I am noting a significant anniversary this month. It is twelve years almost to the day since I started working with headteachers in Wales. In January 2004, I became the Director of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT Cymru). It was with some trepidation that I walked into the decrepit old building on Mount Stuart Square in Cardiff that was then the headquarters of NAHT on that first day. It feels like a lifetime ago. Certainly the education landscape was very different then. We were only five years into devolution, the Assembly still had very few powers and our time was largely taken up trying to argue our way through the intricacies of the ‘Barnett consequential’ which determined how much funding would come to schools, writing endless press releases about the fabled ‘funding fog’ and finding our way through the implications of secondary legislation. One thing that hasn’t changed though is how it feels to work with headteachers. I completed a piece of work on that first day (and yes, it was about funding) and forwarded it for comment to the Welsh executive (leading members of the NAHT in Wales). I waited, nervously, for a response. That response was: ‘Oh, well done. An excellent start! Do keep it up.’ I was pleased – and felt at the same time as if I were back at school. In most jobs, making a reasonable stab at something is an expectation not worthy of particular note. Not so with headteachers; they praise you – and then, when you next encounter them they follow it up with: ‘Maybe next time you could make this point’ or ‘why don’t you go to speak to so-and-so, they’re just brilliant at this’ or ‘local authority x has got a good model for this’.
I was reminded of this early lesson in ‘could do better’ today as I spent the day listening to headteachers plan the next step in their own school improvement, and the improvement of the system generally. On that first day, the people I was encouraged to talk to were the informal contacts of the NAHT Welsh executive members, people they had happened upon in conferences or worked with at some point in their career. It was informal, based on goodwill and determined networking. Without those contacts, it was hard to know where to seek advice, where the good practice was, who could (and would) help you do better. Those informal networks still exist but today’s conversation was much more about using the formal, funded, models that are now in place to make the sharing possible. Increasingly, these are also backed by research and robust data. So many more places, so many more people and much, much stronger links. I think this is an enormously valuable development – and means that any individual effort can be improved by consulting an ever wider range of experts and expertise. I bet today’s headteachers will tell me just where to go when I complete my next piece of work too.