Talking Heads Blog #44: Julie Hiddleston

Leadership Biography

Name: Julie Hiddleston

Phase: Primary

Sector: State Maintained

Region: South East

Years Served in Education: 14 years

Years Served as a Headteacher: 2.5

Leadership Journey:

5 years in a village school with ‘multiple hats’ as you do in a small school. Since being an NQT I have either been given opportunities to lead or I have created my own opportunities to lead.  I was subject coordinator of several subjects for those 5 years which stood me in good stead for my first ‘proper’ leadership role 3 years as KS2 phase leader at a city school. Then 3.5 years as Deputy Headteacher in an outstanding primary (with some of that time as Acting Head) and now 2.5 years as Executive Headteacher in my first headship role.

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

My mentors have been every headteacher/leader I’ve ever worked under.  Some have taught me how to do it and equally and even more importantly, some have taught me how not to do it.  I’ve always made a deliberate mental note throughout my career of when I have felt most hacked off with my line manager and when I have received the most satisfaction and joy.  It’s those moments that have shaped me as a leader; so to say there is one particular person who has mentored/inspired me is not easy.  In the beginning and until recently my inspiration has largely been my own career ambition. I’ve always been competitive and highly driven.

As of late, my inspiration has changed and matured. I now find myself being piloted by a genuine determination to play my part in righting so many of the ‘wrongs society has imposed on our most disadvantaged children.  I find the level of social inequality and the seemingly inevitable projected life chances for these children to be morally and emotionally vexing and this has fast become my biggest motivator.  

Twitter Handle: @HeadMATHStress

Leadership Reflections

Why do you think our school system needs to change?

Our school system needs a complete and total overhaul. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that the intended principles behind the self-sustaining school improvement system are dynamic, forward thinking and the way forward rather than the now seemingly archaic model of one-off courses and presentations run by a local authority ‘specialist’ who hasn’t been in the classroom for 10 years! How it has been rolled out and developed is another story.  Coming from a Maths background and having completed extensive training and an MA on Maths Mastery and how to implement it in UK classrooms, I have come across some very successful models of school improvement in my research.  Most impressive to me is the limitless potential of the Japanese lesson study model.  This is not new. We have all heard of lesson studies and we have all ‘taken part in a lesson study’ at some point in our careers. It isn’t uncommon for heads to run lesson study cycles within the academic year with varying degrees of success and little commitment and theoretical understanding of why they are doing it.  But I ask the question, if the eastern schools are so good at attaining high academic success and this is their main currency of teacher development, then WHY do we not spend longer and more money in really understanding the infrastructure and considering how it could be and if it should be fully implemented as a way of life here?  It’s as bonkers as Henry Ford inventing the first car and then everyone saying, hmm thanks Henry but actually we really like our horse and cart so we’ll just keeping investing in hay bales!  

In 2010 David Hargreaves wrote a piece for the NCL on creating self-improving school systems whereby schools would be collaborative, work in little families/clusters and would be driven to improve because they are invested in each other’s success – enter academies. Educational Eutopia! Right? The principles on which Hargreaves wrote are not new now and they weren’t new in 2010! Our more successful eastern counterparts have been doing it and perfecting it for decades but theirs is on a national scale. Through the NCETM Maths Hub work there have been numerous teacher exchange programmes and every year the same interesting observation is illuminated: trying to participate in a conversation with the teachers from Shanghai about CPD is as difficult as ordering a Full English in Shanghai (having never been to Shanghai, I’m assuming it’s not easy!) Interestingly, even the notion/concept of CPD is foreign to them because improving your practice, being collectively reflective, planning and team teaching in groups of 20 or so teachers followed by intensive debriefs on the success of the lesson and testing academic and educational research theories are just part of the day job – improvement and seeking excellence is the minimum requirement and therefore the base standard across the country.  In my humble opinion, the protagonist of the successes of the East is down to very high quality planning and teaching which is expected of EVERY teacher in the country and this is then backed up by an educational system which is set up to grow and cultivate professional learning communities rather than individual and separated schools who are so wrapped up in believing that their way is best that they do not have the foresight or professional bravery/curiosity to venture beyond their walls to find a different way.  Their success is NOT because their children are ‘cleverer’ than ours! I do not believe that the majority of Headteachers/schools invest enough in pedagogical development of their staff.  Why aren’t our schools and staffrooms a hub of tangible professional buzz, action research and academic and theoretical stress testing? In my experience the equation for success is simple: improved outcomes = the highest possible quality 1st wave teaching = CPD + CPD + CPD + CPD  

Why do you think we need to develop a coaching culture in our schools?

Being self-reflective (gained through a culture of quality coaching) is the absolute key to school improvement. In my opinion there is nothing more important in a school than a headteacher creating a culture of ‘healthy vulnerability’ where teachers welcome observations, team teaching and lesson design scrutiny from leaders, colleagues and themselves.  The other day a reception teacher requested a full observation from the early years leader so that she knows she’s ‘doing it right’ – that is a strong sign of a self-motivated desire to improve practice.  Improving outcomes for children requires improving outcomes for our teachers.  You can’t have one without the other! It would be like demanding 100w from a 60w bulb and wondering why the hell it isn’t getting any brighter.

How have you navigated adversity?

Navigating Adversity is certainly appropriate when trying to manage the storm that is special measures!

Navigate verb: 1. Plan and direct the course of a ship…especially by using instruments or maps. 2. Sail or travel over terrain especially carefully or with difficulty.

Adversity noun: a difficult or unpleasant situation.

I think it would be accurate to liken the day job of being a headteacher in Today’s educational climate and particularly a ‘special measures’ one, as to trying to navigate a ship through a storm in the Bermuda triangle with over worked sailors who can’t remember why they fell in love with the ocean in first place, a hull with a such a big hole in it you don’t think you will ever get out of the red and back into the black again, and precious cargo that is already spoiled before it even gets loaded onto your ship because there is a parenting crisis and tablets have replaced any need for human interaction.

How have a I navigated adversity? I’d say surviving each day, putting out fires, making that important MASH phone call, encouraging that teacher, having that difficult conversation, firing that person, hiring that one, standing strong when all around you seems broken….that is just the tip of the iceberg in navigating a school through the desperate despondency that can lay claim if the vision and fight is not rigorous, robust and dam gritty.

How do you advocate equality and diversity in your school?

Being a gay immigrant myself, equality and diversity are core to my make-up and the fight for equality is at the heart of everything we do.  The very core purpose of a teacher’s job is to ensure equality of provision, outcome and life-chance regardless of the starting point. This is the ENTIRE philosophy in my schools. Irrespective of Reception baseline, every single child is targeted for GLD and GDS in the subsequent years.  We only teach and plan according to the child’s year group and scaffold up if needed.  Every child is taught and given the opportunity to attain GDS as apposed to teaching to EXS and then have a little targeted booster group for GDS (although we do have a booster group which supplements the whole class teaching, it doesn’t replace it).

It is a moral imperative that all headteachers understand the true damage and self-fulfilling prophecy that comes along with streaming and ability grouping.  Some of the worlds billionaires come from poor/deprived backgrounds or backgrounds where their life path was going one way …. downhill.  If you feel like being inspired check out (  Recent reports state that 40% of self-made millionaires are dyslexic – take a moment…40%!!! How often do our children with dyslexia or difficulties get put into the circles group or have a dumbed down version of the teaching they so desperately need? We have a high proportion of children with SEND and an even higher proportion are PP at my school, we have no choice but to be fully inclusive and actively advocate equality and diversity.  

Our success is built on a simple philosophy/mantra: ‘leave no-one behind’.  People ask me what we do for our disadvantaged children, my answer is simple, what is best for our disadvantaged is best for all.  Our ‘PP strategy’ is quite simply our whole-school strategy We aim to take the ‘dis’ out of dis-‘advantaged’.

What have been the highs and lows of your role as Headteacher?

Lows – too many to recount here but suffice to say that serving a 2year sentence in a truly special measures school has been the most challenging time of my life.  There were many times where I thought ‘wow – this is definitely rock bottom’ and then the next thing would happen and I’d soon discover I hadn’t truly understood rock bottom before. One of the many examples that springs to mind is when I first took over the school, a little Year 3 boy launched himself at the Deputy Head and quite literally pulled clumps of her hair out whilst calling her the C word. That was one of the many moments/red flags raised that made me ask myself the obvious question of ‘what the hell are you doing here Julie?’ Or the time I dialled 999 for the child who was so desperate to run away from me that he climbed up a tree and refused to come down, or when questioning a Year 5 as to why he punched another kid in the face he replied with ‘well he shouldn’t’ have called me a f**ing c**t then should he?’ He had a point!

My first headship brings new meaning to the phrase ‘baptism of fire’ and ‘in at the deep end’.  It didn’t take me long to realise that Ofsted had missed a trick, they should not have rated the school grade 4 – ‘inadequate’, we defied their rating system and created our own new category: grade 5 – ‘you are seriously scuppered mate’. I could regale you all day with stories about gross incompetence, staff absence figures that will make you think I ran a Doctors’ Surgery and teaching so poor that it made ‘golden time’ seem like challenging learning but there isn’t time for all of that now. Being part of the journey out of special measures is a story of extremes with almost no middle ground or what we like to call ‘vanilla days.  Either you are faced with a horrendously difficult decision or a seemingly insurmountable challenge, or you are totally elated and cannot believe how much you needed that tiny success of a child holding the door open for you.

My journey has been riddled with a multitude of lows and even lowers, but the highs, though fewer in number, are ridiculously high.  In 2016 I inherited the school in the April, 1 month later Year 6 took their SATs tests and we were also moderated for KS2 writing.  The DHT fought valiantly with the moderator and we proudly managed to scrape through a whopping combined score of 4% (1 child)- that’s right….4%!!!! Some of the worst results in the entire country. Sadly, that was a little high for us because we nearly didn’t even get that one child through for writing and so narrowly escaped a fantastic 0%.  The following year we carefully nurtured some green shoots and managed 33% combined and after some truly heroic teaching efforts from the AHT in Year 6, we ended 2018 above national with 69% combined.  

Each milestone was celebrated as a success. The most recent and probably the biggest high I will ever have in my career, was receiving external validation from Ofsted that what we are doing is exactly what needs to be done.  We were given an overall rating of ‘Outstanding’ with a grade 1 in every single area. This is the culmination of a lot of blood, sweat, tears and an incredibly hefty workload but, today, the highs outweigh all the lows. More importantly, it gives hope to all those Headteachers out there who are battling in the trenches in schools in areas with high social deprivation, it can be done.  They (Ofsted) will listen.  The framework is there to support school improvement, it is not about ticking a box for the inspector.  We drove forward relentlessly in order to improve outcomes, with that job done, the inspection was the final cherry on the cake.  As our inspector quite rightly said, what we have done is to make sure that the secondary school now needs to ensure and maintain pressure to ensure that 70% of our cohort get A-C GCSEs.  That’s what this is all about – life chances.   In a school like this with high deprivation factors and social challenges, you have to be superhuman just to stand still with these kids, just to get them to EXS is the achievement of a lifetime – show off what you do day in and day out for these kids. They will listen.

What is your leadership style?

I never really understood this question until this job. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that it’s not that I didn’t understand it, more that I was too immature and inexperienced to realise what a layered question it is.  I can honestly say that out of necessity I think I have had to be every type of leader that exists in the last 2 years.  I have been directive, uncompromising, nurturing, mentoring, inspirational and visionary as well as just getting stuck in a ‘doing’ because there was no-one else!

I think the true mark of a great leader is one who has an incredibly high level of emotional awareness, intelligence and intuition to know when to adapt to what style – it’s much harder than it sounds.  If I had stuck to my default style of leadership regardless of the circumstance, I would have failed the children and the staff in an epic way. We always ask teachers to be adaptive in their teaching style, respond organically to children’s needs as they arise in the lesson. Well Headship is exactly the same, leadership is dynamic and ever changing, sometimes the group needs booster sessions to catch up and sometimes they need further challenge and demand placed on them.  

Leadership Advice

If it’s broken, fix it.  

If it’s kind of broken, fix it.

If it’s working, put your foot down and pedal hard!

Leadership Inspiration

I, along with the SLT, have all recently read Closing the Vocabulary Gap by Alex Quigley as our SLT set book. Academic book study is part of our ‘professional learning community’ and we discuss pedagogical impact and links as part of our SLT meetings.  It has transformed the way we think about language, it’s importance and most importantly, how a language deficit can be the single most devastating protagonist in a child’s life. It has been the basis for our Oracy Plan for the year and we are in the early stages of establishing a culture of ‘every teacher is a teacher of etymology’.  When only 20% of your children enter reception with CL where it should be for their age, oracy and the effective use of highlevel vocabulary quickly becomes a big barrier.  

Leadership Mantra

We have been through many mantras in our time together as a team. Some of the top 3 are:

Cry on the inside like a winner for the dark days when you have to lift everyone else.
Leave no-one behind – everyone on the team from left to right and inside out needs to buy into it.
Focus on your end goal…even when your short-term ones  have gone to s**t!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s