Talking Heads Blog #22: Rob Carpenter

Leadership Biography

Name: Rob Carpenter

Phase: Primary

Region: London

Years Served in Education: 21 years

Years Served as a Headteacher: 14 years

Leadership Journey:

I trained at Goldsmiths’ College between 1991 and 1995.  I took up my first teaching post in Wandsworth in 1995 and taught Y6.  I moved from Wandsworth to Southwark and then took up post as a deputy headteacher at Invicta Primary School in Greenwich.  In 2003, I became headteacher of Bannockburn Prmary School and have remained working with Greenwich schools ever since.

Leadership Coach/Mentor/Inspiration:

Too many to mention but Steve Munby’s authenticity and sincerity has had a huge impact on the way I feel about school leadership.

Twitter Handle: @carpenter_rob

Blog: robcarpenter.org.uk

Leadership Reflections

Why did you become a leader?

Stepping into a leadership role from being a class based teacher was the hardest transition and still presents huge challenges.  My instinct as a class teacher was to create a climate of trust, warmth and an openness to learning within a classroom environment.  I wanted children to feel safe, be able to take risks and enjoy being learners.  Influencing this from a leadership position can sometimes be a more difficult task outside the classroom than within.

I learnt quickly as a new headteacher that culture and climate are champions but this takes time to cultivate.  The challenge for me was how to balance changing behaviours and beliefs, whilst retaining trust and confidence. The answer lay, as always, in putting children first.

So, I became a leader in order to make the biggest possible difference for children and communities in whatever role I found myself in.  I have worked in too many places where children are not served well or where leadership was focused primarily on external accountability.  In such organisations, it becomes easy to lose sight of why we are here and what a privilege it is to serve children.  Get that right and there isn’t a better job in the world.  Great schools are more accountable to their children than anyone else and find pathways to navigate external pressures.

There is also a great deal of personal satisfaction in being a leader within an organisation where you are able to make a difference.  Working with teams; delivering training, participating in staff meetings or taking an assembly, is about the closest thing to still being a class teacher from a leadership perspective.  I would say to new leaders, find that special something you gain personal fulfillment from and make it part of your leadership narrative.  Don’t let the ‘other stuff’ define your leadership impact.

Why do you engage with grassroots and social media?

We live in an age where the networks we create and belong to have as much potential to define our leadership growth and development than any other form of learning.  I’m not just talking about social media networks but communities for learning – these exist in phase teams, SLT groups and, of course, through social media.  Models for learning, have over emphasised knowledge acquisition, even within leadership, which is  reliant on hierarchy.  Historically, if you wanted to know something, you asked the headteacher, or more likely, the Deputy Headteacher!  The message this sends to learners is that your potential for growth is restricted by your access to the leadership hierarchy.  Social media has flipped this theory.

By contrast, learning is a social activity and has the greatest potential to flourish when it is co-constructed with others’ participation, engagement and common ownership of problems.  Platforms like twitter provide opportunities to share ideas, develop new thinking and build connectivity.  The concept of leadership followers is at the centre of twitter’s success – literally.  Its very nature means it is not dependent on a structure, conformity or time scale to have impact.  It is instantaneous.  It also offers a safe way to ‘steal’ good ideas in the spirit of collaboration and sharing.

My only reservation… beware the education VIPs and Twitterati who have lost sight of core purpose!

How do you talent spot/nurture aspiring leaders?

I spend most of my time thinking about who the next generation of future leaders might be – starting with recruitment.  I am more concerned to appoint people who are open to learning, and therefore open for growth than those ‘closed to learning’ folk we have all worked with.  I have learnt from bitter experience, an open to learning novice has as much potential as any self proclaimed expert.

In our school partnership we deliver a range of leadership training and development programmes.  Perhaps  my greatest indulgence is that I get to spend time with aspirant leaders through the coordination of our Primary Leadership Programme.  To be honest, I learn more from them than they do from me which takes us back to the theme of networks.  Nurturing leadership is more about facilitating possibilities for others to work together than a linaear model of progression.  We can be experts and novices at the same time but when we learn together, we harness the collective capacity of the group.

One of our greatest challenges for system leadership is to create a system wide climate for partnership which values the power of collaboration.  This is why CPD and professional development is shifting (slowly) towards a Lesson Study model where evidence and research, gathered over time, drives improvement.  Our partnership leadership programmes are less about passing tests and more about deepening leadership learning through reflection.

How would you like to affect change in the system?

An easy one to answer!  I would abolish external models of accountability based on limited judgements or set of criteria which reduces school improvement to a check list and crude data sets.  Schools are communities and communities are complex.  The current OFSTED model is unfit for purpose and weighted too heavily against schools serving our poorest children.

This does not mean I am soft on standards or expectations – far from it. Standards are not high enough in many places and we have much to do in valuing the arts, music, sport and non congintive domain learning areas.  Paradoxically, the current OFSTED framework makes it easier for ‘good’ schools to coast – especially in the Shires where, truth be told, the children could teach themselves, and often do!

My solution would be to move towards a system wide peer review model for evaluation where schools work within clusters, not necessarily defined by geography, to evaluate one another.  Each school budget would contain a ring fenced amount of cash to facilitate training of heads/leaders to engage in annual peer review, supported by an external validation.  Grades would be dropped and the language of evaluation would be growth focused.  Each school would have a set of key recommendations linked to a holistic school improvement approach.  Funding the scheme would come from replacing OFSTED – which by the way costs millions and has had limited impact in changing lives of our most vulnerable children.

What is your vision for education?

My vision for education is one where learning is characterised more deeply by relationships, teamwork, collaboration and problem solving instead of fronted adverbials and grammatical terminology.  It is one where children are taught to be leaders of learning and leaders for the future; better able to make connections between learning and life difference.

I would review our current national curriculum so that it reflected more broadly global themes, including poverty, geo-political uncertainty and radicalisation so that pupils learnt how to avoid the mistakes that we adults continually make.  You can’t have a good education system in a bad world.  The two just don’t go together.

I would insist that education provision connected core learning areas to reasoning skills and cross curricular themes so that it made greater sense to young people.  My vision is for education to challenge perceptions through more practical experiential learning.  This would include social entrepreneurism projects that helped children make things and use their creativity.  This would also nurture a deeper sense of purpose and give greater meaning to learning.  We want our kids to leave primary school knowing they have made a difference and value the relationship between learning and community.  Fanciful ideology?  Watch this space!

What makes you get out of bed every morning?

What makes me get out of bed in the morning is the hope that one day, our education system will overcome and defeat the vast array of social injustice which currently prevails in our world today.

Leadership Advice

“Good artists borrow but great artists steal”.  

It’s been my motto for the past 23 years.  It defines who I am as a learner and leader.  There are a couple of rules though:

  • If you are going to steal an idea, always best to acknowledge where you stole from.
  • To be a stealer you’ve also got to be prepared to give away your best ones – nothing makes you create new ideas better than giving away your best!

Leadership Inspiration

Gordon Wells’ The Meaning Makers.

Mandatory reading through teacher training.  I’ve just finished the 2008 revised edition and it is still as relevant now as it was then.  It is shaping my thinking about the importance of language acquisition being a collaborative process and why we need to ensure classroom learning is an inclusive experience.  Language, expression and meaning are so closely interlinked and very much a social process.  Who would ever dream up the idea that our classrooms should be defined by selection tests, setting or streaming children?

Leadership Mantra

“How fascinating?!”

(Benjamin Zander – The Art of Possibility)

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