Free article: A day in the life… of a special school headteacher

Published: Monday, 22 September 2014

In this regular feature, we look at what a usual day holds for a professional who works with students with special educational needs. Here Mary Isherwood, headteacher of Camberwell Park School, takes us through her day.

I’m definitely a lark, not an owl, and having checked my diary the evening before and set out an outfit to wear accordingly, waking at 5am with thoughts of what lies in store for the day is not unusual. I enjoy that short time of peace and quiet, listening to the birds singing and watching the sun rise before the hustle and bustle of the day begins.

I aim to get into school for 7am, giving me that time to ensure I am appropriately prepared for the day. I like to make sure the school is welcoming to all as they arrive, and this includes putting on some music to greet staff – maybe Michael Bublé, Il Divo or Adele. The early start also gives me a chance to check my emails and catch up with staff as they begin to arrive, many of whom are also in school well before the official staff start time of 8.30am. The staff team are an essential ingredient of what makes the school successful, so having an ‘open door’ to staff is important to me and before school starts is a good time for such conversations to happen. A regular and essential conversation is with my deputy, with whom I work very closely.

The only other predictable thing about my day is that it is unpredictable! But then that is part of the appeal – wondering what each day has in store. My days are very variable and, as in all jobs, parts of my role I look forward to more than others. One of the key things is spending time with the children, my reason for going into the job in the first place. Whilst my role means I am not able to have a regular teaching commitment any more, having time with the children in different ways each day is crucial, whether it be giving stickers for good work, chatting in the corridor, delivering assembly, sitting and eating lunch or spontaneous time in classes.

Contact with parents and carers is another regular and significant part of my role. Parents and carers asking to visit the school before making choices about placement is something I take very seriously. For many families it is the first contact with a special school and as such it can be a very challenging time for them. It is important I give them the time to ask questions and that I respond in an honest but empathetic way, which demonstrates that whilst we are a special school we are absolutely all about aspiration, progress and achievement – a school like any other school but with lots of added extras, I will often say!

Meetings! Lots of them! Whilst I am not into meetings for meetings’ sake, they are of course an important and necessary part of the role. Each day begins with a full staff briefing, five minutes to start the day as a whole team, making sure everyone is briefed on the day’s diary. Other meetings are more varied and less frequent, for example, weekly senior leadership team meetings and weekly teachers’ meetings. Networking and support meetings with colleagues outside of school also feature, including those with district headteacher colleagues and Manchester Special School headteacher colleagues. Governing body meetings, both full governors and committees, form a regular part of the headteacher’s landscape, including more frequent meetings with the chair of governors to update on school events and plan ahead.

I have been a headteacher now for 13 years, my current role being my second headship, and I have seen how the role has changed and developed since I first took up my post all those years ago. Schools have increased responsibilities and increased autonomy in many areas but hand in glove with that has come increased accountability. As a headteacher I am very aware of the enormous responsibility I have to ensure that I provide the highest standards of service to all of the school’s stakeholders. What is for sure is that the children are at the heart of everything I do and every decision I make. As a headteacher I do have much more freedom and choices about many things but the needs of the children must be the primary factor.

I do not make decisions or lead and manage the school in isolation; far from it. I have already made reference to my deputy and my leadership team. I have a knowledgeable and skilled team across the school who ably lead and manage alongside me, and a hard-working and committed staff team who equally contribute to the success of the school each day and beyond the school day, for example in holiday play schemes and residential visits.

Increasingly, as system leader, my role includes working beyond my own school. This includes working as a local leader of education in schools which need support and working with schools within and beyond Manchester, both to challenge and to support what goes on in my own school and others: being part of a self-improving school system, looking to colleagues for collaboration, sharing good practice and supporting our own school self-evaluation. I also represent special schools in local authority developments, such as (most recently) a multi-agency strategic group working on the development of education, health and care plans.

So a typical day for me could include any or all of these things! My day usually ends up pretty much as it started – catching up with staff, catching up on emails. Whilst I try and leave school at a reasonable time, my work doesn’t end there. An advantage or maybe disadvantage of electronic tablets is that catching up on emails, writing up reports and reading documents can continue into evenings too. A more surprising new development for my role has been the positive networking I have gained through Twitter, and most evenings I will be in contact with various people in relation to education. It has been a great source of knowledge and support.

Now – checking the diary again – the most important decision … what shall I wear tomorrow?

About the author

Mary Isherwood M Ed, NPQH, is headteacher of Camberwell Park School. Mary has always worked in the field of special education. She had her first headship at a small school/assessment centre in south Manchester before taking up her current post in 2006. Mary also supports work in other schools in her role as a local leader of education. Twitter: @Mishwood1