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An Afternoon as a ‘Dragon’

Tim Coulson, Chief Executive of Unity Schools Partnership shares his experience as a ‘dragon’ in an afternoon spent interviewing Difference Leaders in a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style session

A winter Wednesday afternoon during lockdown and another meeting by zoom … suddenly sprung into life.

I have been preoccupied with our most vulnerable learners over the past few months. So when I was invited to meet a group of highly promising teachers midway into their leadership careers specialising in just these learners, I said yes.  I was one of a group of rather long in the tooth “Dragons”, tasked with putting these emerging leaders through their paces in a mock interview process as they seek Assistant Headships at the end of their two-year programme.

To my surprise, that day became the most memorable of my year so far.

Lockdown has been dominated by terrible news, and amidst the negative messages of lost learning and mental health concerns, it is easy to fall into gloom.  But despite that national context and the dull weather, I began to feel inspired by the highly motivated leaders before me.

“This was no idealistic group with rose-tinted glasses. This was a group of down to earth and experienced leaders determined to make a significant difference”

This was no idealistic group with rose-tinted glasses. This was a group of down to earth and experienced leaders determined to make a significant difference to the way schools approach their vulnerable children’s attendance, engagement and – ultimately – exclusion. As the grilling went on, I was struck that the teachers before me really understood the reality of secondary school life and the challenges to school staff that can lead to a path towards school exclusion. But with the determination and commitment to quit their mainstream jobs and spend two years in PRU leadership on the Difference Leaders programme, those like my interviewee Terry were developing skills to change a school’s approach to children who have challenges and cause challenges in school.

In my own schools, I have noticed a perception change with the most vulnerable learners.  Although nobody would ever say it, most teachers breathe a sigh of relief when the children we find most challenging take a day off school. But during the lockdown months, these very pupils were the ones there every day, prioritised.

New relationships formed.  Attendance forged mutual respect – teachers were putting themselves in school buildings with the most vulnerable pupils, day after day, as the whole world warned of the risks. Those who came to school, not as the children of key workers, were suddenly much more visible as those who were vulnerable. With a heightened awareness of vulnerability and growing compassion, teachers everywhere are renewing their commitment to the children that need it most.

“I felt my spirits lifting. My thoughts turned to Spring, on the lifting of lockdown”

What comes next is how to support these children in the months and years ahead.  As Terry shared his kaleidoscopic vision of a whole-school approach to inclusion, encompassing trauma-informed approaches, contextual safeguarding and staff development for de-escalation, I felt my spirits lifting.  My thoughts turned to Spring, on the lifting of lockdown and on the growth the pandemic has pushed us towards, in understanding even more about our pupils and how to support them in times of vulnerability and crisis.

As I listened to the varied teachers in front of me, taking bold career decisions to gain that professional growth, I felt hopeful. The systemic problems that have dogged our system for so long suddenly appeared less intractable. I felt young again and believed that change is possible.

The education system – and our most vulnerable children – feels safer with such great people coming through.

Piece by Tim Coulson, Chief Executive of Unity Schools Partnership. Tim tweets from @TimCoulsonUSP.

The Difference will be spotlighting and sharing more learning from our network of school leaders and teachers over the coming weeks. Sign up to 4 Bullet Friday mailing list to keep in touch.

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