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“I Was Completely out of My Depth for the First Five Years of My Headship”

September 9, 2019, 15:14 GMT+1
Read in 9 minutes
  • Former head turned Leadership Matters CEO, author and speaker Andy Buck on his mission to supercharge the development of tomorrow's school leaders...

Your new book is entitled HONK! – When Teams Come Together, Organisations Fly; who is it aimed at?
My 2018 book, Leadership Matters, sought to take everything I learnt during 20 years of leadership in schools, combine that with what I subsequently learnt from going freelance and present it to schools, together with the best thinking I could find. The Honk book expands this to look at other sectors, pulling in wider examples from beyond the profession.

Have your attitudes to leadership changed since first embarking on your post-headship career?
I was essentially an accidental head who started out pre-NPQH. Having been a deputy at a secondary school with 1,500 pupils in Dagenham when the head took early retirement, I suddenly found myself running it, which was an extraordinary shock to the system.

Looking back now, I was completely out of my depth for at least the first five years of that headship. I did get the school to Good, but it was tough, as I’d not really had any proper training. Upon starting my second headship in 2002, I enrolled on the ‘Leadership Programme for Serving Headteachers’ as it was then. By that point Tony Blair had set up the National College for School Leadership, which I found hugely enlightening. I came to realise that many aspects of school leadership had come quite naturally to me, that I was doing them instinctively, but that I’d previously never had any frame of reference within which to think about what I was doing.

When I went freelance five years ago, I resolved to try and codify my thoughts on what great leadership is. That way, all the learning I’d already done myself, and all the research I was doing into the great leadership models out there, could slot into it.

Do you consider the role of headteacher as one that’s more difficult now, than it was then?
I’m actually very optimistic. With the incoming changes taking place under the new Ofsted framework, what we’re learning about leadership and schools owning that knowledge, I still think that headship is one of the best jobs there is. People are more sensitive to the importance of leadership skills and technical knowledge, and this is a country where there’s generally a good degree of autonomy for leaders within the education system.

However, I also believe that the power of league tables and the imbalance within our current accountability framework have been unhelpful. There are three big factors that motivate school leaders – a belief in what we’re doing; opportunities to get good at things; and the autonomy and flexibility to make a role our own. It’s become much harder in some ways for heads to be the owners of their strategic directions. Doing what you believe to be the right thing by your children requires more courage now than it did previously, because of those external accountabilities.

In what ways would you like to see that accountability system change?
One of the things I welcome about the new Ofsted framework is that it’s trying to rebalance things to focus more on the experiences schools give to children – the curriculum you offer, how it’s structured and how it’s implemented – than on what your final exam results are. It’s a real opportunity for heads to work out what they believe, care about and want to do, and develop a rationale for how they plan to do it and talk about it. I’m excited to see how it pans out.

There is a caveat, however, in that league tables still exist, as do those key measures between the end of KS1 and the end of KS2, which can drive some perverse behaviours and make heads feel more defensive than they should.

What are your broader thoughts on what’s been achieved so far by the academisation project?
I think it’s done some amazing things, but for me, there’s great irony to the academies system in that it was originally all about giving schools more autonomy. That became true for those single schools that became academy converters, but standalone academies are few and far between these days.

Most have come together to form trusts, giving rise to this notion that the thing to do is centralise your curriculum planning not just within a school, but within a group of schools. That has some advantages – you can get the best people planning your Y3 curriculum, the economies of scale and quality in what you do can be great – but the problem is that heads become leaders of franchises operating within the system, rather than owning and driving forward what they’re doing in their own schools.

That means that the people running academy trusts at the moment are those people who already knew how to do that and progressed through the ranks accordingly. Where’s the next lot of MAT leads going to come from?

How conducive would you say the MAT system has been for encouraging collaboration and the exchange of good practice?
I see lots of MATs, small, medium and large, that are leveraging their ability to collaborate fantastically. The most effective recognise the distinction between culture (the way we do things round here) and climate (how it feels to work here).

It’s a combination of the two together that gets you that engagement you’re looking for as a leader. Collaboration can be great, but ineffective if there’s nothing driving it and holding the outcome to account. The best trusts know that there are levers they can operate if they need to, while recognising where the great practice is and the people best placed to lead on it. They then set those people free to do just that, working collaboratively across schools to move things forward in a particular area. Ideally, a system should give people plenty of autonomy while holding them accountable for what they do with that autonomy.

The trouble is that as MATs get larger, the connections between the people doing that driving forward and the frontline become harder to maintain. In that situation, moving to smaller clusters is the recommended course, which is what the best academy trusts are currently doing to ensure those local collaborations continue.

What’s your take on the gradual incorporation of certain businesscentric practices into how schools operate – targets, performance related pay and so forth? Have they been helpful?
Having now worked in a number of different sectors, I’ve seen that businesses can learn as much from education as education can learn from business. I’ve actually been shocked at how poor the leadership is in many facets of the business world, but ultimately the very best businesses will do what the very best schools do.

Take performance management, for example. It was introduced into schools because ‘that’s what business did,’ but the available evidence has since indicated that the way most businesses do performance management simply isn’t that effective. Bonus pay has a 2% influence on people’s motivation to work hard, whereas who your line manager is has a 25% influence on how motivated you feel at work. What the best schools have always done is recognise that great performance management is really about performance development – as have the best businesses.

The thinking used to be that traditional, top-down, carrot and stick extrinsic motivation was what business was all about, but that’s very simplistic. The best businesses encourage intrinsic motivation. As CS Lewis said, “Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” You do things because you want to, not because you have to. A strong culture and a strong climate will motivate staff to want to keep getting better every day. Some businesses are great at that and others aren’t.

Career timeline

Attains first headship at The Warren School, Barking and Dagenham

Appointed executive headteacher at The Eastbrook

Becomes a National Leader of Education

Edits the London Challenge publication, Reflections on the Journey from Good to Great

Founds the online school leadership hub, Leadership Matters

Becomes a Founding Fellow of the Chartered College of

For more information, visit or follow @Andy__Buck.

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