What does a headteacher do?

A day in the life of Harry Kutty, Headteacher at Cantell School and Chair of Aspire Community Trust

Harry Kutty profile picture

It is both an honour and a privilege to have been asked to write a piece about the 'Day in a life of' for SEF, the Southampton Education Forum. I have been a member of this innovative and forward-thinking group of cross-phase educators since my appointment as Headteacher of Cantell School in 2016. I thank them greatly for their support and challenge over the last three and a half years.

Any headteacher, teacher, learning support assistant, school nurse, receptionist or indeed anyone that works with children in schools would testify that no two days are ever the same. This variety is one of the huge attractions of the job and there are definitely more ups than downs! So writing a piece about a day in the life of ... was always going to be tricky and further compounded by my additional role of Chair of a Co-operative Trust of Schools - more to follow on this later in the piece.

Flexibility and adaptability

So with the caveat that there is no typical or average day - let's go for a Tuesday:

I wake at 6 am every morning and Tuesdays are no different. My immediate mood is very much dependent on how much sleep I got the night before and I have slowly come to the realisation that, at my age, I need a good eight hours of sleep - ha... chance would be a fine thing!

When I was asked to write this piece I am sure Jill, SEF Co-ordinator, did not imagine I would be writing about how many hours I sleep! I start at wake up because that is when my brain goes into overdrive. I check my calendar - work out what I am doing, where and when, and I try to anticipate how I will be feeling at the end of the day. I remember thinking that Tuesday was going to be a long day - ending with the opening of our school show: 'Annie'. I was excited and nervous at the same time! I knew how much work the staff and students had put in - months of practice, days of set painting, hours of choreography and so much more. They deserved for it to go well!

I arrive at work anytime between 7.15 and 7.30am, depending on traffic and my first job is to check my emails, respond where possible or flag to respond for later. I`m a stickler for good communication and try to role model the best of this myself by responding to communication in an appropriate time frame. I then start to prepare for our SLT briefing. We have one every morning - usually at 8 am but because of whole staff briefings on a Tuesday and Thursday, we start at 7.50am.

Communication and clarity

Our SLT briefings are important - they give us closure to the previous day and enable us to look to what we have to do and when on the current day. They are our version of a rugby huddle! It`s an opportunity to share, laugh and provide each other, if necessary, some much needed therapy. Everybody contributes, and we all walk out of my office with absolute clarity about the day. On most days, I am in awe of how much these guys know about our school. Who did what, where and when ... the attendance per year group and most importantly solutions, ways forward. They are a great group of people and role model the very best of 'servant leadership'.

We leave my office at 8.14am and set off to briefing - on this day led by Dave Gill, Assistant Headteacher and our Raising Standards Leader. Dave presents some current attainment data and moves on quickly to talk about what has got us here and what we need to do next. Again, there is clarity in communication - this is what we think will work, these are our priorities and what help do you need?

As soon as briefing finishes, I grab my high-vis jacket and head out for the front gate. I think it is really important, when and where possible, to greet your community as they come into the school. The good morning, how are you, have a great day, quickly turns to 'Push it, young sir; the first bell has gone' to 'You`ve got 10 seconds' to 'C`mon, let's run together' to 'Right, I'm afraid you`re late - off to the hall!' The strong systems that we have in place are leading to the best punctuality rates we have ever seen but our staff give it the 'human touch' - so important when dealing with children.

Leaders walking the talk

At 8.50am, I head off to teach in our Alternative Provision - CAP. Actually that's a lie. I rarely make it for 8.50 am, just ask our CAP staff who have to cover the very start as I deal with myriad requests: “Can you...?' 'Have you seen...?' 'Is there time to ...?' on the way to 10Bu2CAP. We created our Alternative Provision in 2016 to better meet the needs of our more complex, vulnerable and sometimes challenging students. Mainstream was not working for them and whilst behaviour in the school was 'Good', good was and never is good enough! I feel a great deal of pride in the achievements of our students in CAP, not least when a young lady, previously permanently excluded from two other schools, attended our Prom in July, glowing and grinning from ear to ear having successfully graduated out of CAP.

I teach Business in CAP; one of our Deputy Headteachers (Ian) teaches Travel and Tourism; one of our Assistant Headteachers (Harriet) teaches English and Dave Gill, who I introduced earlier, teaches Maths. That is no coincidence - it is not always easy to teach in CAP and we, as the leaders in the school, have to act as role models to others.

I became a teacher of Business Studies in 2000. I love teaching and it is still where I feel most at home. There is no greater buzz than when I see the light bulb moment in my students' faces - when they see cash flow forecasting come alive (honestly it can and does), when they say, “Wait a minute, Sir - I could use this at home, couldn't I?”

Listening to staff

At 9.40am, I'm back in my office ready to start Year 11 teacher meetings with Dave. He and I introduced these last year - to thank staff for their hard work, to ascertain what's working well and some of the challenges and how we can help. We then ask the all-important question - " If we had a magic wand" ... now fondly known in the school as the 'magic wand moment' what would you ask for and what would be the impact? What we have found is that there is a real disconnect between what staff think is a magic wand moment and what is within our limit of authority to change or make happen. By that I mean, more often than not we are left asking - 'Are you absolutely sure?' This is because the magic wand moment is usually something very small, often to do with logistics, and something we absolutely can control!

At 10.30am, I don my high-vis jacket again, unless it is already still on, and head out for break duty. I walk the school talking to students and staff, using my discussions as a barometer of how the day is going so far. In SLT we would have already discussed who is going where, and I duly take up my point at the end of break to shepherd in the 1140 students now on roll at the school.

Growth and responsibility

Our school has grown rapidly over the last few years, and I am extremely proud that we are an oversubscribed school and the school of choice for our local community. For September's Year 7s, we have had nearly 600 applications for a PAN of 250. That we are oversubscribed and the school of choice has not always been the case, and when I took over the school in 2016, many of our rooms had been mothballed to save money on cleaning and utilities. Prior to this (I joined the school in 2008 as AHT), our numbers per year group had fallen to 150 with less than half choosing us first. These were tough times and our previous Headteacher, Ruth Evans, led the school with great passion and drive, and we trusted that it would one day be our time. We were not complacent and continue not to be so.

At 10.50 am, I usually do my stint in our reflection/isolation room. This is a room where those students who have not met our expectations from the previous day are in internally excluded study. There is a policy of tough love that resonates through our school because the world is tough, particularly for the youth of today, who are completely misrepresented and misreported by the media. Children - and they are children - need and crave rules. They want to be rewarded for doing the right things and understand that not doing the right things results in a consequence. That is, a consequence not for the sake of it - punitive by nature - but a consequence that teaches our community the importance of taking responsibility and being resilient.

Engagement with community stakeholders and partners

On this day, my time in reflection/isolation is covered, and I meet with Councillor Darren Paffey, Cabinet Member for Aspiration, Children and Lifelong learning. As with any guest, I insist we earn our coffee by taking a tour of the school and Darren kindly obliges having not visited in over a year or so. As we walk and talk, I feel incredibly proud of all that is happening in the school and feel like a car salesman as I point out the fabulous work being carried out or displayed by our wonderful youngsters. We arrive back at my office and talk about the work of our co-operative Trust - The Aspire Community Trust and how we may work more strongly and collaboratively with the other two co-operative trusts in the City. It is a productive meeting!

Darren leaving at 12pm gives me 30 minutes to carry out a learning walk. I manage to pop into three lessons and as we do at the school leave a Post-it note with live 'parrot on the shoulder' coaching points. We introduced the system three years ago and it has been a revelation. Staff tell us that they value and appreciate the live feedback - many keep the Post-it notes in a folder or file them away for safe keeping. It is always a pleasure and an honour to pop into colleagues' classrooms. Talking to staff and students - as they go about their daily business - is that not what leadership in schools is about?

The juggle is real

At 12.30pm, the high vis is back on (again, unless it is still on) and I repeat the break duty with one subtle difference. If there is enough coverage around the school, I`ll sometimes sneak down to the hardcourt and bowl a few bowls (cricket) at our year 7s. They`re a great bunch of lads and have now learned how to sledge - politely of course!

At 1.10pm, I would usually carry out some more focused learning walks around the school. We spent this last half term looking specifically at three areas - Attack words - subject specific and tier 2/3 vocabulary, sequencing of learning and checking for understanding. As we have some of the Trust schools coming in for a matinee performance of Annie at 1.30pm, I quickly pop into a literacy lesson and speak with the teacher, students and listen to a couple read. My PA has kindly calendared all the Literacy lessons in my diary, so should I have a spare moment, I will pop in.

At 1.30pm, I welcome some of our Trust schools - students and staff - to the matinee performance of 'Annie'. I take the opportunity to check in and speak with Mark Sheehan, Headteacher of Mansbridge Primary and our Vice Chair of the Trust. He`s an incredibly experienced headteacher, and I have learned a great deal from him.

HR, strategy and curriculum

At 2.00pm, I meet with and carry out an exit interview with Alex who worked in Reception. Alex was moving onto working with and in Steven Brine MP`s office. He spoke with great pride about having worked at Cantell, and we talked about what he would be doing on the next step of his life journey. What a fabulous opportunity for such a young man. Alex was not shy at making a recommendation on how we could improve and I was pleased to receive his feedback. The last question - the all-important - 'Would you recommend others to work at Cantell School?' was answered with a vociferous - “Absolutely"!

At 2.50pm, I sadly don my high-vis jacket for a last time (honestly – it could still be on from the morning), as we say goodbye to the students as they leave the school site.

At 3.15pm, we start our weekly Senior Leadership Team meeting in the SLT/Progress office. All members of our SLT work in the same office together. They are a close team and whilst have their own discrete areas of responsibility, they are all able to contribute to each other’s areas. Our SLT meeting is split into two sections - standard and non-standard items. Our standard items consist of discussions and updates on: Non EAL Pupil Premium (a key group for our school), Assemblies, Attendance, Teaching, Learning and Assessment and Literacy/Reading. Our non-standard items are things that arise during the course of the year and can be scheduled in. These meetings are also an opportunity to reflect on where we are going as a school and openly talk about ideas/plans and strategies – unstructured time, if you will. Our greatest decisions around the curriculum this year came when we were not meant to be talking about curriculum!

Networking and celebration of student success

At 5pm, our meeting is cut short because we have been invited to a pre-performance VIP dinner set up by our Year 10 catering students. I sit with our Vice Chair of Governors, Pete Hilditch, as we tuck into an array of American style sharing boards and platters followed by a diner style burger and fries, followed by the richest of cheesecakes - Daddy Warbuck`s cheese cake I`ll have you know! The food was delicious and served both elegantly and professionally by our wonderful students, ably supported by Miss Grange and Miss Tomlinson, our dedicated Technology teachers.

7pm quickly comes around and the SLT and I are meeting dads, mums, grandparents, sisters, brothers, carers, aunts and uncles, who have all come to see their children in the show. They walk in with such pride. We share the pride, but we are also tinged with positive anxiety for the performance to go well. A couple of us pop backstage to wish the guys good luck; I mean break a leg! The focus on their faces, the care and attention to detail, the ambition and drive were all palpable!

So the curtain opens, the orchestra (the first one we have had in years) belts out the first tune and on come the cast. As the first line is delivered, I breathe a sigh of relief and settle back into my seat and enjoy, as the cast and crew deliver the best school performance that I have seen in my twenty years as a teacher. The cast were word perfect and delivered the songs in beautiful harmony. The orchestra was amazing - from drums to sax, the music replaced the once awful backing tracks and brought this musical to life. The technical crew was exceptional, managing the transitions with absolute ease and efficiency and with enough time for Charlie in Year 8 to greet me and ask how my day was!

I am indebted to our staff for the care, guidance and support they showed our students. Without them...

Great days and reflections

So as a very long day comes to an end and I head home, I remember reflecting that the process of the students getting to the performance was as important as the performance itself. They made new friends, a smaller family was created, and they showed a great deal of drive and courage. They were knocked down, several times I am sure, but they got back up and there is no doubt that having been involved in the show, they would have created memories for a lifetime.

As CS Lewis once said: Children are NOT a distraction from more important work. They are the MOST important work. This is understood, shared and acted upon daily by our Cantell and Aspire communities and I thank them for their hard work and dedication that help to shape the life chances of the youngsters in our care.

About the author

Harry Kutty is the Headteacher of Cantell School in Southampton, a large 11-16 inner-city comprehensive school. He is also the chair of one of the largest Co-operative Trusts in the South East made up of one Secondary, one Junior, one Infants, one Special and five Primaries. Harry has been inspecting schools in the South East since 2014 and is the Vice Chair of Southampton Secondary Heads and Schools' Forum.