Most headteachers have felt the need at some time to pause, reflect and stand back from the job. But how many actually make the personal commitment to forgo their salary by a third and take a term away. In an interview Andrew Warren tells us about his decision to do just that.
“Parents furious as headteacher of troubled school takes three months off - to go skiing” So ran the ‘Daily Mail’ headline. The article gave the impression of a school in difficulties with a headteacher who rather than ‘sorting it out’ was disappearing on some kind of skiing holiday. The comments that followed fell into two groups. Those complaining about how easy teachers have it and the unfair crack down on term-time holidays and those supportive comments that expressed the right of anyone to take unpaid leave and particularly those in a stressful profession.
So what would greet me at Mill Hill Primary School? I had tried to make contact with Andrew Warren when he was still on sabbatical. Rather a ridiculous mistake to make given this was the crucial reason for my phone call. I had been a little nervous about calling. After all this headteacher had just received major media attention and was the focus of a quite vitriolic newspaper report. Would there be an embargo on any kind of contact from the media? Would there be a filter system at the other end announcing that the head was permanently in a meeting?
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Even though my call was completely mistimed, it was greeted with warmth, the situation explained and a promise given that the message would be passed to Andrew on his return. It didn’t sound like a school in difficulties to me. However, I hardly expected to hear any more. After all, on his return he would have issues like salvaging his career to attend to surely?
So it was with great surprise that I received a phone call from Andrew’s secretary to say that he was back and perhaps I would like to come and meet him. What efficiency! And so it was arranged. I was courteously faxed instructions for reaching Mill Hill (I still got lost – but that’s to do with my sense of direction!) So what did this failing school look like? My first impression was created by the children playing outside looking smart in their uniforms and enjoying the outside play equipment. Everyone looked quite happy to me. The entrance was attractive, I was welcomed as though people did care that I arrived and was very smartly ushered into the most neat and tidy head’s office that I have ever been in. In fact, there was nothing that could fail to impress, even the way that Andrew discussed with a child his regret at not being able to see them at that time.
All these positive first impressions were endorsed by the man himself. He answered my questions and demonstrated in every answer a love of education, a positive belief in the importance of being a headteacher and an absolute devotion to his school. Once more I felt strongly how the papers must have misrepresented this story and how pleased I was that Andrew was giving his time and providing me with his version.
Andrew Warren – the true story
Why a sabbatical?
I’ve been at Mill Hill Primary School for 6 years. The longest I’ve stayed anywhere. It was my fourth headship and presented as a real challenge when I first arrived. It’s a difficult catchment area with two housing estates with quite significant deprivation, a large number of special needs and lots of necessary outreach. As a life coach to several headteachers I was becoming aware of just how tired many of my headteacher colleagues looked. It's so easy to get disheartened and many needed a break. I also recognised that I needed a break - time to reflect . I have two teenage boys and am happily married. My family were very supportive when we spotted the opportunity to embark on 10 weeks of intensive training to be a ski instructor.
How did your governors react?
It was quite a nail biting time for me. I approached the governors and explained my reasons for wanting to take a term away from school, without pay of course, to train as a ski instructor. I’ve always worked very closely with the governors and they are very supportive of me. I had had a good appraisal meeting and knew that my reasons for asking were sound I was still nervous as I wanted them to view my request as a very positive move for myself and senior staff. Basically, they knew that it was either this or the possibility that I would go for good. I needed something and from their point of view, once I’d convinced them that the school would be well looked-after in my absence, this seemed the better of the two options.
Who did look after the school?
I have worked really hard to develop a very good SLT and we work closely together. I have two super deputies who I wouldn't swop for anyone else! During the nine months leading up to the sabbatical we planned in great detail, particularly with Debby Heavey, who was going to be in charge.. I discussed all kinds of scenarios with her and also involved her in decision-making and handling various situations before I went. I knew they would manage and although there were times when I would have liked to have been there for them, they managed well without me. My only fear was that they would paint my office pink in my absence!
How did you feel on your return?
Invigorated and keen to get back. Training to be a ski instructor is actually very demanding. These hadn’t been easy days – they still involved challenge though of a very different nature. I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience but was ready to return to school and apply myself to the task at home. I’d missed my family – both home and school. I did just as I advise those returning from maternity leave to do – take a day, prepare yourself for work, make the journey, enter the building and see how it feels. I did that and it was fine. My first assembly back was wonderful. I enjoy assemblies anyway but this one was particularly special, although also a little nerve racking. You forget how you get used to standing in front of lots of people and I hadn’t done that for a while. What was really touching was when one of our nursery children ran up to me, grabbed my leg and called out ‘He’s back!”
Had you expected the media attention?
I do have an idea what the source of this might have been. You can’t be a headteacher without someone being unhappy with you at some time. This person had obviously decided to make the most of this opportunity and contacted the papers. I followed the story and people’s comments whilst I was away. We counted the positive and the negative with a tally every day. What surprised me most was that the papers had obviously not bothered to do their homework. In 2006, Ofsted gave us a glowing report, rating us as "Good with outstanding features." Of course, this was never mentioned. After all, why allow the truth to get in the way of a good story?! What did hurt was when they mentioned my family. I wasn’t bothered about myself but I didn’t want them to be involved. Throughout however, I had their support as well as that of the parents, governors, children and staff.
What did you learn from the experience?
The course itself was challenging we were videoed, criticised and received lots of feedback. I’m used to doing observations and giving feedback myself but suddenly found myself in the situation of receiving it – with nothing held back. Some of the others on the course found this particularly difficult. We had discussions in the chalet about it. Overall it was a very humbling experience. I still had to write lesson plans and got involved in teaching some young skiers – I found my skills came in very handy and I was offered a job. However, I wasn’t tempted. I knew what I wanted to do and that was return to school and bring a new energy to my demanding role.
What did your colleagues have to say?
They were very encouraging. I do have some close headteacher colleagues who I meet with regularly. We provide a supportive network for one another. But I also found that nearly everyone was in agreement with what I was doing. In fact at a heads meeting I went to they clapped when I came in to the room.
Should going on sabbatical be an entitlement for headteachers?
It’s difficult because this is something I chose to do that was right for me. It wouldn’t be right for everybody and it’s up to the individual to make and pursue this as an option for themselves. I know there are a lot of very tired heads out there who need something but whether they should receive it by entitlement is another thing again. I am happy to talk to any headteacher who is considering taking a sabbatical.
On my way out I was greeted by laughter as some members of staff sat outside Andrew’s office. This was an immaculate school that gave me the impression that it was not only Andrew who had benefited from a term of skiing – but they had too. We allow our children to have it, isn’t it time we gave some to ourselves. Time out.
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