Talking Heads Blog #20: Liz Robinson

Leadership Biography

Name: Liz Robinson

Phase: Primary

Sector: State

Region: London

Years Served in Education: 17

Years Served as a Headteacher: 12

Leadership Journey:

I became a teacher as I wanted to bring about positive change in society. I realised early on that being a head was an amazing way to influence a community, and progressed very quickly to that position. I taught for 2 years at Paddington Green School in Westminster, and then became part of the DfE ‘Fasttrack Teaching’ programme. I then moved to Charles Dickens Primary in Southwark, progressing to become assistant and then deputy head in the following 3 years. I became the head of Surrey Square Junior School in January 2006 after 5 years and a term as a teacher, at the age of 29. I have led 4 Ofsted inspections there, 2 as the Junior school and then 2 since I led the amalgamation of the Infant/Junior schools. I have taken 2 maternity leaves and am proud to have developed a co-headship with my long term colleague Nicola Noble. This provides strong leadership capacity for the school as well as allowing both of us to have some family time, and also work extensively outside of the school as system leaders.

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

Nick Zienau has been a coach and mentor for over 10 years. Many others have helped me; David Bell has been a mentor since his time as permanent secretary, Steve Munby has been an amazing guide as is Christine Megson.

Twitter Handle: @lizzierobinson03

Leadership Reflections

Why did you become a Headteacher?

I think that schools, especially primary schools, are the most potent ‘levers’ we have in society to bring about positive chance. It is an amazing opportunity to influence a whole community, and to bring about profoundly important change. Leading a school is an extraordinary experience; it is a lie to say it is the best job in the world (maybe a wine taster in Bahamas beats it…) but it is deeply rewarding, exciting, challenging and dynamic work.

Why did your role/ school appeal to you?

I have always worked in areas of high social challenge – it is what motivates me beyond all else – the opportunity to make a difference to children and families who really need it. When I joined the school, it was stuck in a time warp; low expectations, excuses, negative and unloved. The scale of the challenge definitely motivated me. I had come from a really amazing, highly creative and positive school serving a largely disadvantaged community and so knew what was possible. It still shocks me to see the massive differences in what is offered to children in different schools. There is so much inequality and resulting loss of human potential. That’s what keeps me at it.

How do you create a culture of wellbeing?

In my experience, of all the negative aspects of teaching that impact wellbeing, it is monitoring and accountability that really gets to people the most. We exist in a system with highly public and (at times) punitive accountability frameworks, where Ofsted and data drive the agenda for schools. Heads have become so used to this approach to ‘top down’ holding to account, that it has become totally normalised for them. And this is where the problem occurs. Despite resenting and reeling under the pressure of this approach, heads all too often go on to recreate it within their own institutions.

The traditional view of ‘monitoring’, or ‘quality assurance’ to give it a less pugnacious name, is that it is an activity carried out by a few people at the top of the school. A range of ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ approaches are used to gather evidence in order to make judgements about the quality of individual’s practice. Thus, those few senior staff set themselves out as the ultimate arbiters and custodians of excellence in the school. If we want to think about how we can re-engage and motivate teachers, we need to challenge this way of working.

There is a challenge as leaders to find a balance between accountability and trust – one of the many finely tuned judgements we have to craft. On the one hand, we are public servants who have a duty and responsibility to ensure quality and value for money in our schools; on the other, we are lead learners, modelling our belief in adults as learners and committing to provide professional development opportunities.

We have been trying to find that balance. Through thinking about what really motivates people, we have re-designed our approach, abandoning top down ‘monitoring’ and creating a bottom up self-evaluating ‘quality assurance’ model. Instead of a small group of leaders at the ‘top’ of the organisation making judgements about the work of everyone else, we have found a way for teachers to take responsibility for their own practice, explicitly linking their own learning to their understanding of where their practice needs development.

We began by making sure that we were all absolutely clear about what excellence looks like – across subjects – and in relation to all aspects of learning. This process has been critical in having a system that the team really believe in. Following from that, we created a simple self-assessment format that includes the agreed criteria. Teachers are then asked to colour code themselves in relation to each aspect: purple for exemplary practice that can be shared with others; green for fully met; yellow for partially met; and red for not yet met. The teachers then bring this self-assessment to a quality assurance meeting, along with their books, planning, assessments and anything else they wish to offer. The meeting then gives an opportunity for the teachers to show other colleagues evidence to support their own judgement. The meeting always includes looking at work from vulnerable groups.

Through working this way since September, we have seen a marked change in both the efficacy and effect of quality assurance. We find that teachers are now highly attuned to their own practice, and make very accurate assessments of their own strengths (which is a skill in itself), as well as the things they need to work on. Feedback from teachers, as well as leaders, has been overwhelmingly positive, highlighting:

  • Impact on practice – the process supports teachers to take responsibility and pride in their own professional learning. They feel more respected and less scrutinised.
  • Empowerment and morale – the QA process feels totally different for teachers – they are in the driving seat and are able to articulate their practice, rather than being ‘told’ by others
  • Efficiency for leaders – both the quality assurance and the feedback is done at the same time, written up during the meeting. It saves time and reduces workload.
  • Accuracy and depth of information about teaching – we have never has such finely tuned ‘live’ information about the practice across the school. This enables us to radically tailor support and development for individuals and groups of teachers.
  • The professional learning that happens through the process – in unpicking the self-assessment judgements, leaders are making explicit the questions they ask and the thinking they do, aspects which are usually ‘hidden’ when monitoring goes on behind closed doors.

It is a simple but profound shift; to empower and enable teachers to tell leaders about their practice, rather than vice versa. Given the push to support pupils to take greater responsibility for their learning and assessment, it seems only right that we push for ways for this to be a reality for the teachers too.

In this way, we have created a more ‘horizontal’ approach to accountability, with colleagues having open conversations about aspects of their practice, rather than being subject to judgements made by others. The increased professional respect and engagement which results goes a long way to support teacher retention, and is something I urge others to consider.

How would you like to affect change in the system?

I hope that we will continue to push for a more intelligent approach to accountability – there are so many unintended, negative consequences. I am a huge fan of peer review as a model; it is so empowering for colleagues to open the conversation to one another, and take responsibility for helping one another get better. The relationships, sharing and impact that can be made is wonderful – it is such an example of ‘unleashing greatness’ rather than being ‘top down’.

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

Values have been an absolutely critical driver for my leadership approach – the one bit I remember of our latest Ofsted report is that:

‘the core values are the life-blood of the school’.

That means more than anything else –and it is also true! Someone recently asked me if the Surrey Square values (responsibility, respect, enjoyment, community, excellence, compassion and perseverance) are the same as my personal values – I have lived those ones so deeply for the last 12 years that I am not sure I can tell the difference any more. I don’t think you can lead an organisation unless you communicate what really matters to you –so I do really live those values in my life as much as I can.

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

One thing I have learnt is that you do not need to be an expert in everything. As a head, you do end up having a bit of knowledge about an awful lot of things – and you can get sucked into feeling you should have answers to every situation. Realising that it was much smarter to engage fully trained professionals to take on certain work has been so liberating. Our core value character design work, for example, has achieved outcomes which we would never have been able to do without the help of an amazingly creative, trained graphic designer. It is a whole profession – so why would you try and do it yourself!

Leadership Advice

One of the most important and difficult lessons for me was around worrying about what other people think. I am a very sensitive person, and in the early days, those thoughts could be overwhelming. Learning how to stay tuned in to the views and perceptions of others, whilst being able to see that as ‘information’ and not worrying excessively about it, has enabled me to enjoy the job far more, and also be much more effective.

Leadership Inspiration

I am a total magpie with ideas and pick up things all over the place. I’ve just read The Advantage by Lencioni – great practical approaches to creating smarter thinking, processes and systems.

Leadership Mantra

There are loads. It was always:

‘it is not how old you are, but how good you are’,

perhaps obviously as a very young head.

My current favourite is one I made up:

sometimes if you keep on bending over backwards for people, all that happens if you get a bad back.



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