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Profile10th January 2022

From pub manager to leading a top Ark school

Great schools are made of great leaders. At Ark, we know strong senior leadership is key to ensuring our students have access to an excellent education. That’s why we recognise the value of supporting and investing in our staff at every stage of their career. From nationally accredited development programmes to residential trips with peers, leaders are given all the tools and support to develop. We spoke with Danny Richards, Interim Principal at Ark Boulton Academy in Birmingham, about his unusual journey into leadership. Danny is the latest in our #ArkPeople series.

Getting into teaching

I was terrible in secondary school, and other than PE lessons, I didn’t enjoy it. While in the sixth form, I worked in pubs and as a grill chef in a Harvester restaurant. I went on to manage several ‘tricky’ pubs in Birmingham and Hackney while raising a young family.

I became interested in teaching as the headteachers and senior leadership team at a local school visited my bar on Friday afternoons. They were so passionate about the work that they inspired me to give teaching a go. Quite simply, I asked them for a job, and they gave me an opportunity to visit their school and interview for a teaching assistant (TA) role.

I began as a TA and didn’t have a degree or strong A levels. I began to study at university in my own time while working full time in school. I took every opportunity I could to gain experience teaching borderline Year 11 groups and taking on pastoral responsibilities. These experiences helped me to climb the career ladder. In 2014, I completed my National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), which focused on the leadership of teaching and learning.

I joined Ark Boulton as Vice Principal in 2015 as it transitioned. Mark Gregory (now Ark’s Director of Professional Development) persuaded me to join Ark; I had been Mark’s TA at our previous school. We remained friends, and he convinced me of the benefits of moving to Ark Boulton and the Ark network. I successfully applied for the role, which meant leading in a challenging school; the predecessor GoldenHillock school had been graded ‘inadequate’. After 18 months of hard work, the school was inspected and judged “good”.

Intimidatingly capable

Two years ago, I was fortunate to attend Ark’s LEAD training, which provided enjoyable and helpful networking opportunities. LEAD is a programme that prepares you for headship. It’s structured training, and you dig into areas of whole school leadership that your typical day to day vice-principal role wouldn’t necessarily allow you the time to explore as thoroughly as you might want to. This includes governance and finance, which can feel daunting as a new senior leader.

Ark’s professional development is fantastic, and I describe senior leaders I encountered as intimidatingly capable. When I joined, there were people like Veronica Lloyd-Richards (former Head of Professional Development), Daisy Christodoulou (former Head of Assessment) and Rich Davies (Director of Insight); all these people were incredibly capable. As somebody joining the network, that was intimidating. However, the more I engaged with them and their work, the less intimidated and more competent I felt. My initial feelings and my imposter syndrome slowly disappeared.

Developing a leadership style

The training was crucial for me, as it helped at a time when assessment was changing; it supported my work as the school’s assessment lead. Working with Daisy, Rich and now Amie Barr (current Head of Assessment), I’m competent and more informed than many of my senior leader friends who work outside of Ark; in fact, they will contact me for advice!

Being part of the network groups has been inspiring; joining groups with leaders like Matt Jones (Executive Principal at Ark Globe), Max Haimendorf (Principal at King Solomon Academy), and Amie discussing assessment is a far cry from removing drunks!

I now work closely with Ark’s Head of Safeguarding, Joycelyn Thomson and feel more knowledgeable in this area because I get the chance to work collegiately and benefit from the broad expertise that a large network can provide. I would consider assessment and safeguarding to be areas of strength.

As you participate in the training, you must also have room to understand your leadership journey and your professional development needs. During my LEAD training, Lucy Frame (Principal at Ark All Saints) was my coach, and I realised that my ability to coach others wasn’t as strong. I wanted the people I work with to benefit in the same way that Lucy has helped me. As part of my professional development, I began to work with the University of Birmingham, mentoring degree apprenticeship educational leaders because I wanted to be in a position to give others the time and support that I received, and it’s great that I’ve been able to do this within my role.

What is good leadership?

I’d describe good leadership as being pinned to a moral purpose. The people working with me expect composure in decision making, which I can now provide as I have been line managed by Herminder Channa (Principal at Ark Boulton), who role models composure exceptionally well.

When I came into this role, my leadership style would have been considered more coercive due to where the school was in its journey. So, as it improved, I’ve had to change my leadership approach and style, which is where the coaching piece comes in. It’s no longer about the immediate impact and rapid transformation; the focus is on building capacity and a sustainable model to accelerate improvement to student outcomes further.

The plethora of training I have received has helped me reflect and improve how I do things. Everything I do is mission-aligned and purposefully planned, so it’s evident why we’re completing the work we are doing. If you take the experience of leading a school through a global pandemic, we’ve had very strong support from the network that has been consistent and timely. It has allowed me to focus on supporting colleagues and being a composed, transparent leader.

When I was a TA, I once joked in the staff room that I’d be the first teaching assistant to become a headteacher. I think I may have been the first secondary school TA who has gone on to become a Head, and this is only happened because of the opportunities I’ve had working alongside so many “intimidatingly capable” people.