"It’s our moral duty to give our children the best possible primary education we can" - How CPD shaped a headteacher's vision for her school
At first glance, Amy Blackburn’s office looks like any other headteacher’s. It’s full of books, photos and the odd marker pen.
But there’s one thing that makes it stand out: a lanyard with a visitor badge from a renowned private school. The school - which costs £42,000 a year to attend - is just 250 miles away from Amy’s school in Stockton-upon-Tees, but it might as well be a million.
Amy, who is headteacher at Oxbridge Lane Primary School in Stockton, visited the school as part of a study trip with Ambition Institute back in 2015
She said: “Going on that visit was an experience that really shaped me as a head. To see the level of privilege, and to know that our children should’ve had the same experience; it made me feel physically sick
The life chances of the pupils there are shaped from day one
The lanyard sits on her desk, a reminder of the inequalities her pupils have to overcome.
“The children in our school have so many challenges to face before they even get to school,” Amy says passionately. “It’s our moral duty to give them the best possible primary education we can.
“That starts with expectations. Why would we not expect the same good things for the children we teach?
“It means we have to work harder, and that we have to have a united workforce who really understand the barriers and communities they are facing.”
Amy is proud to be a leader. But she pushes back against the narrative of ‘transformational leadership’, which focuses on how leaders influence people through their use of “inspiration, vision and the ability to motivate followers to transcend their self-interests for a collective purpose” (Warrick, 2011). She said: “I’m shy. I’m quiet. I would absolutely hate for anyone to read this and think that I believe I have all the answers; I certainly don’t.
The training I received from Ambition Institute helped me to see that charisma can take many forms – it enabled me to be confident in who I am as a person.
Amy’s shelves are stuffed with books; books about educational research and cognitive load theory, with a healthy dollop of fiction, and non-fiction too.
Her voice becomes animated when she talks about literature; she sees reading as the key to unlock the rest of the curriculum. What better way to access history, geography, maths and science, than with the ability to read?
She said: “I was really passionate about literacy and English very early in my career.
“I read every opportunity I get, I’m a huge reader. Part of our role as teachers is to think about what else that skill can provide; it can open up access to the whole curriculum. It’s a no-brainer, if we get our pupils reading, what else can they do?”
Self-improvement is a feature of our interview, as is modesty.
Amy downplays how difficult it must’ve been to attend the assessment centre for Future Leaders with a newborn baby in her arms, dipping out of the sessions to breastfeed.
When she found out she got on to the course, she was surprised, humbled and grateful.
She said: “I would say it was transformational, but it wasn’t – it didn’t change me, it allowed me to thrive as who I am. It was an incredible experience. I was able to take some time away from school, from family, just to think about my role as a leader, and what I needed to do to improve my school.”
The programme allowed Amy to apply for her deputy headship. After three years putting in the hard graft, she applied for her headship at Oxbridge Lane.
She’s been in post for two years and two terms, and is already making a huge impact. Amy's work at the school has helped to develop the appetite for learning in her team, and improved the developmental journey of the staff around her.
She said: “I feel very proud of what we’ve achieved together – and is a joint effort.
“When I arrived, it’s fair to say that staff here were a little bit broken from experiences they’d had; they found it challenging to trust.
“I needed to shift that. Of course, we will always have work to do, but for example, in the last professional development day I told my staff I was really proud of them for taking every last bit of development we offered and implementing it.
Professional development energises staff to keep going.
So what’s next for Amy?
In true modest style, her career aspirations are shaped by her desire to have the biggest impact for children in her community.
She is undertaking more professional development – a National Professional Qualification in Executive Leadership.
But right now, she doesn’t want to be a CEO.
She said: “My passion is in improving teaching and learning. I want to be a leader across all schools, thinking about how to improve them, but I don’t necessarily want to be top of the tree.”
Despite her promotions, Amy works hard to stay close to day-to-day teaching at Oxbridge Lane and she likes to keep updated with the latest research, to ensure her practice is backed by evidence.
She said: “I go into classrooms every day. I’ll pop into a class and join in, and take cover where it’s available. I don’t want to be one of those heads who have lost touch – I deliver CPD to my staff, and work really ahrd to keep on top of developments in research.
“I trust Ambition’s research because I can see it is working.”
She added: “Ambition taught me to believe in myself, not to take someone else’s values.”
Read our recent leadership blog from Tom Rees and Jen BarkerHere