Talking Heads Blog #7: Caroline Barlow

Leadership Biography

Name:   Caroline Barlow

Phase:   Secondary

Sector:   Local Authority

Region:  East Sussex

Years Served in Education: 25 years

Years Served as a Headteacher: 18 months

Leadership Journey:                       

University –  Graduated with a History Degree then PGCE in 1992

Teaching – History teacher, Second in History, Deputy Head of House

Middle Leadership –  Head of History (in 2 schools due to change of area), Head of Humanities.

Assistant Head (1) – 2001-2004 (11-16 Curriculum, T&L and Outcomes lead)

Assistant Head (2) – 2004-2007 (11-18 CPL inc outreach coaching, Data, Exams, Assessment, recording and reporting)

NPQH 2007

Deputy Headteacher – 2007-2015 (KS4 and 5 Outcomes lead, Inclusion, Behaviour and Ethos, pastoral system)

2009 – 2015 co-founded and co-led West Sussex Deputies Network

Secondment to SSAT – 2014-2015 Head of Innovation (Redesigning Schooling)

Headteacher   – 2015 – present                                                                  

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

All the Heads and Leaders I have ever worked for have taught me something positive, I have learnt a lot from watching and listening to how and why they did things that worked. I have also learnt a lot by understanding when things did not. There were valuable lessons about ethos, structure and practices that stay with me now. Equally important were those who took the time and care to help me learn about myself; helped me learn how to recognise and bring out the best of me and how to understand the aspects that I would have to manage more proactively.

Twitter Handle: @barlowcaroline

Blog: Limited blogging via Staffrm and for Headteachers Roundtable

Leadership Reflections

Why did you become a Headteacher?

It took me a long time to recognise in myself that which others had been saying for some time. That I could and should consider Headship. I was 15 years in Senior Teams before I felt well rounded and experienced enough to have the judgement and decisional capital to consider it. I am glad I didn’t apply earlier as I believe if I wasn’t ready in myself then I wouldn’t have been ready for the school I needed to lead and it wouldn’t have worked for my family. By the time I did, I had a clear sense of who I was, what I believed in educationally, what I believed Headship was and what my role in the system could be. I then felt I could make a difference as head that I could not in any other role; accepting that the values and culture that I felt so passionately about could be best implemented if I was to lead.

Why do you think it is important for Headteachers to still teach?

I am a Headteacher, the clue is in the title! I love teaching, I love my subject and I love spending time talking about it with young people. For me this is the luxury part of the job, being responsible for all the other stuff and leading it strategically so it makes a difference and takes us closer to our goals is important but still getting to spend the time doing the bit I love most is fantastic. I also think it is important to stay in touch with as much of the daily experience as possible, it is too easy to become disconnected from the life of both staff and students as all the “other stuff” can be very demanding of time and attention. Having a semblance of credibility in the classroom is important for me; it’s also one of the best parts of my week.

How do you create a culture of wellbeing?

We do not have this perfect but I am determined to keep working at it. For me it’s about the big things and the little things.

The little things are important like being positive and present in and around school. Taking my fair share of cover, duties and difficult tasks. Thank-you’s private and public, making time for small but more personal conversations, birthday cards, cakes, seeing the personal side of requests for time for those going through difficulties no one else knows about.

The big things are big and they require a systemic approach to everything we do.

  1. Clarity and Consistency in all our systems and structures- keep it simple and keep it focused on the main thing.
  2. Professional trust for my experienced and skilled colleagues, agree the broad principles that we are all going to work to and then allow the autonomy to design how it works for them and their context. Monitor by dialogue and impact not paperwork and clipboards.
  3. Time. Review what we do and whether it has an impact, if not let’s not do it. Review the calendar and try to avoid busy times that can be avoided, less data collections more time in departments discussing intervention, contact time as low as we can afford with time for co-planning and sharing.

However – I do think we all share a responsibility to review our own practices and avoid old habits and learned behaviours that are time consuming with little impact. We all have 1 or 2 things we do that are time and energy draining, that we have consciously or unconsciously told ourselves we “have” to do – we usually don’t and we can’t blame others for that!

How do you talent spot/nurture aspiring leaders?

This is a critical part of what we do as a team. We have a series of methods designed to highlight those who are progressing well, motivated, interested and capable of leading. Staff all review their own strengths and areas to develop with line managers and this informs us of people’s aspirations, allowing us and them to plan for progression. We have developed pathways for all staff that allow them to continue to learn and develop at all stages of their career, they are flexible and allow staff to hold long term or short term responsibilities to develop skills and experience. Regular slots on our SLT meetings focus on how people are both in terms of skill development but also motivationally. It enables us to suggest opportunity or address issues before they become problems.

Across our wider partnerships, we have valuable programmes that benefit all levels of aspiring leader. Within the College we have also created ‘Innovation Teams’ where any staff can apply to help work as part of a team leading on an aspect of the College Improvement Plan, a small allocation of time helps them devise an action plan and be guided to deliver their strategic contribution to the College development. It is intended to be empowering, providing the experience and evident of impact that allows staff to move onto the next stage if they want to, acquiring breadth of experience which I feel is where real leadership understanding and expertise comes from.

What are the values that your shape you as a leader?

I believe I have 2 fundamental non-negotiable beliefs:

  • Everyone should be able to achieve to the very best of their ability and be able to open the doors to their chosen next stage
  • Everyone should be equipped with the confidence, skills and understanding (of themselves and others) so that they are able to thrive and be happy when they walk through those doors.

I think too often schools and individuals compromise one of these goals for the other. However, I believe strongly that everyone should be supported and challenged to be the very best they can. I also believe that it is possible to be a happy and decent person whilst also being successful. These things are not delivered to us at birth and sometimes require some hard work and hard honesty to develop. That’s what drives me, to ensure that the students and staff in my care are able to have the support and opportunities to go on and be whatever they want to be.

What myths would you like to debunk about being a Headteacher?

That you can’t be a nice person or have a life whilst being a Head.

It would be foolish to think that there will not be periods of time where that is more strained than we would like and there are times when it feels impossible but those moments do pass and with the right support, planning and self-awareness it is possible. I have some “would like to thinks” that I try to allow to guide my choices:

  • I would like to think that my family know they are the most important thing to me
  • I would like to think that even when delivering hard decisions or making difficult choices, I can still be honest, decent and polite in how it is managed.
  • I would like to think I am guided by the question “what is the fair and decent thing to do in this circumstance?”
  • I would like to think that no matter how difficult it gets I can usually, despite moments of darkness, return to an outlook that is optimistic and retain a healthy sense of humour.

 Leadership Advice

2 critical pieces of advice have stayed with me:

    1. Is Vic Goddard’s message that “you make the weather.” It is important to me to remember the disproportionate impact we have as Heads, no matter what is going on, we are responsible for the climate and culture of the school. Therefore, keeping it as positive as possible (whilst still realistic!) is vital for me.
    2. A long time ago a wonderful leader of a course I was on came up to me and quietly whispered in my ear. “You were born to lead, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise or put you off because of their own perceptions.” As someone who has always been susceptible to “what others thought” this was so powerful and enabled me often to reflect that the way other people behave often says far more about them than it does about me. It still took a long time for me to believe it for myself and I still always self-doubt as a default position but this has helped me along the way.

Leadership Inspiration

I have a large pile of books that are partially read and soon-to-be read.

I loved Stephen Tierney’s Liminal Leadership, I am dipping in and out of a number but the next “read” on the list is Lucy Crehan’s Clever Lands.

However, part of my commitment to myself is to try and read a non-educational book so, as a historian, I am currently enjoying the adventures of Courtiers by Lucy Worsley.

Leadership Mantra

Challenge and Collaboration

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