Talking Heads Blog #36: Helena Brothwell

Leadership Biography

Name: Helena Brothwell

Phase: Secondary

Sector: Public

Region: East Mids

Years Served in Education: 13 years

Years Served as a Headteacher: almost 2 years

Leadership Journey:

Deputy head for 5 years, then moved trusts for a role in their education directorate, then put into a takeover school as Principal.

Twitter Handle: @educurious2015

 Leadership Reflections

Why did your role/ school appeal to you?

I visited Queen Elizabeth’s Academy as part of the due diligence when it was re-brokered to our trust, and I fell in love with it then and there.  The heritage of the school was enticing, the staff and students were tough and resilient and had been through a lot, but they knew what they wanted and what had gone wrong, they just needed support to fix it.  When I was asked if I would be interested in working there some months later, I jumped at the chance.  I have never regretted that decision, I have loved every single day.

Why do you engage with grassroots and social media?

I am still developing my educational philosophy, social media has been an essential tool for me to learn from other people who are very experienced and who perhaps do things differently than the way I was trained.  This has been a revelation to me.  My first ResearchEd conference blew my mind and I remember thinking after my first session with David Weston, ‘That’s it, I can go home now, I’m full up!’ but the sessions following him were just as riveting and developed my thinking further.  I came back and spoke to my leadership team, and AT the latest conference 6 of us from all levels of leadership went along.

How do you create a culture of wellbeing?

This is such an important element of our vision at the moment.  There are things that we do which ensure that we constantly reinforce the message that staff are valued and are supported.  Staff are given the opportunity to attend their child’s sports day, Christmas play and any other important event throughout the year.  As a single mum I missed out on many of these in my early career and it is a small thing that we can do to support parents and families.  We looked hard at workload and how to reduce it.  The main 3 outcomes of that were that we re-wrote our marking policy and changed it to a feedback policy – with the emphasis on real-time feedback within the classroom almost eradicating the need to hand mark books.  Data drops were reduced to 3 per year and we removed the requirement to write lesson plans.  I envisage that this has knocked dozens of hours off the average working week.  We do this because we recognise that in a school in measures we need to work harder to attract good people so this was given a high priority immediately.  We are a great team of staff who support each other and uphold our Christian ethos, but it isn’t even just about doing what is right, it is also just good business – you cannot run a successful, demanding school with worn-out, weary staff.

How do you talent spot/nurture aspiring leaders?

Talent spotting in a school when it is on a development journey is essential.  We are proud of the philosophy that we hold which is that development must come from within first and foremost.  We would much rather develop a long-standing member of staff than recruit externally over the top of them, and I think that staff know that and appreciate it.  As such we have made dozens of internal promotions since we have been working with the school and staff have benefited from significant amounts of external training, as well as our own CPD internally.  This is helping to retain the great staff we have by providing them with opportunities, developing them and ensuring that they feel valued.

What are the values that your shape you as a leader?

My Mum was a headteacher and her philosophy was strong and I have benefited from that – she worked tirelessly to give people the best possible start on the ladder and believed that they could all make it to their chosen destination if there was enough support.  She removed barriers before they even appeared, she instinctively knew how to motivate people and she filled them with self-belief.  Those values have shaped me, we put a lot of investment into removing potential barriers early and making the atmosphere and culture right for everyone to prosper and I know that my instincts come from her.

What myths would you like to debunk about being a Headteacher?

I would like to debunk the myth that if we believe that a knowledge based curriculum is correct for our pupils, and we like discipline and routine, that we must be right-wing and want to punish children.  We have love at the very heart of everything we do and it is because of this that we want the best for our students – I believe that students have a much better experience now than ever before because there is good discipline in classrooms, because teachers are able to teach without expectation that they will be an entertainer, (the knowledge is entertainment enough), and students are learning wider knowledge that doesn’t appear on the exam specification, because it is important knowledge for them to learn.  Knowledge is valuable and it opens doors for people, I am proud that we are skilling them for whatever the future may hold for them with a fountain of knowledge and the confidence to apply it.  This does not reflect my political leanings and I find it insulting for people to assume that the two are linked – we should just trust people to do the right thing in their schools, politics doesn’t come into it.  (#leftytrad)

Leadership Advice

‘It’s just your job’. 

I don’t even remember who said this to me but I repeat it to staff regularly.

I think that there is a temptation to feel that this is a vocation rather than a job, and this can be damaging because it feels like you can never switch off.  I am fully dedicated and committed, but this is my job and when I’m at home I have an alternative identity which is just as valuable and important.  The lines can easily get blurred and staff can start to feel guilty about going out on a weeknight for example, because there is some other planning that could be doing, or some subject knowledge they could be sharpening up, it never feels like we have finished for the day. We must help staff to redraw the lines.

Leadership Inspiration

I am reading ‘The Learning Rainforest’ by Tom Sherrington – he is a great mind and this book covers many areas of education in a comprehensive way, always going back to the evidence base.  His views on assessment and curriculum are helping us in our next stage of development as a school and we have asked him to come and work with us next term on our curriculum design programme.  This book has given us the confidence to make some bold decisions around assessment because it has given clarity on what the evidence is telling us.  We haven’t got our response to life after levels right, so we are looking at it again and we plan to strip it right back.

Leadership Mantra

My mantra is:

‘If in doubt, be kind’. 

This might seem trite, but when given a difficult decision to make, or a difficult conversation to have, it has helped me to fall back on that concept, because there is no real guidebook to this role, but my moral compass is strong and I use that to guide my decision-making.  It is my view that staff and students may not see or notice the 1,000 kind things you do every day, but they will all see the one unkind thing magnified and that can be very damaging.  We all make mistakes but when you are given a choice as to whether to support someone with a problem, you have to balance it with the needs of the school but then I add the extra filter onto that and it helps me to decide the best way forward.


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