The Balcony View of School Leadership… Get off the dance floor


 The Balcony View is not a new concept in leadership. It is well documented that the balcony allows leaders to observe and take a strategic overview of what is going on. 

The work of Heifetz. R and Linksy. M in their book Leadership on the Line encourage leaders to get on the balcony and adopt adaptive leadership.

The analogy of being on a dance floor, being part of the action makes it difficult for leaders to see who isn’t technically dancing or who is moving in the wrong direction. By getting on the balcony leaders afford them-self with time to reflect on the bigger picture. 

Leadership in schools is always active, it is busy and it is tiring. At times we don’t afford ourselves time to be fully reflective.

By sitting on the balcony, we have oversight of the situation, we can mobilize the right people in the right way to effect school improvement.

Taking time out away from the calls and the emails is what I felt our team needed. So I organised a leadership team day away. 

In my preparations for the day, it occurred to me what a privilege it is to have daily oversight of the school. To have the best view of all that is going on in school. 

Sometimes I’m too busy dancing and juggling in the midst of action to the appreciate it. I probably don’t withdraw enough. 

Reflecting on our day away, talking  through our current plans, reviewing what has taken place and thinking ahead to the future has reenergised the leadership team. It is good to stand with them on the balcony. 

It felt good to share the view.


366 days..the leap of leadership and jelly baby moments

On the first of March, I have been the principal of my new school for one year.

Moving from leadership in the voluntary grammar sector into the controlled sector has been a huge leap. I pride myself in the experience that I have acquired in leadership through a number of previous jobs but I don’t think anything could prepare you for the wealth of knowledge you need for the day-to-day running of a controlled primary school.

I am extremely passionate about leading teaching and learning. It is perhaps one of the luxuries my last job truly afforded me. I was a teaching Head of Preparatory. I loved my class. I love teaching but alas one year on I have not been a class teacher or really taught (apart from a random week I when I taught Year 5).

My leap from Teaching Head to Non-Teaching Head has been a roller coaster of a journey. I have developed (and I’m still developing!) my knowledge of all things financial. I have taken on a fundraiser role, where I constantly look for funding opportunities outside the Education Authority. I have become tighter and more thriftier with money. I probably could save the Department of Education millions if they understood how much extra these dudes on contracts really charge (£70 to remove a nail?). I have a wide range of systems – FMS and SIMs information stored in my mind. I can work the substitute teacher register with ease (yes..I’m lying about that, it is the worse time absorbing system ever!). I have become a human resource manager and developed admin skills that would rival a legal secretary. I have project managed a number of school enhancements and I now know what the word conduit is used by those who do not wish to think of clever idea to hide wires. I have read in churches, opened fairs and spoke at several community events. 

I could go on…But the biggest challenge for me this year was to keep my focus on relationships throughout the school.

As a leader, I like being on top of things but I have realised that I need to step back at times and slow down to focus on building good relationships within my school community. As frustrating as it can be, the other things sometimes have to wait. People are important.

On taking up the post I had to work hard to develop relationships with all stakeholders in the school community. I had to realise that in order to get my school on the right track, I had to start talking, start sharing and stop worrying about things that often are beyond my control.

In my school, I have made changes but 366 days on I have much to celebrate:

  • I have set out my values and vision for the school. All stakeholders are now aware of them and subscribe to them.
  • I have a talented, committed and hard-working teaching and non-teaching staff. The majority go above and beyond what is expected of them in order to help our pupils reach their potential.
  • I have a super secretary and caretaker who not only look after the school but they also look after me.
  • I have a Board of Governors who is supportive whilst being good critical friends. I feel trusted and enabled to do my job effectively.
  • I have parents who are starting to see that I am there to ensure that their child gets the best access to educational opportunities.
  • I have a growing school with young people who I really care about. I love how they bring me a slice of their birthday cake, how they see a trip to the office to share good work as a highlight and how my office is littered with drawings of me with bright yellow hair.
  • I have grown a network of colleagues who are the go to guys. Their experience and wisdom is worth its weight in gold.

Again this list could go on…but those relationships are really the greatest success I feel I have achieved this year.

For me leadership is a marathon type race. At certain points you hit your wall but looking at the positives and reflecting on the good things are like jelly baby moments that give you the energy to keep running through the pain the added extras.

The past 366 days have been a huge leap. I went through a range of emotions and ate lots of packets of jelly babies but I’m still running through the wall with plenty of people young and old to bounce ideas off.





The 2015 NI Education Review 

As I get ready for a New Year, I thought I’d reflect on 2015.

2015 in some ways will be remembered as the year of hard knocks. Tough decisions were taken by DE due to belt tightening at the Department of Finance.

At the beginning of April, the new Education Authority was born. The EA and it’s five regions – replaced the five regional boards… We were warned of first day issues… Throughout the remainder of this year we have all been learning what they are.

The Education Authority had to make cuts in its budget from £405m in 2014/15 to £396.6m in 2015/16.

As a result number of things were forced to go…

Languages were deemed of less importance. 86 teachers providing primary language support to primary schools were made redundant at the end of March. This went against the wave of investment in languages in other parts of the UK.

The loss of the signature project for Literacy and Numeracy was a huge blow. Over 200 teachers were made redundant and thousands of pupils were affected by the loss of additional support.

Non teaching board staff were further reduced and offers of unpaid leave for up to four weeks were given.

Buildings and maintenance budget were like a well known Disney film from April – Frozen!

As schools struggled to maintain the fabric of the educational estate – a few schools exposed to the media the Departmental neglect of it’s properties.

Thankfully, the November monitoring did begin to put money back into the budget for school repair and SEN.

A Twitter chat also saw the rumour of Phase 2 Literacy and Numeracy Signature Project after the the success of the GCSE results of those who had engaged with it.

The folks on the hill

Three main topics appeared to occupy the politicians apart from the budget.

Shared Education

Shared Education became a hot topic of conversation throughout 2015. Following on from the CRED policy much was to be gained for interested parties. However, in September much debate arose when the loop hole of end of Key Stage data appeared before the funds were issued to participating schools. Many schools took a few steps back and the shared education targets were struggling to be met by November 2015.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Bill was introduced into the Assembly in March 2015. Reading the minutes (yes, I do read them!) from the education committee this bill has been debated at length. 2016 should see legislation becoming law but creative solutions need to be made to our SEN provision to ensure we don’t continue to miss early intervention opportunities with our colleagues in Health.

Addressing Bullying in Schools Bill

The Addressing Bullying in Schools Bill was introduced into the Assembly at the end of November. The Committee Stage of the Bill is underway in December. Implementation without additional resources maybe the challenge of 2016.

Other topics of discussion  

They considered press coverage of the ‘Investigating Links in Achievement and Deprivation’ (ILiAD) research commissioned by the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and undertaken by Queen’s University, Belfast. Oddly, the report had not reached the Education Committee and therefore no movement was made on the findings.
Hopefully a new task force in 2016 on underachievement will focus our politicians on providing equity of opportunity.

ETI – by special invitation
Early September saw a peak C2k emails being exchanged through the network as school leaders wondered why some but not all had been invited to hear of the changes to inspection on 12 September.

The changes were highlighted by The Chief Inspector of schools who pointed out the benefits to inspection and to how inspection can be used to strengthen self-evaluation and  planning.

Some of those 600 school stakeholders attendees soon received the big envelope in the autumn term and ESAGS.TV recorded a high number of hits as they published a number of videos taking us all through the new system.

#teachmeets grew in popularity with many opportunities arising for the sharing of good practice beyond the classroom. From Belfast to Londonderry – Friday night learning became the talk of the staffroom. It was all about teachers doing CPD for themselves.

The Regional Training Unit took a huge hit losing the annual summer school. Despite months of planning it was pulled in early June.

#niedcamp was created in the wake of the RTU summer school and the 18 August over three hundred teachers attended a free event for teachers by teachers hosted at Stranmillis University College.

This model was rubber stamped by DE in October at the KS2/KS3 teachmeet in Bangor. A new DE strategy for teacher CPD is being created and collaborative sharing of good practice will be encouraged.

2016 will likely bring a growth in teachers seeking professional development outside the Educational Authority. Already a number of schools are engaged in TLS (NI) programmes. These have been designed to increase teacher effectiveness by engaging schools and teachers in building pedagogic skills and classroom practice.

Notable success

Congratulations were in order to a number of schools in October.

A number of educationalists were named in the New Years Honours list and the Queen’s Birthday Honours List. Highlighting the commitment of many to the teaching an wider educational professions.

St Patrick’s High School in Keady, County Armagh, was voted best secondary school in the UK in the 2015 TES school awards.

TES Gold awards were given to two Northern Ireland teachers. The former principal of Holy Family Primary School, Dinah MacManus became the TES Primary School Head teacher of the year. Miriam Donnan, vice-principal of Fleming Fulton School in Belfast, was named special needs teacher of the year.

In mid November, C2K invited all principals to the Inspire Event in the Titanic Building to celebrate the profile of ICT in our schools. A number of speakers took centre stage but personally my highlight was Geraldine Donnelley’s speech about e safety and cyber bullying.  Her emotive words resonated with me and many others on the subject.

In the Headlines

As area planning to continued, a number of schools were closed and others amalgamated.

The early years strategy, school starting age, early years pathway funding and more recently a media report into the lack of play in foundation stage all became topics making the news.

Before Christmas, the word was given that those teachers over 55 may be able to retire early. I am sure this will delight many older and unemployed teachers in 2016.

As the year drew to a close, Storm Frank arrived. Ironically, it reminded me of a man called Frank – who occasionally caused a few educational storms, Frank Bunting. He was a champion for the working rights of teachers for over two decades. Sadly he lost his battle against cancer during 2015, but his legacy of creating a storm of action when needed goes on.

2016 will bring many challenges for schools in Northern Ireland. I have no doubts that there will be storms and gale force decisions being made to stay within the 2015/16 – 2016/17 Budget.

So remember in 2016 ….

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it is about learning to dance in the rain.

Happy New Year


Note… There are many other notable items I could have included please feel free to comment if I have left something out. I know many teachers do amazing things everyday in Northern Ireland for our young people. I know that many teachers never get the recognition they deserve. I know a number of teachers sadly passed away this year but their impact will always live on. Teachers are our nation builders. Never underestimate the role you have in shaping the futures of others.





Travelling to Bethlehem?.. The bumpy staffroom journey of tea towels, tinsel and Hope

This week, a report referring to collective worship in schools was published. I watched several reports, listened to several commentaries and acknowledged (and respected) many with a different view to me. 

The reality is that in many of our schools they are on the road to Bethlehem at this time of year. 
The primary school staffrooms are full of the stress that is the “Nativity”. The costumes, the music and the worry that the kids will do exactly as they should on stage can push most teachers to breaking point. 

So for some getting rid of a Christian celebration might be acceptable… But it’s not for me.

You may hold a different world view to me. That’s ok, I respect that. 

I love Christmas, Christmas for me is about the birth of Jesus. I love the story. For me it’s all about hope. 
It’s the culture, I have been brought up with. For me it is an opportunity alongside family and friends to celebrate that hope that came into the world as a baby, born in a lowly cattle stall. Even if you don’t truly believe it many still celebrate this amazing story.

When I think of the nativities I’ve been in and involved in – I think of the children who adorn the dressing gowns and put tea clothes on their heads, the mummies who to made angel costumes from white pillow cases and tinsel for a halo. I love that Mary always wears blue and the baby doll Jesus sleeps on straw. I think of happy children, proud parents and a tear in an eye during “holy night” or “away in a manager”. It’s a special warm feeling that the annual nativity creates. It is as joy memory banked. 

Whilst I acknowledge that times have changed and the costumes  are a little more supermarket chic…I still see the Christmas celebration as relevant to society. It is the story of Hope.

Hope for me is having only positive expectations. In every school I’ve worked in, we respected and celebrated other cultures. Many world religions offer mindfulness and positivity – few offer hope. 

We all need hope, many of the young people I encounter need to know my hopes and aspirations for them, they need to know of my positive expectations. 

So as we hit the road to Bethlehem over the next week, despite the political debates surrounding the rights and wrongs of collective worship – let’s focus our children on our hopes, let’s give their confidence a boost by appearing on stage and let’s remember that a long time ago a baby boy born in manager was able to change the course of history. 





Our young people can change the world.

Tolerance is something that has long been taught in many schools. Our schools are more inclusive and respect for others is nurtured throughout many schools as a core value. Both the main church bodies in Northern Ireland recognise that faith based education is valuable in producing broad and balanced young people. 

So ….Enjoy the journey, you are creating memories and embedding hope. There is nothing (in my opinion) wrong with that!

Back to school blues?…Surely not! You are a change maker, a nation builder … You are a teacher!

On Wednesday, our pupils returned and  whilst I stood in front of them in assembly I couldn’t help thinking how blessed I am to be a teacher. 

As our first assembly started, the pupils all filed in, they sat in rows, wearing their smart new uniforms, I stood up and actually found myself feeling quite emotional. You may think this sounds slightly gushy but standing in front of them renewed my commitment to do the very best for them. As they all waited for me to speak, their smiling eyes reminded me that with teaching and with headship comes with much responsibility. 

The powers that be trust me to to care, nurture and educate them but more than that, they want me to do my upmost to ensure my pupils fulfil their potential.  

As a started to speak and reinforce the school values, I realised once again, that they trust me too. 

So whether your a school leader, a teacher or a teaching assistant…

Remember… Our young people need you to be the best you can be in the classroom, to come ready to make every day count. For some you, you will be a role model, the whisper of encouragement and the builder of self esteem. 

You have the power to make every young person feel like they matter. You have scope to develop dispositions that can change the world. 

So don’t have the back to school blues… Think positivity about the impact you can make as you shape the thinking and attitudes of the young minds who will, in the future, lead our society. 

Be a change maker… be a nation builder… Let’s make a difference this new school year.