From Head to Headhunter

Jenny Dwyer is the newest face in Saxton Bampfylde’s Schools team, having joined the company as Partner and Consultant in September 2018.

Jenny shares her experience as a Head and the ways in which she is using the skills she developed through her career in education to support her new role.


You have recently joined the schools practice at Saxton Bampfylde following 12 years as head of Sherborne girls, what would you identify as the key elements that attracted you to your new position with Saxton Bampfylde?

Interestingly, when I decided to stop being a Head I didn’t have any particular second career in mind. My decision to step down really was based on the fact that I’d been a Head for 19 years. I’d absolutely loved it, but I felt that I was running out of steam and energy. It’s quite restrictive being on call 24-hours a day, seven days a week and so I decided that after 12 years at Sherborne Girls it was a good time for me to hand over a successful school. We were awarded the Tatler ‘Independent School of the Year’ award in 2017 – I had already decided to go before that point, but it was a high note to leave on.

I’d started to think about next steps when I got a call from Jo Ogilvy at Saxton Bampfylde. I knew the firm well as they appointed me as Head of Sherborne Girls, so I was very aware of their reputation, values and integrity, as well as the fact that it is an employee-owned business. Obviously I was keen to stay in education, I have a lot of experience to offer in the sector, and I felt I had a good perspective on how headship has developed over the last 20 years. I’d been a Governor and had experience of appointing Heads at a number of prep schools. I’d also recently become a founding Trustee of a multi-academy trust and had helped in appointing their CEO of that as well as the first Head of one of the senior schools.

I felt that I had all of the right experience to come in and add value to a firm that is so well-established and highly recommended in the education sector, and here I am!

Can you outline what your hopes are for your new role?

Obviously I hope that I’ll be able to really support Governors in their search for leadership talent, but I also feel there is a whole area of supporting Heads, not just as they start in their role but in the transition. Quite often in the world of Heads, you’re recruited up to a year ahead of time.

I get the sense that at the moment Governors are quite nervous about appointing new Heads – it feels like the stakes are higher than ever before. I think partly this is down to social media as people can very quickly make a view of an appointment. As soon as somebody is named, people are on Google working out who knows them and where they have come from. Governors often say that recruiting for a new Head is the most important part of what they do, and consequently, they often want the support to get it right. Also, most Governors only do it once – if they do it right! It’s not something people do frequently, so having that support would be invaluable.

Another aspect of Saxton Bampfylde that I’m keen to get involved in is the leadership services support. I think this is so important both with supporting new Heads and also those taking on subsequent headships. Interestingly, second headships can be quite complex. We tend to be very focused on new Heads because we realise they don’t have any experience of the role, but when individuals take on second headships the expectations are often much higher.

 

“Governors are quite nervous about appointing new heads – it feels like the stakes are higher than ever before.”

You have a wealth of experience serving on governing bodies for independent prep and senior schools. Does there need to be  more creative thinking around the candidate pool for governors, trustees or senior leadership as the reality of greater challenges and expectations for the role increases?

Governors have much greater statutory responsibility now for what’s going on in schools. There are certain areas in which they have to be absolutely in command of all the detail and I’m not criticising that – I think that making sure Governors do have that level of knowledge is really important. I think the danger is that, unless it’s very well organised, Governors can spend meeting times making sure that they are compliant rather than concentrating on the more creative, strategic thinking for the future. Asking Governors to be so thorough across these areas, albeit very important things such as health and safety, means that the commitment is quite significant nowadays. And the expectation on Governors to be in school, know what’s going on and understand all the ins and outs of school life, means that it is a much more demanding role than it used to be. All this, of course, goes alongside all the support they need to give to the Head in all these areas. It is really very different to how it was 20 years ago.

I think that Governors do need to be more strategic in terms of the balance of skills on their governing bodies and how they conduct their business. They have to ensure that they have the time to support the school and the Head while holding back enough time for long-term and creative thought.

I do believe that if we are going to recruit people who are real experts to oversee what’s going on in schools, then the issue of remuneration may need to be looked at. Historically, people have been ‘tapped on the shoulder’ for governing roles, but I think more recently Chairs have been considering the existing skills set on their board and looking to fill the skill gaps.

What do you consider to be the key challenges and opportunities for heads over the next two to five years within the independent schools sector?

Independent schools are facing a difficult time politically. The most immediate challenges to me seem to be financial: massive increases in pension contributions, the threat of VAT on fees, the threat of business rates. Most independent schools aren’t running on massive surpluses so these all pose very real issues. Obviously, the key expenditure for any school is on staffing, therefore the pension issue is quite a crucial one.

Managing the expectations of the parents while keeping the finances in a healthy state is always a challenge. Heads are starting to look more creatively at research around things like optimising class sizes. In the past, it was always felt that having smaller classes was the best way forward, but actually, recent research has suggested this may not always be the case and that the quality of teaching has a bigger bearing on outcomes. There are areas like this where heads can start looking at resources and making sure that their schools are running effectively, but always focusing on pupils and pupil outcomes.

Another key issue for schools is ensuring the mental health and wellbeing, and managing stress for young people. Schools are having to invest increasingly in developing this side of pastoral care as well as supporting the staff dealing with these issues. It can be quite a challenge to be involved in and to know how to handle the different types of scenarios that might occur.

I think that the whole picture of well-being has to be focused on balance. You have to make sure your students are achieving their potential without turning them into quivering wrecks due to massive levels of stress. It’s a fine line to tread, not only with supporting students but also with supporting their families if things do ever go awry.

Another challenge is digitalisation, in a whole variety of ways. GDPR has been its own challenge for many schools, but the whole area of how and when pupils use technology in schools is also quite a big issue.

I think the big opportunity for schools could come in the form of partnerships between state and independent schools. While they could be viewed as a way of diluting your brand or using resources in the wrong areas, I think that if used creatively the ways that schools are collaborating brings real benefit for all the partners. I’ve seen evidence of this across a variety of geographical areas in which I’ve worked and I think people are much more open to considering this way of working than they maybe have been in the past.

 

“The ways that schools are collaborating brings real benefit for all the partners.”

Is succession planning something that the sector is taking seriously enough? Could more be done to ensure that senior teaching staff are supported through professional development to step into the role of a head for the first time?

This is a really interesting one because there is sometimes a feeling that if you have very talented staff, and you give them lots of training and development, then you are essentially paying for them to move on and work elsewhere, which is really not the case. There’s a real balance to be found there!

At Sherborne Girls, we joined the Institute of Leadership and Management, and we implemented a programme with different levels of training for different levels of experience. It was designed to give staff a different perspective on what they were doing and how they were doing it, as well as how to work through from middle management to senior management.

As for new first-time Heads, there is a great deal of pressure to step into the role and immediately make a difference, where sometimes a better approach would be to listen and to get under the skin of the school first. In the past, Governors may have felt slightly more able to take a bit of a risk on who they appointed, knowing that there would be time for them to prove themselves and grow in the role.

First-time headships tend to be in smaller schools, however, the issue here is that in a smaller school you will generally, as Head, have a greater number of responsibilities. If you were in a bigger school, you might have a dedicated marketing department, admissions department, development department, whereas in a smaller school the Head often takes ownership of all those jobs.

I think governing bodies are still willing in some cases to take a risk, but I’m seeing that they are often more cautious. They want candidates to have had strategic and financial experience, rather than somebody who would need to learn on the job.

What can boards do to ensure that the talent leading our schools is adequately supported and retained?

I think one of the issues that can come up with headship is time. When you start out, you see your role as needing to be strategic and lead that school forward for the next five to ten years and really being clear and communicating that. But sometimes it can be very easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day and I think that Governors need to appreciate that. They need to make sure to give their Heads space and support to develop their schools.

On this level, I think that giving Heads some sort of mentorship or coaching is really helpful. One of the things I’ve seen work particularly well is developing a proper appraisal system where Heads are given an appreciation of what they are doing as well as advice on moving things forward in a critical friend way.

Often in headships, you are working in cycles and Governors will typically ask you to commit when you take a job to between five and ten years – although this obviously isn’t legally binding. In the first year you are still learning how that particular school functions so you can’t do a lot. In the second year, you can start making a tangible difference, and I believe there is research that shows that your sixth year of headship is actually your most successful year!

I had a fantastic governing body at Sherborne Girls who allowed me to take a sabbatical after seven years. That was great because it gave me the opportunity to go and visit schools all over the world and I came back with a really refreshed outlook. I think Governors need to be creative about looking at the needs of their Heads and how they can support them professionally, personally and help them to grow in the role.

“The more successful state schools are, the better it is for everyone.”

Do you think there is a convincing argument for leadership candidates coming from outside the independent schools sector? If so, what challenges and benefits do you think this may bring?

As a former Head, I think I have a slightly biased view on this. I have seen people come in from outside the sector into Principal roles or leadership roles and I have to say I think it can be quite a challenge to gain the credibility with the teaching bodies within their school if they haven’t ever taught.

I think there’s an acceptance that there are really strong professionals who can come into outward facing roles within independent schools, but actually understanding what is going on in terms of teaching and learning within the classroom is genuinely quite difficult.

As the role of Heads continues to change to become more strategic and more executive it could be that the whole idea of headship changes and you could end up with an education leader and a non-education leader, which could bring in more people with experience outside the sector.

The topic of diversity in leadership is something that is increasingly top of the agenda across all sectors. Do you feel that enough is being done by independent schools to support people from a range of backgrounds to take up leadership roles?

My particular concern is women. I’m still really concerned about the lack of really talented female leaders coming through, and it’s not because there isn’t a lot of talented women. It still seems to me to be quite an issue persuading female members of staff that they are good enough to get a headship.

I think there’s also often a question of logistics, which remains more prevalent perhaps for women than men, particularly where taking on a headship might involve moving with children or a partner. It feels like there might still be some sort of inbuilt issues over women moving their whole family to a different area. The other issue I see commonly amongst first time Heads is a fear of it not working. Many people say that they can’t afford for it not to work, so they just won’t try.

I think more could be done to look at unconscious bias in the way that governing bodies operate and the language they use. We talk a lot about the ‘headmaster’, which carries very different connotation to a ‘headmistress’. It feels like there is still a bit of a battle to be won around the gendered expectations of the role of a Head. Having said all that, there are some amazing women coming through, but there are many more who need to be persuaded that they have the ability to take on a headship.

Looking at the diversity issue on a wider scale beyond gender, I think that on the whole it needs to be challenged much lower down in the independent schools sector. The teaching staff in the independent sector is generally not as diverse as it could be and therefore the pool of people from which you are selecting your senior leadership lacks that diversity too.

I think some of the stereotypical images that people hold of independent schools are just not correct. Most of our schools are diverse in terms of our pupils’ backgrounds and countries of origin for example. We could very well be missing out on some fantastic talent by not working to amend that.

As an Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI) team inspector, what do you feel has been the impact of the new inspection framework introduced in 2017?

I think this has been really good and well received so far. Focusing on outcomes for students rather than paperwork is fantastic, and as a process, I think it works really well. I love the fact that it is peer reviewed and that it encourages both inspectors and teaching staff to be engaging and forward-thinking. It lends itself to self-evaluation, which is such an important skill. I would quite happily say that it is the best inspection process I have known in my time either as an inspector or as a Head.

With an ever-increasing number of state schools looking for greater autonomy by becoming academies, do you feel that this poses a threat to the independent school sector?

The first thing I would say here is that everybody I know in education, in any sector, wants to improve education for all students. So from my point of view, the more successful state schools are, the better it is for everyone. I think that is a fairly united view, certainly across the people I know. In terms of the threat to the independent schools sector, I think the majority of independent schools view their USP as being what they can offer in addition to their academic progress. Whether that’s in the form of long hours giving greater opportunity to introduce more co-curricular activity, the sense of community or boarding, which has its own unique focus.

I think independent school Heads are mindful that if you can get a very good academic education for free, that is obviously going to impact them, but most Heads are thinking much more diversely about what they can offer to students who are paying for that service.

Finally, is there anything else you would like to share with us?

The final thing I would really like to say is to highlight just how fantastic a headship job really is, and what a great privilege it is to look after other people’s children, as well as being a real responsibility.

As a Head, it’s lovely celebrating students’ successes but it’s also lovely being in a position to help when things perhaps don’t go quite so well and watching how your students develop all the way through the school. It’s also so rewarding watching those colleagues you work with go on to promotions. I think in my time, there are eight or nine people who have been my deputies or who I’ve worked with who have gone on to take on headships of their own.

It’s a great sector, and I don’t think we celebrate its strengths enough. We don’t get excited enough about the fact that schools all over the world want to copy what we do.


Get in touch with Jenny

This article was published in the Spring 2019 Schools edition of CANVAS.

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