How to create a mentally healthy school

We Are In Beta
May 31 · 34 min read

By Niall Alcock — Founder, We Are In Beta

Choosing the ‘best bit’ of my We Are In Beta podcast interview with Hannah Wilson was nearly impossible. She’s leading thinking and change on so many fronts. Women leading in education. Flexible working. Diversity and inclusion. How could I choose just one?

But it seemed fitting to focus on a topic that reflects the Executive Headteacher’s transition from @HopefulHT to @EthicalLeader. It seemed right to focus on a project that stems from her values-based approach to education.

As you’ve undoubtedly guessed, the part I chose was her mission to create a mentally healthy school. A mission aided by her Deputy Head - Julie Hunter - whose vision and tenacity helped bring it to life.

So how did she create a mentally healthy school that’s been recognised for its approach?

First things first. She often talks about her ‘why’. She started with the Aureus values. So, why did she do it? “We made the decision to make wellbeing one of our 12 values at both schools. We have twelve values and we focus on one per month.”

Second, they thought about their school culture. “We really thought about what it means to have a culture of wellbeing.”

They also looked at staff training and CPD needs. “My deputy head, who leads on culture and wellbeing is mindfulness trained,” and they decided to “put mindfulness on our curriculum.”

From there, they structured the school day and the timetable around what the students need to be prepared for their learning.

“At the secondary school, all the children do mindfulness every morning for 30 minutes. That prepares them for going into their lessons and for learning. We flip the school day. So they have, what would be tutor time in other schools, we call it coaching, at the end of the day, so that they see their coaches before they go home.”

These decisions all come from a place where Hannah never stops thinking about creating well rounded human beings and not just academic students that can pass exams.

“So, we have our curriculum, which is our traditional subjects between 9 am and 3.10 pm but then our coaching, our mindfulness, our nurture room, our sensory room, our thrive room.”

Finally, they built an external strategic partnership to support them with their vision, improve their ability to self-evaluate and provide external recognition of the approach.

“So, we’ve been working towards the Carnegie Centre’s Mental Health in Schools Award, which has given us a kind of a strategic vision. We had ideas, but we’ve been able to audit and self-evaluate what we’re doing and see the impact of what we’re doing.”

All this work paid off. In January, Aureus was only one of six schools to be awarded the Gold status of the Carnegie Centre of Excellence Mental Health Award for Schools.

But behind the awards there are very real challenges that have come about as a result of doing such important work.

“The pinch point is because we’re doing so much on mental health and wellbeing we’ve then attracted a lot of staff and a lot of students with mental health issues because they see there’s a light here about us putting attention to it and investing in it. I think that time and that attention we’ve put into it is important. We don’t think that our children can go into lessons and learn if they’re not mentally wealthy and that’s the language we use about mental wealth rather than and mental health.”

This is just a snippet of the wisdom Hannah shared with me. The headline and my summary don’t do her interview justice. So, listen to her interview in full:

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Listen to Episode 7of the We Are In Beta Podcast here

(For full transcript please head to the bottom of this post)

In her interview, Hannah shares her thoughts on:

  • How she got into teaching
  • The time when she could’ve left teaching for good and the time when she left a school without a role to go to next
  • The skills she’s learned that she never knew she’d need as a head
  • What the NPQs don’t teach that she learned when winning her local community over
  • How the values at Aureus have driven the design of their curriculum
  • The award they’ve been working towards that’s given them strategic vision on mental health
  • Why so many qualified teachers are not in the classroom anymore and how she’s tempting them back in
  • How she has recruited 2 years into the future without spending any money
  • How she manages to fund a very healthy CPD budget through both saving and generating income
  • The organisations she partners with to keep her team’s skills up to date in mindfulness, behaviour, values, literacy, leadership, and coaching.
  • How she generated a significant £64,000 of income through a number of different streams
  • Why SEND funding isn't fair and how to improve the situation
  • Why negativity about Ofsted doesn’t really bother her and why she’s looking forward to Aureus’ first inspection
  • How the off-rolling debate has made her question her previous experiences working in turnaround schools
  • The huge personal impact excluding students has had on her
  • The one question she would ask every headteacher if she could
  • Why she is optimistic about the future of education

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Listen to Episode 7of the We Are In Beta Podcast here

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Who are we?

I’ve been working in partnership Teach First, the Young Foundation and Super Being Labs to build a community of teachers and senior leaders who are solving big challenges in their schools.

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Below, I’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of my conversation with Hannah.

Niall Alcock: [00:00:00] Hannah, welcome to the podcast.

Hannah Wilson: [00:00:01] Morning, Niall.

Niall Alcock: [00:00:01] Before we get into the meat of the conversation, Hannah, I’d love to hear a bit more about you.

Tell our listeners about who you are, how you became a teacher, how becoming a teacher, and a little bit about your philosophy for education.

Hannah Wilson: [00:00:11] So I’ve been a teacher for 15 years. I’ve been a head teacher for one year and one term. I trained down in Kent. I did an English degree. I wasn’t thinking about teaching. I was actually thinking about going into journalism or publishing.

There was a big recruitment campaign at the time for English teachers. It caught my eye and I went to train to be a teacher thinking it would be my plan B and it ended up becoming my plan A and my found vocation I didn’t really know what’s going to be my vocation. I spent twelve years teaching in London. Then I decided I was ready, if you’re ever ready, for headship.

Niall Alcock: [00:00:46] That moment that made it your vocation. Can you pinpoint one moment?

Hannah Wilson: [00:00:51] Oh, that’s a really good question. I don’t think there was one moment, but I think that whole thing about when you’re not in the right school and some people leave the profession, I wasn’t in the right school at the end of my fourth year of teaching. I was in a challenging boys school in south London and I applied for another job on a whim. That was a leverage to a different journey that I perhaps wasn’t looking for at the time.

So, I think, perhaps, it was that moment where, end of my fourth-year teaching, I could’ve left teaching. But I actually redirected my career. Then ten years later I came to a similar point. A bit of an epiphany. I wasn’t in the right role in the right school and I resigned without a job to go to, as deputy head. But it gave me the headspace to really think about what I wanted next. And I stayed in the system again.

I think when we think about recruitment and retention, too people just think, “It’s not right, we’re going to leave”. Whereas, I’ve taken two opportunities in my career to think “It’s not me that’s not right. It’s the school that’s not right. I’m going to find the right contexts and fit for me”.

Niall Alcock: [00:01:50] I’ve heard a couple of people ask that question is: if you’re not enjoying it, don’t ask ‘Is it the profession?’ first, ask ‘Is it the school?’ first.

Have you always wanted to be a headteacher?

Hannah Wilson: [00:01:58] No. There are people, who tell me in their NQT year, they want to be a headteacher. I’ve just always worked hard and enjoyed my job and done the best I can. I was promoted every year for 12 years. I wasn’t hungry for promotion, whilst working in schools where, without sounding arrogant, I was good at what I was doing, and my talent got recognised. I was given opportunity after opportunity and didn’t have to necessarily seek them.

Then it got to my 12th or 13th year and my head actually said to me at the time “If you want to be a head, why are you working so hard as a deputy head? Why are you putting your heart and soul into a career, if you don’t want the next step?”

But I wasn’t necessarily ready to say I wanted to be wholly accountable. I went for sideways interviews as a deputy head to relocate and then I realised that, actually, I was ready and good enough to be a head teacher. But then it was about finding the right school.

Niall Alcock: [00:02:47] What do you love about being a headteacher?

Hannah Wilson: [00:02:49] Well I love foremost being a teacher. I love working in schools. I love that connectivity with the children. Being a start-up head, I think is quite a unique experience. I think headteacher’s role is stressful. I do think start-up is a whole different shebang.

There’s a whole skillset you don’t even know you need. But it’s all those different moments with children. Like yesterday it was the Christmas term and the whole primary school team shared there wow a moment or that magical moment from this term. And it was all about the impact on the children and the smiles and the laughs with the children.

Niall Alcock: [00:03:18] There’s an interesting point there on skills you didn’t realise you need. What have you learned over the past year a bit?

Hannah Wilson: [00:03:23] I’ve learned how to snag a building. I’ve spent a lot of time in building sites, in pre-fab with hard hats and hi-vis vest on. In conversations, with highly technical language and experts beyond education, where I’m holding my own about decisions about a school that make the building functional but don’t make it functional as a school. I think it’s lucky that I’ve got a voice and I know how to use it because I could have been washed away quite a few times.

Hannah Wilson in her hi vis. Image Credit: Innovate My School

Other skills, you don’t get told you need finance training, HR training, PR training. It’s those wider skills that are actually the cross-sector skills that are really lacking. Because I’ve done my NPQSL, my NPQH and doing my NPQEL. But it’s all about teaching & learning and leading and leading change. I think the leading change bit’s interesting. I used to run the module for NPQML and NPQSL on leading change. But that’s always about leading change within an organisation.

But when you’re a head of two start-ups, your whole team are up for the change. But your community aren’t necessarily up for the change. There’s been quite a lot of conflict and friction I’ve had to manage from a community piece beyond the building. That’s been a tension I perhaps wasn’t anticipating.

Niall Alcock: [00:04:34] For listeners that are facing similar challenges. What are your top tips for managing that change?

Hannah Wilson: [00:04:39] Stick to your guns.

Both our schools are values-based schools. We’ve got very strong core values. We’ve got twelve values that both schools have. Integrity is one of our values. Resilience is one of our values. We’ve got a commitment and a pledge to diversity and equality at both schools and we’re inclusive.

But sometimes your values aren’t mirrored in the local community. That whole piece about, you need to work with the community and what values do they want? Well, when you’re in a community that’s becoming more diverse, diversity might not be a value they know they need but we know as a school we need to meet it.

And when I have had challenges, and I’ve had a serious challenge like national press type challenge about some of our policies, we’re wholly committed to what we’re doing, and if anything, they’re the moments that could break you or make you as a school. They made us stronger even though they were really, really tricky, stressful times to go through, where it’s all over Facebook, and it was all over the Daily Mail. Actually, it made the team even more galvanised that we were doing the right thing for the right reasons and no one was going to shake us.

Niall Alcock: [00:05:42] It’s not often we hear about the good news stories.

So, I’d love to hear about a particular project that you’ve been running here at Aureus that you’re particularly proud about.

Tell us a little bit about the context, what you did and what the outcomes have been?

Hannah Wilson: [00:05:53] So we made the decision to make wellbeing one of our 12 values at both schools. We have twelve values and we focus on one per month.

So, September is our wellbeing month. All year we do wellbeing. But I do think that September’s stressful for children starting a new school, staff starting new schools and parents.

So, we really thought about what it means to have a culture of wellbeing. My deputy head who leads on culture and wellbeing is mindfulness trained and we made a decision to put mindfulness on our curriculum.

So, at the secondary school, all the children do mindfulness every morning for 30 minutes. That prepares them for going into their lessons and for learning. We flip the school day, so they have, what would be tutor time in other schools, we call it coaching, at the end of the day, so that they see their coaches before they go home.

Julie Hunter, Deputy Head, Aureus leading on culture and wellbeing. Image credit: @MsHMFL

So that was a structural choice we made and a curriculum choice we made. Dr. Neil Hawkes talks about it being the inner curriculum. So, we have our curriculum, which is our traditional subjects between 9 am and 3.10 pm but then our coaching, our mindfulness, our nurture room our sensory room, our thrive room. All the holistic pieces we have a commitment to here is also part of the curriculum but it’s the inner curriculum it’s about developing.

Dr. Neil Hawkes. Image credit: @NeilHawkes

I say to parents we’re helping you develop amazing human beings. Human begins with values. So, we’ve been working towards the Carnegie Centre’s Mental Health in Schools Award, which has given us a kind of a strategic vision. We had ideas, but we’ve been able to audit and self-evaluate what we’re doing and see the impact of what we’re doing.

Image credit: @SchoolMHAward

The pinch point is because we’re doing so much on mental health and wellbeing we’ve then attracted a lot of staff and a lot of students with mental health issues because they see there’s a light here about us putting attention to it and investing in it. I think that time and that attention we’ve put into it is important. We don’t think that our children can go into lessons and learn if they’re not mentally wealthy and that’s the language we use about mental wealth rather than and mental health.

Niall Alcock: [00:07:46] Teacher retention.

Stats out there saying that up to 40 percent of teachers are leaving the profession within five years.

What are the secrets to improving teacher retention at a national scale and what does that look like practically in schools? I know that you had some great examples that we discussed before we met.

Hannah Wilson: [00:08:02] It’s an interesting one. I’ve always been quite a critic of the system and of the things we could do to retain staff but now as a head teacher, where I have got some staff leaving, it makes you then question whether you’re doing what you envisage doing.

So, on a system level, I think one of the big ones for me about staff retention is the fact that schools need to be more open to flexible working. We’ve got a massive recruitment and retention issue on our hands. But when you hear the stats that were turned to 250,000 qualified teachers in the country, who are not working in our schools, we have to stop and question, “Well, why they’re not in our schools?”

Predominately, it’s because our schools are not family friendly. Our schools don’t enable women to return from maternity leave and retain that their TLRs. I’ve heard awful stories of schools saying, “You can’t be part-time and be a head of department or assistant head,” or “You can be part-time but I’m going to give you a 0.8 TLR because you’re only working four days a week”.

Well, if you’re the Head of English, you’re doing a full-time leadership role. The reality is, a lot of flexi-workers do a lot of work from home in quirky hours. When you look at the statistics about who’s leaving the profession, it’s predominantly women in their 30s because they either see that they can’t be a parent and be a teacher, or they’ve got a family and they can’t sustain both.

I just think we just need to get with the program. All the rest of the professions are really enabling more flexibility and less traditional thinking. We’ve got teachers out there, we need to see what it is that would re-engage them, attract them back into the classroom, rather than keep investing hundreds of thousands of pounds into training new teachers, who then leave after three years.

Niall Alcock: [00:09:39] What do you think the secrets are to attracting those teachers. Is it an issue of just finding them? Is it an issue of persuading them?

Hannah Wilson: [00:09:45] We’re working with the DfE on their Return to Teach project. We offer coffee mornings, where the mums, who are qualified, can come in with their kids, have tea and cake and have a chat to us.

A lot of time it’s confidence. A lot of time it’s not knowing where to start. A lot of the time they’ve been out a classroom for three years and the system has changed. So how can we, on a maternity leave or beyond, up skill them?

I think there needs to be free training. Perhaps a newsletter? Perhaps opportunities to see what is it you need to know that you didn’t know two years ago to enable you to go back to those interviews? So, we offer free placements here for people who just want to come spend some time back in a school and get the confidence back up go back.

Going back to the whole school piece about how we attract and recruit and retain, I’m proud to say that we’ve not spent any money on a single advert in two years. I’ve recruited 73 staff. I’ve recruited staff two years ahead because our talent pool is so strong.

I think it’s the pledge you make to people and making sure that promise isn’t hollow. I’m really transparent. I say to all my staff, “This is a really hard school to work at”. Start-up schools are pressurised. We’re having to do a lot beyond are role. I need staff, who are tenacious and resilient. But we are all committed to making it work, in making it a different opportunity.

But we need to be realistic. It’s not going to be overnight. I haven’t got a magic wand. So, I think it’s about fit again. Our recruitment is around values, whereby we’re looking for the right people to get on the bus and then we can train them if there are skills gaps.

Niall Alcock: [00:11:17] Training and skills gaps. A lovely segway. Obviously, professional development is something that’s very close to our heart again.

Talk us through some of the particular focus points of professional development and training and tell us a little bit of what you’ve done and how it’s turned out.

Hannah Wilson: [00:11:31] So if I link it back to the fact that we’ve not paid for any adverts, all the money I save on marketing and recruitment goes into my staff professional learning and development pot. So, I recruit the staff and make sure they’re then trained to be able to do their job and empowered to do their job.

So, we do have really, really high-quality professional learning. I’ve exercised my academy’s headteacher’s right to have additional INSET days. So, we have nine INSET days a year. I do two inset days at the start of every term. One is with both schools, all staff- so all 73 ops, teachers, leaders together. It’s an inspiration day. We always get external speakers in. I pay a high tariff to get the best speakers in to really inspire my team.

Then day two is more practical and about the school-based solutions. It’s thinking about, as a start-up school, the whole school priorities and then as we grow our teams, personalising it. So, we all needed to do our Pivotal training because that’s our behaviour approach. We all needed to do the mental health training because that’s a cultural piece. We all needed to do the VBE training because we’re a values-based school.

Transform Behaviour, Pivotal Education. Image Credit: Pivotal Education

Niall Alcock: [00:12:34] For the benefit of our listeners, VBE?

Hannah Wilson: [00:12:37] VBE — Values Based Education. I’m looking at my poster in my office here ‘Educate and Celebrate!’ We’ve made a commitment to being a LGBT+ friendly school. So, I’ve bought in partnerships with organisations where we get training every year and then the training becomes a spiral, whereby new staff get the same training every year and existing staff get the development all the across the different pathways from it.

Image Credit: Values Based Education
Image credit: Vales Based Education

So, I do spend a lot of money on my CPD budget. I think we’ve spent £20,000 last year, for 23 staff. But as our team grows, the price per head obviously the then goes down.

I do sell places at my INSET days to other schools. So, for Read Write Inc. when we come back after Christmas, I’ve got other schools sending delegates and they’re paying a ticket price for that. So, I really see as an investment and then having staff become the key holders to the different strands. And I’ve got specialists then, who are developing each of those awards or each of those strategies.

Image Credit: Ruth Miskin Training

Something else we’re doing is, we’ve got leadership pathways. So, all of my middle leaders are doing the SSAT Lead Practitioner Pathway and that’s an investment we have in them. It’s a one-year action research model.

Image Credit: SSAT

Hannah Wilson: [00:13:53] And then when people ask for the higher tariff, more contact time courses like an NPQSL we have a partnership agreement with them that we will part funds it. But I see those things as an investment in yourself and your own career. So, I don’t fully fund it, but we’ll release you to do it.

Niall Alcock: [00:14:10] [partnership agreement] with your staff or with the organisations who deliver it?

Hannah Wilson: [00:14:12] With the actual staff. They pay 50% because they’re asking to do it for their own career a lot of the time. But we’ll release them, and we pay a part of it. But there’s a contract that if they leave within two years they pay us back. I think sometimes you get people, who just want to course every year and it’s about their career rather than about the school and I want all of the CPD that we’re funding to be impacting our school and our children. And if the CPD is not impacting our children, I would question why are we doing that CPD then?

I think it’s that piece that we’re still tightening up on. The post evaluation of what impact has it had six weeks, six months post that CPD? So, at the moment in year two of Aureus and year one of Aureus Primary School it’s about embedding. Each year you’re onboarding 20 more staff. So, you have to go back before you can go forwards just to make sure everything’s embedded.

Niall Alcock: [00:15:06] What’s the best piece of professional development you’ve ever done personally or brought into a school?

Hannah Wilson: [00:15:12] Oh that’s a double-handed question then. Best piece of CPD I’ve ever experienced personally? I’m quite a critic of CPD. I think because I’m passionate about it and I’m quite well connected, I get to go to a lot of things and I am the voice of doom, where I critique things. Recently, the best CPD I’ve been too was the Leadership Matters Conference: ‘Unleashing Talent’. It was the Leadership Symposium. Just brilliant keynotes — a lady from HR [Mandy Coalter]

Mandy Coalter, Director of People at United Learning. Image credit: Unlocking Potential
Image credit: Unlocking Potential

School-based? I think probably our mental health conference. We got some funding last year from the Charlie Waller Memorial Trust to run the Regional Mental Health Wellbeing Network for Oxfordshire schools. It just enabled amazing keynote speakers to travel up.

Charlie Waller Memorial Trust. Image Credit: @CharlieWtrust

Leaving London has been interesting. So much CPD is London centric. Even now all the big conferences are either Birmingham or London. We tend to go to Birmingham because we’re kind of equidistant. So, having something out of both of those two. People travelled from Wales. They travelled from Kent. It was free because it was funded, and we had an amazing keynote speaker, including Jonnny Benjamin and Neil Layborn. So, I think that was one of the best things we’ve hosted I think.

Niall Alcock: [00:16:25] I know you’ve done some coaching training in the past. How has that benefited you and your staff working in school?

Hannah Wilson: [00:16:30] So we’re big believers in coaching. But I think coaching takes a while to develop and grow and embed. So, I’ve done different coaching. I’ve worked with Graydin and we’re looking at the leadership coaching.

Image Credit: CPDBee

So, all my senior leaders at both schools are trained as coaches so they can coach their middle leaders through the Women Leading in Education project with it with DfE.

I’ve got a lot of network, including myself, who volunteered to coach aspiring female leaders. I think my network via WomenEd has been amazing because I’ve connected with serving head teachers, former head teachers, CEOs. I’ve had brilliant conversations with so many people that have really enriched me personally, professionally in my own career. I think it’s about passing the baton on. So, at one point I was coaching twelve people. I haven’t got the capacity to do that anymore, but I think it’s just having that mentor/coach who you can ring up when you really meet them.

Image credit: Women Ed

Niall Alcock: [00:17:22] What are the main benefits been when you’ve been coached or have been coaching others?

Hannah Wilson: [00:17:27] I think it goes back to that confidence, that resilience. When we’ve had weeks here, where the staff are feeling a bit fragile, a bit vulnerable. We’ve said that if we had the time in that week to give the coaching to the staff, it just gives that TLC, doesn’t it? We talk a lot about our ‘why?’ I think the coaching takes you back to your ‘why?’ and it helps you get through the tougher times.

Niall Alcock: [00:17:50] We work in a system where it’s quite fragmented with the removal of the middle of government the local education authority.

There are lots of organisations, who are delivering services to schools. What’s the secret to assessing your need deciding to go out and find an organisation, checking that they’re good at what they do.

What’s the secret to commissioning external professional development?

Hannah Wilson: [00:18:08] If I can comment on the fragmentation first of all. Sir David Carter, a few years ago, at an event I was at spoke about ‘no school should be an island’.

Sir David Carter. Image credit: @Carter6D

But then he went on to talk about the fact that, actually, MATs are just becoming big islands. I worked in a MAT, where there were a lot of schools but there was very much a fence up around that group of schools.

I see myself as a headteacher and a CPD leader. It’s about joining up the dots and we focus on collaboration versus competition. I think there’s so much competition out there. We don’t need to be competitive as schools for staff and for children and for USPs. We’re also serving the same communities. I think we need to hold on to that sometimes.

Regarding our needs audit, it should all be appraisal driven. It should be child driven. What are the needs of the children? What are the needs of the school? What are the needs of the staff? Where’s the value for money? How can we get the training we need in the best possible way? And when I say that, should my staff be driving two and a half hours, should we be paying for a hotel? Should we be paying for supply?

Going back to my INSET model, I want our in-house CPD to be absolutely top notch. I want my staff to be trained to be the first point of contact for particular areas. That in-house, drip feed I think is really important.

So, paying for two of my senior leaders to become Pivotal Trainers means we’ve got in-house instructors for our behaviour policy, as opposed to all the staff going out all the time. My deputy head and I trained to do the DSL training for the region, which means we can when on CPD for CP. Again, investing the time of the energy on the external pieces, which then become internal best practice. A

Niall Alcock: [00:19:57] A question that I was asked by a few headteachers when I was doing research for this podcast was ‘How are the headteachers balancing the books, dealing with budget restraints and also ring fencing or protecting money for investing in CPD?

Hannah Wilson: [00:20:11] See that’s an interesting one. As a deputy head, responsible for CPD, I had zero budget for two years because we were a deficit budget school. I had to be really creative. It really made me think about how much we spend on CPD and actually it might be £250 quid to get that conference. But you add in the travel, the hotel and the supply, it’s more like £600. Is that the best use of £600?

The best CPD I ran for free at that point, was a Teach Meet for EAL because we had a massive need for EAL training and expertise in house. I all had to do was put the kettle on and get some biscuits. Some people travelled from around the country and my staff all got free training. So, I think, it’s about being creative sometimes about being innovative.

It’s about pooling, as well. So, I do always invite the local schools to come to our train days. They don’t always come. But if you can offer it out so you’re not all paying for the same thing.

Budget-wise, I think CPD can be one of the first things that goes, when your budget’s under pressure. But if it’s then going to result in a retention issue, you’re going to have pay advertising for recruitment cost. I think we need to flip our thinking. If we actually invest the money in the staff, they’re more likely to stay.

It’s a bit like children isn’t it? All the funding seems to set for SEND kids outside of the school. If that money was in the school, the kids needs would be met they wouldn’t have to go to a special school or go to an alternative provision. We need to flip the narrative and flip the thinking about a lot of things.

Niall Alcock: [00:21:39] You’ve mentioned when we’ve spoken before about some innovative ideas you have around increasing income for the school to help balance the books. What things have you done? How effective have they been?

Hannah Wilson: [00:21:49] Lettings and hosting events. So, when we opened I had 55 classrooms and I had 120 children and I had 10 teachers. So, we only ever needed to use four classrooms at a time. So, I actually went out into the community to find organisations, who very importantly echoed our values and our vision for education. We basically host or incubate charities and organisations.

So, currently, I’ve got a sports organisation for primary school outreach based have — 20 of them. They’ve paid let and they pay for using sports facilities and holidays. I’ve got literacy charity based here. I’ve got art therapy studio. They get free rent, but my children get free access to the art therapy. I’m a bit old school. I’m a bit of an ‘Only Fools and Horses’ barterer. We’re space rich and cash poor. I can leverage the space.

We can host, currently, a conference for 200 people and they pay me rent whilst the school’s fully operational. Longer term, that’ll be harder to do but as long as the safeguards in place. Also, my staff can dip in and out of the training whilst teaching during the day. So, I think it’s about thinking differently.

Our sports lettings last year, I think our income stream was £64,000. It could have been more. We had to pay for athletics manager to enable the school to be open. But then if you make profit [it can help]. It’s all quite time-consuming. I do you think, there are ways of creating revenue streams.

Niall Alcock: [00:23:14] SEND funding. You mentioned it earlier. The DfE has released something like £350 million pounds over a period of time. What do you think about that funding? And what do you think are the best ways of making sure that it reaches the pupils and teachers that need it.

Damian Hinds, The Education Secretary. Image credit: DfE

SEND funding as a massive issue. Moving from LEA in London to Oxfordshire has been a stark contrast. Where, at Aureus we’ve got 33% SEND, and I do not see that in my funding model. I don’t think there as equity or parity in how funding works. There’s no incentive for schools to have children with additional needs. I don’t feel it’s fair in the distribution of those children.

So, last year I had 24 EHCP consultations for year seven and we’ve got nine EHCPs. So, I think that there’s an ethical piece to be looked at there about sharing the responsibility. So, the funding, my understanding of how is going to be allocated is, it’s going to be split equally to LEAs, and then I suppose, the LEAs, in theory, could split equally to schools but not all the LEAS have the same percentage of SEND and not all the schools within each LEA has the same percentage of SEND.

That worries me because, actually, there’s funding there, that if it was deployed and invested appropriately, could make a difference to the children, in the schools. I don’t feel that we’ll necessarily get the proportion of what we need.

Niall Alcock: [00:24:38] So what would your suggestions in terms of practical implementation for Damian Hinds be?

Hannah Wilson: [00:24:41] I think it needs to be attached to the children. In theory, you get funding for EHCPs. Although, I don’t think we necessarily get as much money as we need. It’s that next tier, isn’t it? The old school action plus, the K code. Where’s the funding for those children? Teaching assistants are being cut or redeployed. We’re investing as a school in areas where other schools are cutting. We’ve got a nurture room and a thrive room and a sensory room. I’ve got staff trained to use these spaces, but our children really need those facilities. It’s an ethical dilemma for schools.

Niall Alcock: [00:25:13] Ofsted. There’s been a move from data and assessment as a way of judging performance of schools towards curriculum. Is that the right way to go? If not, what are your suggestions for Amanda Spielman?

Hannah Wilson: [00:25:22] So all the negativity about Ofsted doesn’t really bother me. I think I’ve had an Ofsted every year for 12 years. I think we need some sort of accountability body. I do think the focus has been one-sided for a long time. I’ve worked in schools whereby children enter in on a particular grade and aren’t necessarily pushed to make the progress. And now in the new accountability measures, I think it’s a fair playing field for schools. Particularly those schools, who’ve taken the children, who are EAL and SEND and have wider progress to make. So, I think that whole change piece has been interesting.

The focus on curriculum, I think, is really welcomed. We are anticipating our two Ofsteds in our… you get them in Term 7, in our third year in our seventh term. We’ve made fundamental choices about our philosophy and our pedagogy and our ideology in both our schools. We think we’re doing the right thing about having mindfulness on the curriculum, having the values-based approach, having the STEAM provision.

That is about us meeting the needs of our local community and I want Ofsted to come into our two schools and recognise the fact that we’re personalising and tailoring what we’re doing to make our children work ready, life ready.

It’s not a game about how many points we can get in the bag for them. I say to all of my parents at all of my recruitment events, “We are not on exams factory. If your children leave here and they can read and write and they’re passionate about learning but they’ve got hobbies and friends, then I’ve done my job.

Niall Alcock: [00:26:49] You’ve touched on a couple of issues when we’ve been speaking, is particular groups of students and there’s the notion of exam factories.

You’ll seen headlines in the press around off-rolling and the disappearance of students with SEN and from exam registers.

What do we need to do on a national scale to avoid those kind of headlines and how does Aureus ensure that the needs of all those students achieve the best outcomes possible?

Hannah Wilson: [00:27:09] The off-rolling piece has really made me stop and think about my own career and the schools I’ve worked at because I don’t think those pieces are always explicit or transparent in the schools you are.

I’ve worked a lot of turn around schools where. You do lose a lot of children when you change. But you don’t always know why the kids are leaving and I question whether or not there were kids being off-rolled that I didn’t know about at those schools. I am glad I didn’t know about it.

I’ve had to do two permanent exclusions recently and that caused the amount of stress for me. I got really upset in both those meetings because I didn’t ever want to be in a situation where I was permanently excluding children. We’re highly inclusive but my team are just so stretched because we’ve got so many kids with SEND in our two schools because of everything we’re doing.

Vic Goddard, Principle, Passmores Academy. Image credit: Passmores Academy

I don’t think it’s fair that we don’t get additional money. Vic Goddard’s someone who is a massive role model for me in leading a very inclusive school. He wrote a brilliant piece this morning in Schools Week about the new funding formula from the DfE for SEND kids. Going back to that piece about integrity and ethics, I just don’t think all schools are necessarily doing the right thing for all children.

All of our mission statements about every child and every opportunity for every child, and opening doors, and creating opportunities. We don’t set. We don’t stream. That causes the bit of friction with some traditional thinking parents. But I just feel like sometimes there’s an inequity and disparity in schools and not all children are given all opportunities.

Niall Alcock: [00:28:35] You mentioned integrity there and it’s ethical leadership and ethics is a common theme that’s been coming out as a response to this question.

What are the secrets to integrity and ethical leadership on a national scale and specifically in your context?

Hannah Wilson: [00:28:47] I don’t think there’s any secret but how I live my life is I can sleep at night because I know I have done the right thing and you do have to hold in balance the right thing for the children, for the families, for the school, and for the staff.

Those two permanent exclusions came down to what was the right thing for the school. And we’ll support those mums and we’re still in contact with them. It was the mums who I really felt quite sorry for in that process. I do think there is a lack of ethics because I think there’s so much pressure on schools.

As a headteacher now I can see the opportunities there are for you to be compromised, where the pressures are making you question what you do and why you do it. And you succumb to come to things that you don’t think are right. I was once told by a line manager to put my moral in the cupboard for the year and that was the moment I resigned. Because my morals aren’t going to go in a cupboard.

Niall Alcock: [00:29:42] I ask this question to every headteacher I speak to and that question is: if you could ask every teacher in the country one question, what would the question be and why?

Hannah Wilson: [00:29:54] When do you sleep? It’s just an endless job. There’s so much to do all the time. We’re also passionate about what we’re doing.

I’m in a DM group with 50 new headteachers. We call ourselves and NQHeadTs and we all became heads together last year. There was a lot of Twitter chat so we created a DM group. The maximum you can have in DM group on Twitter is 50, so there’s 50 of us in it.

That’s been a source of light and glee all year. Because if anyone ever published what was said there, that would be a moment. We share warts and all. And we keep each other bolstered but we’re all working 24/7 and I kind of knew taking on a start-up headship that it would be full on for the first few years. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it will get easier. But I’m also conscious I haven’t got children. I do wonder how people, who are parents, do the hours to get the headship workload done and have their own children.

Niall Alcock: [00:30:51] Without revealing too much about what goes on in the group, give gives us a couple of insights into what you’ve learned from them.

Hannah Wilson: [00:30:57] I think it’s reassuring. I think it’s quite easy as a head to get into your own headspace and second guess or question yourself and we all have those tricky moments with, particularly parents and particularly staff.

We don’t disclose names and stuff but quite often is like “You’ll never guess what was said to me today!” in quotation marks. We have a bit of chuckle because we’ve all had those moments and we’ve all been spoken to inappropriately. We’ve all had stupid questions from parents and staff. I think it’s reassuring from that peace.

Even things like sharing of articles, sharing of funding streams, asking questions about “has anyone else dealt with this?” Because you don’t know what you don’t know as a head until you’re asked to do something you don’t know how to do. Who did you ask to guide you? Sometimes you feel stupid saying “How do you do this?” You don’t want to ask your boss, your chair of governors. I think going to a fellow peer, who has perhaps has done it… It’s just that shoulder to shoulder support. I think it’s quite powerful.

Niall Alcock: [00:31:56] The future of education. What excites you about it? What does it look like and what do we need to do to make sure it happens?

Hannah Wilson: [00:32:02] So, I think a lot of people naysayers and say that the future of education looks bleak and I am an eternal optimist. My glass is always half full or half empty.

When I became a headteacher I changed my Twitter handle to the @HopefulHT. I’d just reviewed Mary Myatt’s book ‘Hopeful Schools’ and it really, really resonated with. She asked me to do the review and I said, “Yes, can I please steal your title as my Twitter handle?” It wasn’t about being hopeful to get a headship. It was about being hopeful as a head.

Mary Myatt. Image credit: Mary Myatt

I always look at solutions rather than problems. Our mantra at Aureus says, “Please don’t come to me with the problem, we know there’s problems. Please come to me with a solution to that problem.” So, I am hopeful. I’m hopeful that headteachers’ schools will be less fearful and less scared and will be prepared to challenge the system.

I think we need more game changers, more trailblazers, more pioneers, who are prepared to ruffle feathers. We don’t deliberately try and ruffle feathers at Aureus, but we do spend a lot of time thinking why, questioning traditional mindsets, questioning inherited practices.

We haven’t got a legacy as start-up schools. So, we’re not going in trying to fix things that aren’t working. We’re really thinking about what could it look like? What could we do? We’ve got a blank sheet of paper. So, we’ve really questioned some of the things like lunches, things like detentions, things like homework, things like setting.

Our team have aligned themselves on what we think is ideologically right. And then that is our offer. I think that is a powerful place to come from. Going back to that professional integrity is our value. We wholeheartedly believe what we’re doing. So even when you hit those pinch points I think then because its values-driven it’s easier to overcome them.

Niall Alcock: [00:33:56] You said that we think we need more integrity within the system, more people that are willing to ruffle feathers. What needs to change to make that happen?

Hannah Wilson: [00:34:07] I think confidence in the system, confidence in the people in the roles but then also confidence in ourselves. Viv Grant’s someone, who I follow a lot on Twitter and she wrote a brilliant article this morning about the breaking point of headship.

Viv Grant. Image credit: @Vivgrant

It was a review of School, the documentary down in Bristol following a MAT. I’m mates with Angela Browne— one of the members of staff, one of the leaders on that. Viv asked questions about the ethical nature of the system and how we’re looking after the mental health of heads teachers or are we looking after the mental health of teachers? I think there’s a whole holistic piece there about how we look after our staff. I do think too many schools look after the children at the expense of their staff perhaps.

Angela Browne. Image credit: @nourishedschool

Niall Alcock: [00:34:55] Looking back at your career so far, what one story or event will always make you smile to make you laugh.

Hannah Wilson:[00:35:02] I think it is hard to pinpoint one. Recently, at an event that’s really made me smile is our school choir performed at the Royal Albert Hall. They sang “This Is Me” which is kind of our adopted school song because it was prevalent last year when we were going through tricky times so that with the Mail. It’s all about diversity, inclusion and quality. So, I think the lyrics really resonate. To see our choir at the Royal Albert Hall singing with 500 children from Oxfordshire, but they were signing it as well as singing it. There were dancers onstage with disabilities. That was a wow moment and I burst into tears with pride.

But for me, I think the more important things are the micro-moments. I smile, and I laugh every single day. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t want to do my job. Secondary, it’s the banter and it’s the teenagers and it’s just the hilarity. Primary school has just filled me with joy. It’s been a term of wonder. I’ve never been hugged so many times in my life and the small people, who want to hug me when I walk into a classroom that makes me smile.

Niall Alcock: [00:36:06] I ask a question to head teachers, when I meet them, and they always talk about the students and it makes it feel and often talk about the performances they put in. So, thanks for sharing.

Niall Alcock: [00:36:16] Hannah you have been brilliant. Thank you very much for your time. You talk about values and I think you live those values. Thank you for sharing such an intimate and honest account of your experience of teaching, education and being a headteacher. Perhaps if we can revisit this in six to twelve months’ time to find out if your predictions for the future have come true.

Hannah Wilson: Thank you, Niall, I haven’t enjoyed talking to you.

Who are we?

I’ve been working in partnership Teach First, the Young Foundation and Super Being Labs to build a community of teachers and senior leaders who are solving big challenges in their schools.

You can read more about We Are In Beta and how you can get involved here.

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If you enjoyed this interview, check out Episode 6 of the We Are In Beta Podcast with Clare Rees, Headteacher at Havelock Primary School, Ealing on how to built trust by creating a coaching culture in school

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