I have been principal at Woodhouse College since 2013, just over 8 years. Before that I was vice-principal for 5 years. That’s quite a long time, and it is time for me to retire. I am pretty old: my brother was showing me a family tree recently, and all four of my grandparents were born before WW1 – one of them was born in the 19th century: 1898!
And I think the job of rebuilding after the pandemic needs to go to a younger person with energy and ideas. I have spent a lot of time recently with my successor, Sugra Alibhai, I think she will be fantastic: already she has shown that she is warm and caring and a good listener, whilst also being sharp and on it. She will be great. She will be introducing herself to you in the coming days.
I step down as principal at the end of this term, next Friday, but you may still see me around next term as I continue to teach my Year 13 maths set. I just want to take this opportunity to make one last speech.
Most of my best ideas have been other people’s. I don’t mean that I have stolen their ideas, passed them off as my own and taken the credit – I hope I haven’t done that. But I am proud that I have been the kind of principal that people could bring ideas to, both staff and students, suggestions for improvement, initiatives, innovations. And I have always tried to be open to those ideas, to encourage them, to finds ways to make them happen rather than finding ways to say no and close them down.
And the college has been richer as a result of those ideas that came from staff and students. The Duke of Edinburgh, the prom, the model UN, all those student-run societies, events, student newspapers and magazines, the college dog , the life of the college has been more vibrant and fulfilling for staff and students.
So I would say: if in the future you find yourself in a management position, remember that your success does not rest primarily on what you do, on your ideas, but rather on whether you are able to bring out the best in the teams working to you, whether you can enable them to have ideas and agency, whether you can allow them to develop and demonstrate their talents for the good of all.
Before I became principal I was never really quite sure what they do all day. I’m still not, because I don’t think I have spent my time as my predecessors did. I teach, 5 hours a week, a whole A level maths set, I cover tutorials (at least in normal times), I do learning zone duty and social area duty, I give feedback to students on personal statements (literally 100s of them every year), I write, edit and send UCAS references, I run Oxbridge academy. I don’t think my predecessors did any of those things, but I guess they did other things.
One of my predecessors once said (when she was giving me a bollocking): this is MY college. I love her very much, but I do not think this is my college; it belongs to us all, staff and students and governors and parents, and to past staff and students and to future generations and to the community, and we are here for a purpose: to give the students the best possible experience and the greatest chance of achievement and progression. I have tried to make myself and my leadership team more accountable to governors than in the past when they were at times little more than a rubber stamping outfit. Our governors now are excellent and they hold the college management to account to ensure we are doing a good job.
One of the things I am proud of is that we have now returned the college to the community. In academizing, we have gone from being a private sector FE corporation to a public sector school. We are back under the oversight of the local authority, back in the family of schools, accountable to and part of the local community. And of course it also helps that being an academy is immensely financially advantageous without really losing any of the freedoms that matter and without having to change our character or purpose.
I am going to be self-indulgent and talk about some of the other things I am proud of during my time as principal. Most of these were team efforts and relied on other people’s hard work, but I am proud they happened on my watch and that I play a role in enabling them.
Connected with academising is the Maths school project and link with Imperial College London, one of the world’s top universities. We now have staff from Imperial, including some quite impressive, senior people, at all levels of our governing body/trust structure. We have already scheduled some keynote speakers, student mentors, we will see massive benefits of this association at Woodhouse College, never mind the maths school. It’s a big deal and a massive achievement.
I have on my wall an email I sent to the president of Imperial College on 19 April 2018 – I got her email from somewhere, can’t remember, maybe I just googled it. A cold email out of the blue, asking her if Imperial College London might consider going into partnership with Woodhouse to create a new maths school on our site. It took 2 and a half years, but now the maths school has been approved by the Department for education, architect plans are being drawn up for a new £5 million building on the back of our campus, a tiny new school, a satellite of Woodhouse, that will change the lives of generations of students to come.
Other things I am proud of? Top of the list is our partnership with the Archer Academy, a new partner school from whom we take 60 or 70 students a year, more than any other school, and from whom we have learned a lot over the last few years and we have really benefited from the close relationship we have built up with them. I have learned a lot specifically from Lucy, their head teacher, a very inspiring person and a leader totally committed to her students and staff. She is not alone in this: there are a lot of excellent head teachers at local schools in Barnet and beyone, and I have been lucky to work with many of them and learn from them.
I am proud that at a time of endless austerity, year-on-year cuts in our funding that amounted to almost 25% cut in funding per student by 2019 compared with 2010, that I managed to shield staff and students from the effects of those and maintain healthy finances with an outstanding financial status in every year that I was principal.
Finally, I am proud that we have managed to maintain and improve high standards on my watch. The college’s exam results remain consistently high. Ofsted has stayed away because our data shows that our grades and progression statistics remain outstanding; we have doubled our Oxbridge success and increased numbers going to other top universities and competitive courses; and our popularity and reputation remain very strong.
What will I miss?
I will miss all the vibrant student events: the prom, all those D of E expeditions (I could talk about those for hours, all those times we staff were in the pub having a drink and a meal whilst students were huddling in the cold and the wet; the time my students did a reverse-rain dance around their tent hoping to stop the rain, all the time their inner tent getting more and more drenched; the time a student came up to me and said” People keep saying good morning to me – what’s wrong with them?!”); I will miss the fantastic music concerts, drama performances, art shows, the model UNs. All of these were so impressive, so inspiring, so memorable. I remember one of our students singing the solo of Dido’s Lament at one of the music concerts, I don’t think I will ever forget that. If you get a chance to go to one of those performances or shows, don’t miss it.
And all the student societies, that they found and run themselves, the newspapers and magazines – I am really proud that we have had an LGBT group active for well over ten years now. The first year, they were called the ‘So What’ group, and I went down and saw them march in the Pride parade in the centre of London. So proud.
And I will miss the big set piece events: open day, making the same speech over and over again sometimes a dozen times. Leavers assembly, which used to be a riotous affair full of love and laughs. Fun Day, at the end of the first year – we need to bring back all these events.
I will miss my department, the maths department, a great bunch of people, supportive, creative, funny, and led by a superb head of department.
I will miss all the informal chats with staff and students. The laughs. The excitement. Not knowing what a day will involve. Any day might suddenly be derailed by a phone call or an email or a shout.
What makes Woodhouse a special place is the staff, who are expert and hard-working but most of all committed to doing the best job they can – and the students, who are diverse, ambitious, full of humour and fun, up for a challenge, always willing to volunteer. Stay like that, if you can, don’t get jaded and cynical. Be warm and friendly and supportive with other people, as you are now, be open to new experiences and engage with them.
I probably shouldn’t say this, but exam grades are not the most important thing in life. They are important, and can allow you to open doors but there are many different ways to have a great life. The secret of life actually lies in the depth of your relationships with other people and your intrinsic satisfaction in rising to challenges and overcoming them. I have as much satisfaction, for example, in running the London marathon as my A level grades.
I have a friend who messed up his A levels because his mother died shortly before. He didn’t get into dentistry at Nottingham but they rang him up and offered him a place on a degree course in quantity surveying. He didn’t even know what it was but said yes. He now owns a big double-fronted house in Muswell Hill, travels the world inspecting and valuing hotels. Just goes to show there are many routes to happiness.
I am retiring as principal but I will carry on as a maths teacher – I have a job from September at another Sixth Form College in Harrow as a part time A level maths teacher. And so I look forward to a few more years teaching maths.
This has been a tough 12 months for everyone, and we are not out of it yet. But thank you for all the support, thanks for the nice words, thanks for the memories, and I wish you all well.