• Interview with: Patrick Ottley-O’Connor, headteacher of Westhoughton High School

Interview with: Patrick Ottley-O’Connor, headteacher of Westhoughton High School

After two years spent at North Liverpool Academy, executive principal Patrick Ottley-O’Connor is now set to embark on a new challenge at a school in Bolton. Educate finds out more about his short but transformational time at the Anfield secondary school; how these unprecedented times have brought school communities together and why retirement is currently on hold.

In respect of the social distancing guidelines, the interview more than meets the two-metre rule, in fact Patrick is located in Beziers, south of France, for the video call where he is with his family, enjoying a well-deserved break and continuing to work remotely.

Patrick’s leadership journey started in 2000 when he joined a school in Rochdale as a deputy head. During a nine-year period, he took on two substantive headships and then over the last eight years he has been at schools that have either lost a headteacher, have been in Ofsted categories or have serious financial issues.

Since 2018, Patrick has headed up North Liverpool Academy. He was brought in to work alongside the deputy headteacher, Emily Vernon, until it was time for her to take the helm.

He said: “I came in to help the deputy head, Emily, who became acting principal during my time there. Together, we were able to redefine what the school stood for and the vision-based values by carrying out a staff perception questionnaire. The feedback was that they needed to revisit the values and why they do what they do.

“There was a very strong team ethos and everyone wanted to be aspirational for their students. They wanted to help the students own their own destiny.”

In the shadow of the Liverpool FC’s ground, North Liverpool Academy boasts 1,350 students, with 70% pupil premium children, and 202 members of staff.

“We soon developed four key areas that we wanted our school community to work towards: aspire, experience, community and achieve. We set about really raising aspirations for apprenticeships and universities. In my first year, 11% of students went to Russell Group universities, in 2019 this rose to 20% and this year, we were touching over 30% – with our first going to Oxbridge!”

The school is a centre of learning and works closely with the local community and the wider academic community. With an extensive alumnus, the academy intertwines local businesses and university into school life. They employ a professor from the University of Sheffield three-days-a-week, who brings in his PHD students to work alongside the year groups.

Patrick said: “We are giving our students unique experiences and exposure to exciting opportunities. For example, there are year groups that are currently taking part in undergraduate level research. We have Year 10 and Year 12 students studying mealworms and the way they eat and digest polystyrene, whilst our Year 13s are looking after 10,000 bees and making honey whilst extracting DNA and looking into the sustainability of bees.”

With many innovative projects, staff are encouraged to turn the curriculum on its head and look at what they want students to learn, rather than what they have to teach them.

But how has the academy been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? Patrick said: “There has never been anything like it, in the 37 years since my training, that has affected schools like this.

“The mass long-term absence from school buildings has been hard but fortunately we had some good online learning in place beforehand. The Northern Schools Trust (which includes the North Liverpool Academy, Liverpool Life Sciences UTC and The Studio) kept a close eye on the work that was submitted and shifted governance priority from attendance to engagement.”

Impressively, the academy had one of the highest levels of online engagement in Liverpool at 90%.

Patrick said: “Our pastoral teams were in regular contact with families and visited the homes of vulnerable children. Fortunately, we were able to send students home with computers just as lockdown occurred and found ourselves buying more for students who were experiencing technical issues at home.”

As a trust, they also spent thousands of pounds on free school meals, on top of the government vouchers, ensuring that no child went hungry during lockdown and the summer holidays.

The team also continued to implement the school’s reward system by offering Just Eat vouchers to those with good engagement – it was even extended to members of staff.

Patrick is a big advocate for looking after the mental health and wellbeing of staff and colleagues. He said: “Colleagues must look after themselves first before helping others, so that they can make the biggest possible difference for our learners.”

Patrick continued: “We have something called ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing Star of the Week’ whereby staff nominate a colleague who has supported them. During lockdown, we were receiving up to 50-60 nominations a week for people who had made a positive difference to their mental health and wellbeing.

“This was especially important for those colleagues who were struggling to home educate and do their jobs, living independently at home or those who were self-isolating. We had staff quizzes and ‘Big Brenda’s Virtual Coffee Bar’ which was named after our wonderful tea lady who is in her 70s and runs the staff canteen – she’s a legend within the school!”

Patrick quickly added that she is affectionately called Big Brenda as her daughter, also called Brenda, works at the school and is known as Little Brenda.

He went on: “The virtual coffee bar allowed staff to drop in and catch up with one another during break times. I also made a number of welfare calls every day and caught up with staff to check they were ok.”

With the start of the new academic year, Patrick understands that the mental health and wellbeing of the entire school is of the utmost importance.

He said: “The Year 10s going in to Year 11 are worried about whether they have been able to do enough for their exams next year – likewise for the new Year 13s. For many there is also the worry of whether it will be safe when there is lots of people back together.”

Patrick beams with pride as he concludes talking about the academy’s work over the past few months. He said: “I have to say I’m very pleased with the work done during lockdown. It was a time when the school community made the biggest difference to the lives of our students.

“All schools will face criticism from time to time, especially when parents are not happy, but we’ve really gone the extra mile during this time for our students and their families. There has been a mass outpouring from them, and the community, as they all feel loved. I think the benefit of this will be felt for many years to come in terms of people’s understanding of the work schools can do.

“I don’t use this word very often but I am very proud of the effort we have made and the service we have done. I can’t praise Emily Vernon, the now headteacher of NLA, enough. I’m an experienced headteacher but I have learnt so much from her moral purpose and integrity. It really has been a pleasure to serve alongside her.”

Patrick is a well-known figure on #Edutwitter. He recently announced to his 15,000+ followers that at 55-years-old he had the option to retire but didn’t feel like it was quite right. Instead he has decided to take on a 12-month headship at Westhoughton High School in Bolton.

He said: “I could have stayed on (at North Liverpool Academy) as there is still a job to do and I could have supported the other schools within the trust but the piece of work that I came in to do was complete. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and I can’t praise enough the incredible work of Geoff Wainwright, the chair of trustees, CEO Nigel Ward and the principals of each school.

“Quite often because of the nature of the job I do, I regularly receive offers to go into schools which I often turndown but when the offer of the job in Bolton came up and I was very interested in the prospect of doing it for a year, so the time felt right to move on to the next challenge.”

Retirement for Patrick will come in a few years when his wife, who is an assistant headteacher within a secondary school, reaches 55, although he doesn’t envision being fully retired as he also provides coaching to aspiring new and experienced headteachers and CEOs of multi-academy trusts (MAT).

Collaborative Leadership Ltd was established after headteachers, chair of governors and CEOs began reaching out to him for advice and support. His vast knowledge and expertise sees Patrick work with schools and MATs across the UK.

He said: “We are currently lobbying government and other organisations to make sure that free headteacher support or funded coaching support is put into place for all, not just new, headteachers. We have a duty of care as headteachers to look after our staff. The duty of care for headteachers lies with governing bodies and some do it beautifully well, whilst some don’t and that’s the concern. It’s a tough gig for whoever you are.

“One of the things that has become much bigger in my head over the last five years, in a position of influence, is the inequity we see within education in terms of our leadership. Only 3% of leaders of schools are BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) in this country. There is also a disproportionate amount of men that lead in education.”

Patrick talks openly about these issues on Twitter through hashtags such as #HeForShe, #Ally, #LGBTed #BAMEed #DisabilityED, #WomenEd and #DiverseEd. You can follow his musings at: @ottleyoconnor.

As he looks forward to his one hundredth school term, he explained more about this new role: “The current head is retiring and my job is to go in for 12 months, make some changes and recruit a new headteacher. It’s all about creating sustainable leadership and recruiting the right people for the right schools and levelling things outs.

“During the transition, my job is to offer the stability that the school needs to move the school forward and work alongside the two very talented deputy head teachers, the senior team and the rest of the staff to help them make that continuous improvement.”

He continued: “I have already sent out a staff perception questionnaire. I’m going to do the same for students and their families so I can listen to what people are saying and treat that feedback as a gift, even though that gift might not be a nicely received one, you must act upon it.

“With all this in place we can quickly start to put the children back on a recovery curriculum and revive the learning journeys everyone has been on. We can identify if any gaps have opened any wider during the lockdown, or if things need consolidating and misconceptions need challenging.

He said: “There needs to be safety nets in place and we know there is going to be an increased amount of need so we need to prioritise spending towards these. We may have made some savings during lockdown for things such as, supply cover and photocopying etc, and so these savings need to be rediverted back to our students and staff.”

As we come to the end of the interview, Educate couldn’t help but ask what his overall personal vision for education is? Without hesitation, Patrick said: “As a whole, I’d like us as a profession, to be kinder to ourselves and kinder to each other.

“Arguments tend to fall into binary in education these days when people fall out, you’re either traditional, progressive or you’re this or you’re that, but actually it shouldn’t be, it’s about finding out what suits your community the best and using that values-based vision to drive forward every single decision you make.”

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