21 December 2021

I joined the SW100 course while in my current role as Assistant Principal for English at Torquay Academy. I had only moved to the region in September 2017 as a Teach First participant, and had in part chosen the South West because of its current outcomes record for pupils from deprived backgrounds. For me, upon hearing about the SW100 course, the alignment and unity of purpose I felt with the mission was immediate. Additionally, the opportunity to work with leaders and teams from the Reach Foundation and trusts across the region couldn’t be passed up. At the heart of the programme is a relentless focus on the social mission of improving outcomes for pupils from deprived backgrounds in the region and empowering a community of leaders to achieve that. That purpose underpins a number of key course elements and foci that have made it so empowering for me and others and that I will try to outline here.

Focus on Relationships, Networks and the Cohort

Our first in person meeting as a cohort was a two day and three night (for lack of a better word) retreat into Devonshire countryside. While this may on the surface seem to tick a number of cliche team building boxes, it became clear while participating that this was a course that valued above all your ability to find and build serious and meaningful relationships with colleagues. While the content of each day presented a serious level of discussion, theoretical rigour, and practice, the time offered in the evenings to discuss and talk with your new colleagues, the team from Reach, and the range of expert speakers who joined us in the day was invaluable. The power of having the time and opportunity to sit down with the likes of Dame Sue John and discuss the structural features of the London Challenge that underpinned its success cannot be understated. To be able to take those discussions back to the cohort as a whole and reflect on the takeaways and learning points was of equal value. You will without doubt find yourself to be a part of a close and supportive cohort by virtue of the time you are given to spend together and the power of the experiences you share. One of the most invigorating aspects of the course is being in a room full of future South West heads and having the time to build cooperative relationships while also rigorously and purposefully discussing the finer points of school leadership. There is a distinct feeling of ‘the future is now’ with your colleagues in the cohort.

Domain Specific Knowledge Grounded in Observation

The course also differs from other leadership and headship programmes in that there is a clear desire to cut down on bureaucracy and excessive assessment. You will complete ‘Headteacher Tasks’ each term and while they require planning they are bureaucratically light and focused on practice that will benefit your thinking and your school. Instead, it is clear that time goes into getting the best and brightest speakers and leaders to share and instruct on domain specific knowledge for school improvement and leadership. Across the residentials, webinars and school visits you will hear from a phenomenal range of speakers and leaders (for us that included Ben Parnell and Max Heimndorf to name a few) as well as direct instruction from the Reach team. Underpinning all of these sessions is an understanding that training in generic leadership theory is not sufficient and that there are specific processes and knowledge bases required for headship. Of course there is no definitive approach out of context but it is clear that the team at Reach want you to possess as broad a knowledge base around building a vision of excellence, building culture, and building teams as possible. Armed with this knowledge, visits to the best schools in the country take on greater purpose. You will observe for systems and structures rather than glossy marketing and be empowered to do so precisely because you know what you are hoping to see in practice.

Preparation for Headship

Of course, the whole purpose of the programme is to prepare you for headship. For me the course has rapidly accelerated my own philosophy and thinking about what I will need for that job. Having the space and time to read around and discuss how to construct an ideal SLT, and build systems for policy design and communication has filled the gaps in my own thinking. A lot of the conclusions you will take away are not prescribed but rather a result of being exposed to such a huge variety of school improvement and leadership narratives and then being given the space to dissect that knowledge as a cohort. It is here that the strands of the course come together most powerfully. As a participant, you are exposed to the best and brightest in education and then given the space to internalise and discuss that learning as a part of a community of regional leaders; better still, you are then surrounded by the people that can help you find your route to headship and enable you to start having more considerable and meaningful impact in your region. If that’s what drives and motivates your work in the South West then the SW100 is something you want to be a part of.