don’t look too much, but you really notice them when they don’t work properly.


In my role as a primary school deputy headteacher, it is tempting to want to become a hub. But it would take me away from my core purpose. My core purpose is to connect families and especially children with sources of learning. With teachers, peers, educators across the world. It is to give the power of learning over to the children, not to keep it for myself. My core purpose is to give hope to children, not keep it for myself.


There’s that old adage describing over-management – “too many hubs and not enough connectors.” At least I think it goes something like that.


I could spend my time creating marvellous resources, honing them to perfection, making connections point to me. I could become a hub.


But those resources already exist. There are many storehouses of marvellous resources. Here are just two for teachers that I’ve been looking at in the past half an hour:


So as I ask myself the question, ‘are you a hub or a connector?‘, I must remind myself what my core purpose is. Who exactly am I serving?

Where are you on the Radical Train?


Have you ever had one of those moments when the camera zooms in on you, everything stands still and you suddenly get it?


I had one with the Radical Train a year or so ago. I was sitting in a room on a leadership course and I suddenly understood a bit more of who I am. I’m a radical. I’m not the most radical of radicals, but I’m still a radical.




Most people are progressives or conservatives. They make the bulk of the train.


Progressives are in the engine room. They keep the power in the engine, they keep the speed up, they keep everything going.


Conservatives are in the first few carriages. They are willing to be driven along by the progressives, but there are a lot of them though, so they are powerful voice if something goes wrong. The reason that the progressives can drive the conservatives is that they are both rational thinkers. They are both persuaded by reason and logic. The progressives work in that mode so as long as the train is going along fine, the conservatives will be easily persuaded by the rational arguments of the progressives.


The traditionalists are a different group altogether. They are in the brake van at the back of the train. They remember the good old days when everything was better. They keep us safe by slamming on the brakes when things get out of hand. When this has happened, when the dust has settled and the train is ready to go again, they have a tendency to keep their hands on the brake. Progressives and conservatives can find it difficult to persuade them because they function at an emotional level.


Radicals also function at an emotional level. This makes them the perfect group to persuade the traditionalists. But unfortunately the radical aren’t even on the train. They’re a couple of miles down the line laying the track for the train to go on. They have a really important job, but they’re often the most excluded of all the groups because they can be so far ahead of anyone else. And they find it really difficult to persuade the progressives who are driving the train because of the difference between how they function – emotional vs rational. Sometimes the progressives don’t leave the station because the radicals have so annoyed them with how the talk to each other. And sometimes the radicals get so disillusioned with how infrequently the progressives drive the train down their tracks that they give up and become traditionalists. Yes, being primarily emotional they are destined for traditionalism if their ideas don’t work.


Recognising all this has really helped me over the last year or so. It’s helped me identify the progressives who can drive the train towards my tracks. It’s helped me talked rationally to progressives and conservatives (just because I’m emotional doesn’t mean I can’t function rationally). And it’s helped me talk to the traditionalists who are just trying to hold the brake on – to talk to them emotionally, value the fears they have for where the train is going and spark the old radicalism that they use to hold into life again.


Recognise where you are on the train and you can affect everyone.

I was the backchannel

I started my first round of monitoring today.

“Boo hiss!” I hear you all cry. “Nasty senior leader going to spy on poor innocent teachers…”
But I don’t see it like that. I see myself as a backchannel – feeding back information to my colleagues so they can teach better and children can learn better. I’m not specific by person and judgemental – I’m affirmative, positive and general.
It started with something that the headteacher had said two weeks ago at staff training. He had set out how he expects behaviour regimes to be created at the start of the term. I felt it was my job to find out whether his expectations had been met. Firstly here’s what he said about behaviour:
He had written this:


The absolute key priority is that every child settles into their new class – start as you mean to carry on. Make clear and explicit your expectations to all from minute one, day one and continually reinforce – bad habits can be formed very quickly. Don’t worry about getting through lots of work, go slowly – quality learning behaviours and positive attitudes are far more important than quantity.
Be “over the top” to start off with, once all children “know the ropes” only then can you start to slowly ease off. Discuss and agree rules, rewards and consequences that will work for you and your class of children. Make these explicit on display to all and constantly refer to them (ours not mine).

So in turn I had converted his text into a list of questions that looked like this:


  • Are teacher’s expectations clear?
  • How have they re-inforced them?
  • What strategies are in place to prevent bad habits forming?
  • Do children exhibit quality learning behaviours?
  • Do children have positive attitudes?
  • Are rules, rewards and consequences:
  • Realistic?
  • Negotiated?
  • Explicit?
  • Displayed?
  • Constantly referred to?

And I thought that would do the trick. But then I realised that I wanted to answer these questions by asking the children about them – and let’s face it, they’re not so child friendly. So I made a quick questionnaire that looks like the one in the photo. You can find the real one here.


Before lunchtime a sample of children from each class set with me in the ICT suite and answered the questionnaire. It took about twenty minutes, as some of the younger children needed help with the logging on and the like.


The output from the form goes straight into a Google spreadsheet, which, as it is mainly text, can be quite easily turned into a word cloud of some sort – I mainly used Wordle, although I did use Seth Glickman’s gadget for one too.


The word cloud went up on the staff room wall by lunchtime, allowing staff to think about the common themes from the responses.


In terms of my conlcusions, it was clear that teacher’s had made their expectations clear, good strategies are in place and are being re-inforced. The children are positive about their learning and clear about what good learning behaviours look like. If there’s anything we need to work on, it’s the perception of some children that others in their classes behave worse than they do – I guess we all think like that, which is maybe why teachers sometimes fear these sort of monitoring visits so much.


What was good for me was that it was a learning walk without being a learning walk. I found out lots about what the children think without interfering with any lessons or putting pressure on teachers. The feedback format of the word cloud is positive and friendly and provides a discussion point for moving us all on without singling out individuals.
As for the title statement, today I was the backchannel. Monday I’ll be the teacher again, hoping that somebody will give me some feedback and show me where to improve. 




Doing the Right Things Right

There is a saying about leadership:


Administration is ‘Doing Things’
Management is ‘Doing Things Right’
Leadership is ‘Doing the Right Things’

I learnt it on a leadership course called ‘Leadership Pathways’ course a couple of years ago. The saying is meant to indicate how without good leadership, management and administration is pointless, because you can earnestly be doing things and even doing things right, but they may be the wrong things. So therefore we need good leaders who can do the right things.


However there is a hidden emotional agenda that new leaders can take away from the saying. It’s that somehow leaders are at the top of the pile – everything will fall into place with good leaders. I blogged about that in my recent post: the lie of the leadership pyramid. There is a possibility that leaders can devalue their managers and their administrators because they have been convinced that their role as leader is exponentially more important than the role of anyone else.


The fact is that some leaders can choose the right things, but do them wrong. And worse, some leaders can talk about the right things but not actually do them.


I want to work in a school where the administrators, managers and leaders are all valued and empowered to carry out their equally valuable roles. Where we have people who get things done, where there are others who can help and guide those people-who-are-‘doing’ to do things right and where through good leadership everyone is engaged in doing the right things.


I want to work in a school where we do the right things right.