Tags: Headteacher | Leadership Vision | School Leadership & Management

Principal June Cannie talks to Secondary Headship about the experience of taking on a leadership role relatively late in life, charged with the responsibility for keeping the founder’s vision of a community college intact.

How did you come into headship?

I started my career in a village college – Bottisham Village College in Cambridgeshire. I then worked at several other schools in the county, first as head of a German department and then as head of languages. I had worked part-time while I brought up my children; my career, when it got going, was quite accelerated.

Then a deputy headship came up at a school I’d worked in formerly. I hadn’t applied for a deputy headship previously – hadn’t ever thought an application would be taken seriously, given my age and profile at that point – but I had thoroughly enjoyed working there, so thought I would give it a go. I was appointed to the position in 1995 and spent six exhilarating and very rewarding years at that school. When I had first worked there, I had felt very valued and saw what a difference the excellent senior team made to the school. To join that team was a real privilege. Being deputy head was hugely energising; I found that in that role, you really could make school life better for pupils and teachers.

It was only when a new headteacher joined the school that I gave any thought to applying for headship. Again, I was sure that there was little point, given my age, but he talked me into completing the NPQH – even built it into my performance management targets! Without his encouragement I would never have moved on from deputy headship.

What did you think of the NPQH?

Well, I have to admit that I did it under duress, moaning and groaning along the way! I took the accelerated route and completed it in six months.

I enjoyed the three-day residential part of the programme because it created time for reflection. The in-school assessment was also worthwhile because it really made me consider and talk about my work in an evaluative way. That was good. However, in broad terms, I have to say that I gained very little more out of it than that because working at the level I had reached, I was learning on a day-to-day basis how to do the job. Not only that – by that time, I had been in the profession for 27 years. Having said that, I have an assistant head who is now in the throes of doing the new NPQH; he is gaining a great deal from it. I think that the usefulness of this qualification hinges on the stage at which you do it. I think also that there is more rigour in the current course.

I applied for the job as principal of Sawston Village College at the end of 2001. I was bowled over by the school. As part of the first day of the process, we were given the opportunity to visit some of the community education activities. As we went from classroom to classroom, I was struck by the purposeful activities going on everywhere. Adults were engaged in learning across the site. There was an enormous richness to the school which I found immensely attractive. I took up the headship in January 2002, at the age of 51.

What is the history of the college?

Cambridgeshire village colleges were the brainchild of Henry Morris who was education secretary for Cambridgeshire in the late 1920s. He had a vision of education ‘from the cradle to the grave’; of a school without boundaries, integrated into its local community, serving its community; a college where children and adults could be educated alongside one another.

The college was opened on 30 October 1930 by Edward VIII, when he was Prince of Wales. We have footage of the day in our archives. It shows His Royal Highness stomping round the site, clearly furious that he had turned up to open what he believed was a Cambridge college – as indeed it was, but not a Cambridge University college! He was clearly pretty fed up!

The college’s original building mirrors the architecture of a Cambridge University college. The ‘Morris Wing’, as it is now called, frames a courtyard with a fountain in the centre, Fountain Court, and includes a community room, the Walnut room, which we’ve turned into an art gallery. We recently refurbished it, and as part of that resurfaced the floor only to find that it was not wood, as we, and a very disgruntled carpenter, had thought, but an intricate brick floor. This is a room that the local community feels very strongly is theirs.

There are still many people in Sawston who remember the college’s early days. They will tell you that there was a real sense of its being a special place, a unique school. They felt very proud of it – and still do.

What were the key challenges that you faced as a new head?

Well, the rich history was not the only thing I inherited! Life was not all plain sailing because I took on a huge deficit. That’s quite a tough starting point for a head because obviously it impacts on everyone in the school. We had some redundancies, not of teachers, but among support staff.

We were also affected by the trauma that Cambridgeshire local authority underwent two years ago. As a county, we had always been seen as the beacon for community education. Suddenly Ofsted introduced the Adult Learning Inspection and the LEA was made to realise that there had to be a radical re-think if we were to fall in line with modern thinking on what adult learning should look like. This caused a huge upheaval. There have been major issues about funding over the last few years because of cuts – indeed, cuts of a further 3% are anticipated for this autumn. All this has pushed some major decisions back to the village colleges.

We feel a heavy responsibility to continue the tradition of providing adult learning, but so much is at risk because of underfunding. If our local village colleges don’t support community education, we could find everyone heading into the centre of Cambridge for something that our governors and staff believe firmly they should have on their doorstep.

Having said that, the school budget cannot support community education – it has to be freestanding. The way we have ensured the continuance of our adult learning is by going into partnership with Linton Village College. In April 2004, we founded the BE (Broadening Education) Partnership.

We are working very effectively as a joint business. We pool our funding for adult and youth education and have a team of support staff who work across both sites. We have a shared adult manager to manage adult learning and a youth manager to run an extended youth programme. In addition to that, we have an arts development manager, funded via a dual-use agreement with South Cambridgeshire District Council. His brief is to promote and coordinate arts activity across our patch.

What are the rewards of being the head of a community college?

There is a deal of richness to the job. I do genuinely espouse the values of our founder. I want our pupils to feel that they are members of their community. I want all of them to feel that they belong and matter, not only to the school community, but also to the wider community, with a responsibility to both.

We have members of our local community in and about the school throughout the day; they are seamlessly interwoven into its life. For example, the local history society recently took over our community room and launched a display of World War 11 memorabilia – letters, artefacts etc. Our pupils visited the display not only formally with their teachers, but also informally in their free time to chat to the veterans. They, along with a huge range of other local societies and groups, very much want to be part of life of college and we recognise the mutual benefits this brings.

The interweaving of school and community will be very evident in our imminent 75th anniversary celebrations, when we are organising a festival to celebrate the life of the school and its role in the life of the village. The celebrations will start with a parade of the village’s many youth organisations through the village and into the college, led by the Boys’ Brigade’s marching band.

To launch the festivities on the college campus, we are recreating the ceremony of the Rose Queen. This is a ceremony that first took place in 1931 and continued annually, even through the war years, until 1964.

Our year 8 pupils have chosen two members of each form – a boy and girl – to represent them; we stressed the importance of choosing those who had been not only positive students but also positive people through the course of their first year at the college. From the group, we chose one of the girls to be crowned as the Rose Queen, by the Rose Queen of 1943. Our school madrigal singers and wind band will perform on Fountain Court to mark the crowning and open the festivities for the afternoon.

We want this to be a day when we bring everyone connected to the College, past and present, onto the campus to celebrate the life of the school. We’ve set up a programme of music and dance in the Henry Morris Hall, the college’s original assembly hall, with entertainment provided by a wide range of community groups among them SYD (Sawston Youth Drama) at the lower end of the age spectrum and the Friday Singers, a group of over-60s who hold regular concerts in the college for the local community.

Our sports centre, which runs as a commercial operation, is offering a wide range of sporting opportunities. There will be free access to the swimming pool, five-a-side football, and taster sessions in a wide range of sports including archery, karate and trampolining. Our PTA is running a craft fair and our Walnut Gallery will host an exhibition of the work of local artists. It promises to be a great day. All we need is the weather.

How does a community college differ from any other?

We are expected to be part of village life and we have to respond to those expectations. As the children go about their learning here, we do drive home to them their responsibility to make sure the many visitors take away a positive impression of the college.

So our children will talk openly and in a relaxed and friendly way to adults. They don’t find it difficult because they are mixing and mingling with them all day. They are conscious that they are part of a wider community. If what you want from pupils is that they become positive and active citizens, then a school like this is the best place to achieve it.

Of course I’m not saying that other schools can’t ensure that their pupils become responsible citizens! I’ve worked in a city school and I loved the diversity in that environment that you probably don’t get here – we had 42 different nationalities in my last school, which was just fabulous. But I do think I probably had to work harder at giving children a sense of community responsibility and involvement.

What does the future hold for the college?

It looks very bright. We’ve just paid off our deficit and after going through three years of saving money and making cuts, we’re suddenly able to begin to think about expansion and putting together an infrastructure for ICT that we haven’t had before.

A major new £5m building programme starts this autumn which will result in new maths, science, geography, ICT and food technology facilities. We have a guarantee from the county that the new buildings will replicate, as far as possible, the original architecture. I feel a great sense of responsibility to maintain the integrity of the campus, when I look at our wonderful courtyard. I think Henry Morris’s own feeling was that beauty of architecture raised everyone’s spirits and aspirations and I endorse that.

Our partnership with Linton Village College will be developed further to serve our communities, including our partner primary schools; we are forming a ‘locality’ involving all agencies to work more closely together in support of vulnerable families and to support the achievement of the five outcomes delineated in the Every Child Matters agenda. And then, of course, we need to consider how we respond to the government’s extended schools’ agenda. For Cambridgeshire village colleges – and for Sawston – that will pose few challenges. We think, in fact, that our founder would have approved.

However, one thing that won’t change is the set of values that sit at the heart of the school – Sawston Village College serves the community.

This article first appeared in Secondary Headship – Sep 2005

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