Name: Sara Forsyth
Phase: Key Stage 1 – 5
Sector: Independent Special School
Region: East Midlands
Years served in Education: 24
Years served as a Headteacher: 2
Head of English to Assistant Head (KS4) to Assistant Head (KS3 & 4) to Assistant Head (KS5) to Deputy Headteacher and finally to Headteacher.
Gail Pilling, a senior leader, who showed me that in order to be considered a leader you need to believe for yourself that you can lead. She showed me where the first rung on the ladder to headship was.
Twitter handle: @AHSsaraforsyth
Why did the school and the role appeal to me?
This is such an easy answer for me when I tell you about where I’ve been for the past 23 years…yes, you guessed it; I’ve been at the school that I am currently the Headteacher of. The school is one of the largest of its kind in the country and I think it’s an incredible place to work. We make a difference to the lives of young people with High Functioning Autism who aren’t able to fulfil their potential in a mainstream setting for whatever reason. The young people we teach are my inspiration; they have all overcome so many barriers in their education journey by the time that they get to us that, for them to give another school another chance is a testament to their will to meet their potential. Oh, and also, the school sits firmly in the heart of the Derby Peak District, surrounded by rolling hills, woodland and rivers…it’s as beautiful a setting in the depths of winter as it is right now, in the middle of summer – what’s not to love?
Why did I become a Headteacher?
At the risk of repeating those who go before me, it’s a simple answer to this question. I set out on a journey to make a difference – it’s as simple as that. The first phase of my journey took me initially through the classroom door at Alderwasley, stood in front of my class of 10 students for a couple of years. Making a difference at a real grassroots, immediate and localised level was exciting and I was a pretty good teacher but I soon realised that there were other staff around me who were making a wider difference, sharing their skills and expertise to a group of staff and that’s when it dawned on me that what I wanted to do was to lead a team. I have a clear vision for improving outcomes for our young people and I believe that I have always been able to share this and the pragmatic plan to achieve it effectively so it seemed becoming a Headteacher was a natural route for my career path.
How do you talent spot/nurture aspiring leaders?
We have an excellent track record in this area of development – to be fair I am bound to say this because I am an example of the success of the system aren’t I?! The Senior Leadership of our school recognises the huge value in growing our own leaders alongside the need to be outward looking too. We have established a series of Working Parties over the past two years, each of which is allocated a particular strand of the School Development Plan. Each Working Party is provided with an agreed success criteria but, aside from this, they are effectively self-managing – made up of volunteers, asked to report on progress at the end of each half term. Through this programme, we’ve been able to identify a new group of leadership-hungry staff who want to take on more responsibility and have a wider influence.
Our role as a leadership team is then to identify just how far these staff can go within our school development. I have the luxury of an exceptionally generous CPD budget and have been able to use this to good effect to further develop the skills and expertise of these staff. I also firmly believe in the power of leadership mentors for aspiring leaders – not mentors in a formal sense but, rather, aligning potential leaders with colleagues who have been on the same journey – who offer them a friendly ear to bend but who isn’t their direct line manager and can answer ‘those’ questions (we all know them, the ones you know you probably shouldn’t need to be asking).
How do you create a culture of wellbeing?
The wellbeing of our staff has a rightly high priority in our School Development Plan, and, indeed, it has its own Working Party dedicated solely to this area of our work. As in every area of education, work can be emotionally quite sapping at times and, as a Headteacher, I need to rely on our team members to turn up each day, ready to face the next challenges we are presented with regardless of what’s happened on the previous day. So I need to look after their wellbeing.
When our new Deputy Headteacher took up his post two years ago, one of the first things he said to me was, “Right, so, I need to talk to you about Thank Crunchie It’s Friday”. And that was where it all began. Every member of staff is asked to nominate a colleague who’s gone over and above for a Thank Crunchie It’s Friday Award. The nomination must contain a reason and then each nominated member of staff is informed on a Thursday of their nomination (anonymised of course). Each week one random nominee is chosen to receive the Crunchie and an accompanying certificate – it’s been an absolute wellbeing revelation and so easy to bring in!
Our Senior Leadership Team also offers “Staff Surgeries” once per half term. These are a true open-door session for any member of staff, from any discipline, to spend 10-15 minutes talking to a member of the Senior Leadership Team about anything…literally anything…yes, anything! It gives all staff an opportunity to spend time with someone who they may not generally work with on a daily or weekly basis.
In addition, on a smaller scale, the school pays for flu jabs for all interested staff and we offer free tea and coffee all year round; it’s such a simple but welcome gesture for all staff to know that, no matter what time of day it is, they can head to the Staff Room and take five minutes away from whatever’s going on outside, confident that there will definitely be supplies waiting there for them!
What is your leadership style?
I consider myself a leadership style magpie. Over the 24 years of my education career, I’ve seen tens of leaders ply their trade with a range of teams and I’ve watched them; and I’ve considered the impact they’ve all had as I watched them and made notes on what parts of their presentation I admire and which parts I would reject. I firmly believe that every experience you have in your career can be used as a learning experience and I still watch people…and I still learn. So, to answer the question, what is my leadership style, I generally place myself in the Democratic/Participate Leadership bracket. I thrive on the debates held in our Senior Leadership & Management Team meetings but am always very clear on who holds the final decision-making card once the idea-sharing phase is complete. However, as I imagine we would all say, it’s naïve to align ourselves with one style and, therein lies a core skill of our greatest leaders – the ability to recognise what’s required to achieve the desired outcome and seamlessly move through the leadership styles in order to ensure that the outcome is reached…oh, I almost forgot, a humorous leader will always thrive above those who take life too seriously. If I drive home and realise that I’ve not managed to find something to smile at then then something has gone very badly wrong!
What have you learnt this year?
That our carparks will never be large enough, no matter how many more parking spaces we create! No, seriously – I’ve learnt that if you explain why you need someone to do something, people will usually do more than you than ever expected them to.
Early on in my Deputy Headship I was advised to use a journal to document meetings, conversations, thoughts and plans. I admit to initially wondering why, in the digital age, and with a memory as sharp as mine was, this could possibly be useful advice. Well, 9 years, a diminishing memory and 14 journals later, I wouldn’t be without them! I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to be able to briefly recall a meeting from 2 years ago and thumb back through a journal only to find the exact conversation you had with the agreed actions there in black and white.
On the recommendation of my partner, I am about to embark on Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”. This book, I am led to believe, will be perfect for someone like me who wrangles at times with making fast and slow, heart and head decisions and occasionally needs to take a breath, refocus and revisit the whole situation once more before drawing a conclusion.
Professional is not just a label you give yourself – It’s a description you hope others will apply to you – David Maister