What do you do all day?

This was a question posed to me by a student a few weeks ago and it rather pulled me up short? What do I do all day and, more importantly, does it make any difference? I often joke that I spend lots of time drinking coffee.

At present, my job is divided into three distinct parts. They are (1) leading Ashford School, (2) influencing United Learning as a senior Head and (3) leading the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) – the association of the Heads of the leading 350 independent school in the UK and worldwide as an unpaid volunteer.

It’s not easy to say how much time I spend on each as it varies from week to week according to the time of the year. My role at HMC is ramping up as I take over as Chair in September 2016 for a year. It’s likely to be all consuming for that year.

My job as Head of Ashford School now mostly focusses on the long term rather than the day to day. You may be surprised to hear that I do not make many decisions about the school as I trust those charged with overseeing the sections of the school, namely, Richard Yeates in the Prep School, Tom Wilding in the Senior School and Neil Cufley as our Operations Director – that is, the support services. Together with other senior colleagues, most planning and decision making is done by them. We agree the direction we want to go taking into account all sorts of factors and we agree the outcome we are trying to achieve. Thereafter, it is over to others to make it happen successfully. For example, we agreed to implement the iPad project to give a device to all pupils. Once that decision was made I play no further part except for watching how the project is proceeding.

So, what do I do? Well, I believe in sticking to things I’m good at and I am told by others that I am good clear thinking (analysis, synthesis, summary), at inspiring and encouraging others, persuading, influencing, listening, coaching and developing. Hence, the majority of my time is spent working with colleagues to enable them to do an even better job. Much of this work is unseen by parents and pupils but I am told it is worthwhile and I guess ultimately the experience of the pupils at the school is testament to that. If other adults in the school are being successful in promoting the achievements of the pupils and developing them as people, then my job is done, at least in part.

I enjoy the opportunities to speak directly with pupils whether in assembly or when wandering about: today I was talking about the referendum. These interactions remind me of why I became a teacher and why I enjoy being a Headteacher. Some make think that being the Head is difficult. It’s not! It’s the easiest and most rewarding job I have had because it allows me to influence the lives of lots of young people and because young people, and particularly teenagers, are great fun. In common with many teachers, I find relating to teenagers much more straightforward than relating to adults. Recently, I had the pleasure of teaching a physics lesson to each of the Y7 classes. I have taught physics, design technology and maths to A level in the past but, as a Head, I have found it impossible to give my full attention so now I “guest teach” when I can. It reminds me at first hand just how complex are teaching and learning. I also spend quite a bit of time just wandering in and out of lessons and activities. Where I can, I try to record the interesting things I see on my Twitter feed (@Ashfordhead). Sometimes, a colleague will ask me to come to something particular (e.g. a dissection) and I am always delighted to do so. As I am wandering around I take note of things such as how people (staff and pupils) talk to each other, what they saying and doing, the state of rooms and corridors, displays, workbooks, artwork, DT projects, the sports that are happening. This is vital for me as the positive, relaxed culture of the school is something I protect fiercely. My colleagues never tell me the whole truth and neither will parents (pupils will!) so I have to seek out primary evidence. As well as spotting good things that are going on, I’m testing the feel and atmosphere of the school. Through conversations and direct observations, I’m testing the climate and culture of the school.

I guess the other thing I do at the school is sell it to prospective parents and potential employees. I never envisaged I would be a salesman but I rather enjoy it. Showing off an exciting product (the pupils and staff in the school) is in itself exciting. It takes some time to suss out what it is each person is looking for. It’s a bit like dating; getting to know each other sufficiently well over an extended period so that you are comfortable about making a commitment to each other. I am making a commitment on behalf of the school to care for and develop their child or them as an employee. They are making a commitment to me to support and promote the values of the school. If we hold true to our commitments the future is invariably successful.

As the Head of the school I am also the chief executive of a medium size business. The school has an income from fees and other sources of about £16M. Ultimately, it’s my responsibility to ensure that money is well spent to the benefit of current and future pupils. So, we plan each year how and where to spend it, and monitor how that is going. Most, around 60%, is spent on the salaries of the 350 or more employees (of whom there are about 100 teachers). Some is spent on bills such as buying text books, computers, electricity, gas, painting and decorating etc. In other words, the same things as you spend money on at home but on a larger scale. Some is spent on paying the interest on loans held on our behalf by United Learning, just like a mortgage you might have at home. Some is used to buy services such as legal advice or people to check we are doing the right things with regard to Health & Safety, for example. Finally, some is saved and put aside for future projects that cost more than we have immediately available in our bank account. For example, the new playing fields at Great Chart or the Sports Centre on East Hill; both cost £Ms.

I’m lucky that I am also allowed to do some work outside school with the other schools in United Learning. Actually, it’s an expectation that the Heads of the schools in United Learning will support each other and help to lead United Learning. This is of benefit to me because it allows me to hone my skills and learn about different ways of doing things. Ultimately it’s of benefit to Ashford School also because it means we have influence when decisions that affect us are taking place. It’s of benefit to United Learning and the other schools because they gain from our expertise and experience. I guess if you wanted me to summarise my role with United Learning it is as a consultant Head and leadership coach.

My work at HMC is only just beginning but revolves around several things. The first is providing support to other Heads in the association by visiting their schools and listening to their issues, the second is arranging conferences for them and the third is being an influence on government and other decision makers to the benefit of all students in the UK irrespective of what type of school they attend. So, I have organised a three-day conference in Stratford-upon-Avon in partnership with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in October on the theme of Leading Creative Schools. It promises to be an exciting three days with speakers such as the RSC artistic director, Greg Doran and workshops covering topics such as “Why girls learn differently”. Tracking down great speakers takes a huge amount of time. I’m starting the planning for another conference in the spring of 2017 probably on The Meaning of 21st Century Work. The third element, is the one I had no experience of at all before being elected as Chair of HMC and it’s the one I am enjoying the most. I’m beginning to spend lots of time meeting and talking with journalists, ministers, advisers and other decision makers. Influencing people is what drives me. If I can do it for the benefit of children and young people across the country, then this is an even greater buzz. I would like all children to have the same opportunities those of you at Ashford School enjoy because I see the power of a great education.

Can I point to the benefit of any of my work? I find this really difficult as I don’t want to appear boastful. I am extremely proud of what the pupils at Ashford School achieve and extremely proud of the adults who care for and nurture them. I like to think I have some part in their achievements. I’m occasionally told that my contribution to United Learning is valued and my presence keeps the profile of Ashford School high. It’s too early to judge whether my contribution at HMC has benefited others or the school. I hope it will.