Leader stories Chris Russell Transcript

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1 Leader stories Transcript Interviewer: After spells of playing cricket with Kent and Surrey broken by a short service commission in the Army, moved into education and has spent his career entirely in schools in challenging circumstances. In 1988 he came to Astor College of Arts as head and then became Chief Executive of the Dover Federation for the Arts, comprising Astor College, White Cliffs Primary College for the Arts, Shatterlocks Infant School and Nursery, Barton Junior School and KETV Film and Sound Studio. He runs the National Student s Art Exhibition in the Mall Galleries, London, and has produced 22 joint international musicals around the world. So what motivates him? The first thing to say is that it s the excitement of making a difference to a lot of children s lives, and especially children who come from predominately very poor, disadvantaged backgrounds, and this happens in a lot of ways. It provides the opportunities that they may not have. You re trying to give them the best education and caring possible, and you re trying to bring some magic into their lives as well. I chose very early on that to go into schools in challenging circumstances because I felt that I could actually without being pompous about it, I genuinely could make a difference there. My own education was in the independent sector and it would have been very easy to take a number of offers up of jobs there, but I decided that this is where I would make a difference, and it was the right decision. Is that not the motivation for most teachers though, do you think, that they actually go into the profession and headteachers as well to make that difference? I certainly would hope so. And can you draw on any sort of aspects of your family background that put you in the right place to do this kind of role? My father taught, but I suppose from a very early age and my mother would say at the age of ten, that I said I was going to be a headteacher, but by the age of 14, having seen My Fair Lady, I was going to be an actress, which was slightly worrying for my parents at the time. But now you re combining the two here, if you like? Because you re responsible for a lot of musical productions as well as the being in charge of the school as well? Yes. I mean, I m very lucky. I m extremely blessed in terms of what I m able to do, and I obviously the day job is the Federation. But yes, I do produce big international musicals, and of course, we run the National Students Art Exhibition in the Mall Galleries in London, along with the Royal Society of British Artists and we re on our eighth year at the moment. So you aspired to being a senior leader when you were just ten. What was the journey? Page 1 of 5

2 I suppose the journey really started around sport and things like the CCF, and developed from that into genuinely playing, you know, professional sport and joining the army. I was a commissioner in the army and then I did that, and captain of the Combined Services the Army and Combined Services. So there s a lot of things you could have done, but you chose this? Yes. I ve always wanted to teach, and although I I mean, I have to say, I probably played with the cricket and enjoyed it immensely, but I did that for a long time but I always wanted to seriously teach, and I did take that seriously when I And after you wanted to teach, you wanted to be a headteacher? Yes, I did. Yes. I mean, that was clearly in my sort of plans, but it wasn t something that was driving me, and I must, must, must be a headteacher, because every job was supremely important, and you know, the career would look after itself, which it did in the end. It sounds like a lot of the things you enjoy doing in your leisure time sort of feed into what you do in school? Well, that s why I m really lucky, because you know, the international productions yes, they re very hard work, but they are different and they re very creative, but they re different from your day-to-day work. The art, likewise. But in terms of the work-life balance, yes, that s part of it, but also, I live in the country. As you know, I fly a lot and enjoy that, and I watch a lot of cricket and rugby. Well, so there s not enough hours in the day, really? I make sure the 24 are enough, actually. What about your proudest achievement as a leader? Is there something that you can pinpoint or do you find every day, every week, every hour, there s a new achievement that you can mark down? Achievement is a funny old word, isn t it? Because I think there are a lot of things that I m proud of, and I think that the obviously the starting and continuing and sustaining the National Students Art Exhibition is something which is very special, especially because it s part of the Royal Society of British Artists patronage. But the saving of the primary school in Saint Radigan s that was a that was probably that was very important for the community. An isolated community. Extremely challenging. Very, very poor. Huge, huge problems right the way across the board. They were the worst primary school in the whole of the country. Due to close. Should have closed, and we said we d try and stop that happening and we did, and you know, just a year or so later, it was a good school with many outstanding features. The nature of my leadership impact inspection took it to outstanding, and it was the seventh most improved school in the country last year, and that you know, developing a team that s been able to do that has been fantastic. Page 2 of 5

3 Well, I was going to say, was that down to simply effective leadership or in the determination of everyone involved? It s the development of the right team. So I mean, one s own pride goes in the achievement of others really, because you can t do it as a leader. There s no way you can do it. You can try and put a team together that you think can achieve that, and motivate them, and that s really what drives it forward. It s not you. So what characterises for you a good leader? Is it charisma, is it integrity, is it abilities? All those things? Combination of? I think a number of things. I think being able to understand how people work and live and are, and being able to motivate them and excite them and get them to be able to excite others. That s a skill. Patience is a skill. But also And can these be learnt? Or do you just have them? I think they can be developed. To what degree, I m not sure. You know, that would depend on the individual, but I think they can be developed. Patience, for example, is I think very important, but you should there s got to be a bottom line beyond which you don t go. I think you ve got to be able to operate, you know, when there s when you re under extreme stress and pressure, and also, when you re tired and when you re ill, and that then is the mark of how good a leader you are. How you operate under those kind of circumstances when the chips are really down. So what advice would you give to someone wanting to sort of step up to the plate and become a senior leader? I was quite clear that I needed to have done certain jobs in order to be a good head. Hopefully it ll stand a chance of being a good head, if that is what I am. And for anybody going into leadership, I would say it s first of all, don t be flattered by what people say about you. Don t believe your own hype. Make sure you get the background and a background of success in the key jobs and the key areas that you re going to need to understand and know about as a head, and develop that heavy duty battery that you re going to have to draw into when things are really, really difficult, and certainly any leadership will have those circumstances and especially leadership in challenging areas, which obviously is what I ve spent most of my career in. That s going to happen a lot of the time and you need that battery to be fully operational to be able to draw into it, and to understand that you can t do it on your own. You need a high quality team around you and to be able to develop that team around you, and also make sure the credit goes to where it should be going and not to you. Now, you ve had a sort of a long and distinguished career, but are you finding that you re still developing your own leadership skills? Absolutely. Incredibly, yes. Almost on a daily basis, and because you are doing the things that I do, and in the Federation and doing all the other exciting things, you re faced with new challenges all the time. So you re constantly surprising yourself, as it were? Page 3 of 5

4 Yes, you are. I mean, even on for example, on the international front dealing with the all the different cultures and the way people operate, and that is always testing. The artistic front, artistics temperaments are interesting to say the least, and you have to be able to manage those and deal with those and motivate them. So pulling together a diverse team? Yes, very much so. Yes. And how do you where do you start with that, though? Well, we deliberately did it within the Federation by saying that we don t want to we want to make sure the Federation leadership team that the people in that team are very different, and but are compatible, and we ve managed to do that, and that means that there s this huge strength within a team of people, which not only has the individual issue of running their own schools, but also, has the strategic responsibility of running the other schools in the Federation. Okay. So let s look at the role of the National College. Do you think it s important that leaders have an organisation like the National College, because clearly that s something that s happened since you began teaching? Well, funnily enough, when I was at Bath University in the late 70s, I took myself back to university to do a Masters degree in Industrial and Educational Management. One of the things that I looked at was career planning and also, you know, human resource planning, and also I was advocating very strongly the development of a National College. I mean and I find it interesting now that that obviously has now been established. I think it s incredibly important. It s an inspirational centre with huge outreach capabilities. It s a hub of excellence. Has an outstanding leader, Steve Munby. And I think it s something which has been incredibly important to the development of the profession. I can remember in the late 70s, management in education was a kind of if you had something like that, you were like a two-headed monster, and one of the things that I was looking at was career planning, which there wasn t any really of any significance. People were kind of promoted to all sorts of jobs, not necessarily to do with their ability. They just happened to be in the right place at the right time, or be prepared to do the particular work, and I came across a number of heads, for example, who used to say to me one in particular, who used to say, I don t know why I did this, Chris. I wish I was still back teaching history, you know? And that but that was not that uncommon in those days, and you had so I think it was necessary to have this kind of career development outlook, which is obviously things like the National College as being taking it hugely that step further. Has it been an unqualified success? I mean, some people might argue that there s a degree of sort of homogeneity that s kind of come into the way teaching is nowadays, compared to how it was. There s no mavericks, presumably, anymore. There s more control. Page 4 of 5

5 Well, I don t agree with that. I think because of the kind of pressure that s on schools, I think in a kind of bizarre way, it has developed again more people who are up for the challenge, because of the unfairness of what s been going on in the profession, and I think that I do think there are mavericks in the profession. I do think there are people who are prepared to take risks and as long as they re calculated risks and they re always risks which are taken for the benefit of the children. So you can always see a direct cause and effect between effective leadership and, well, forming children, students, pupils? Well, I think there is that correlation, certainly. If you a bad leadership go to the other extreme I mean, bad leadership seriously damages children, and not only their development but their the way they re being cared for and their whole experience. It s a very destructive thing and we found that in the Federation when we brought schools together as equal partners. We had to do some pretty tough things to some of the people who were working with the children, because they were it was just appalling what was going on, and we saw the results. It was a lot of bad leadership. So you re out of the woods now? In a challenging area, you re never out of the woods, and you should never believe you re out of the woods, but certainly, all the schools now are performing extremely well, and I m absolutely delighted with it, but we because of the nature of where we are, we re in an area where there s 40% selection; highly challenging, disadvantaged area. We will always be fragile, and that s why you need top leadership throughout, and you need the very, very best teachers, and they need to be motivated and they need to be signed up to our beliefs. Page 5 of 5

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