Could you tell us a bit about your school?
Kielder First School (to become a Primary school in September 2019) is located in the most remote village in England, in Northumberland, on the border of Scotland. We currently have 17 pupils on roll, two permanent members of teaching staff, including me and 3 Teaching Assistants. The village of Kielder is very small and has less than 200 inhabitants. The majority of parents work in tourism and for the forestry. Northumberland is an extremely large county. Visiting County Hall involves an hour and a half’s drive. The nearest school to us is 16 miles away.
How did you become the headteacher at your school?
I started teaching in my late twenties, and first taught in a challenging school in Gateshead, which was a challenging first job. Then I went part-time when I had children and worked at Wylam First School for 14 years. When they were teenagers, I decided that I was ready for the next step in my career and I decided that I wanted to become a headteacher.
I was initially seconded to Kielder for a year, having just completed my NPQH, as the school was unable to recruit a headteacher. I fell in love with it and am still here 7 years later!
How would you describe the ethos of your school? How do you maintain it?
We are fully inclusive, constantly changing in order to meet the varying needs of our children and their families. Due to our size, we work across age-groups and we encourage children to learn from each-other. Our staff work extremely well as a team. We have many challenges but continue to overcome them.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
It is never boring. I love the craziness and the relationships we build with each other, as a staff, with the children and with the parents and carers.
There’s huge variety in my role and I wear many hats. I am both a full-time teacher and headteacher, but I also muck in when other jobs need doing. This morning I was gritting the path and defrosting the minibus and now I’m catching up on my headteacher admin.
What’s the biggest challenge you face personally in the role? How do you tackle this?
The main challenge is balancing the different elements of my role. I tackle this by prioritising tasks and working well with partnership schools. My staff and governors are very supportive which makes a huge difference.
Another challenge is teaching pupils of different age groups. In English and Science, this is manageable, as the curriculum has common topics which can be adapted for varying age groups and key stages. However, with Maths it is much more difficult – we end up having to conduct one to one teaching. The benefit of having mixed-age classes is that younger children aspire to catch up with their older peers and can end up achieving at a higher level than their age group.
What changes have you seen in your school since you started in your role?
We are Outstanding and went from Satisfactory to Outstanding in less than 2 years. This involved a lot of change having to happen in a short period of time. Two underperforming members of staff left and were replaced. A very capable Teaching Assistant, who was being underused, now plays a vital part in teaching and learning.
I had a strong vision for what I wanted the school to be like and I wanted to open a nursery, so that we could support local families from the earliest ages. We now lease a mini-bus which is a vital mode of transport for pupils, enabling them to participate in sports events, visit the theatre, or travel to other local schools to collaborate with other children.
What strategies have you implemented to get around funding cuts?
I have thought creatively around employment of staff, reducing hours to a minimum (i.e. no caretaker on a Friday or during the holidays). Our pupils now visit a local school every Friday so we can share PE and music costs and staff. It is great for the children to be part of a different environment one day a week and to mix with other school pupils.
We have a new Chair of Governors who recently wanted to start a Breakfast Club, for which she raised funds through a local pub quiz. We also work with Fair Share, a charity which distributes food that supermarkets don’t sell. This has been great, as it helps us reduce the loss we make on providing a hot lunch.
What is your work-life balance like? How do you make sure you have time for yourself and what are your interests outside of school?
I feel happy with my work life balance – although checking emails is a constant. The biggest issues can be external factors that are unrelated to educating the children. Keeping the website up to date is very time consuming and jobs such as updating policies are ongoing.
In truth, the job of the headteacher is never done, but you have to decide what is good enough and to draw the line, so that you still have time for yourself. This is important in order to be able to continue with the job.
How are you helping staff to manage workload and stay motivated?
I have a very good relationship with the other staff. We have a coffee together every morning before school starts, and we talk about school issues and problems that we can help each other to resolve. But we also speak about ourselves, our families and how we’re feeling. When the children come in, work becomes very intense, so it’s lovely to have this time at the start of the day. Working so well together means we can support each other when we need to time to catch up on school work, such as observations, for instance.
What’s your relationship with technology like? Do you have any innovative technology that you use either in the classroom, or among the leadership team?
We have interactive whiteboards and the children have iPads. We have been quite forward thinking in our approach – for instance we began using Tapestry very early on. Staff use ipads to collect observations in early years.
What gives you the confidence to take tough decisions and the motivation to keep going?
Our school continues to do well so we must be doing something right. I keep going because I enjoy it. And if I come across something that I feel unable to do myself, I call upon our local network of six schools, where I have a very good relationship with the other headteachers. I’m also lucky to have such a wonderful team around me, all of whom are very supportive.