School leader interview: Mat Galvin, Firth Park Academy

Mat Galvin

Mat Galvin is assistant principal for Teaching and Learning at Firth Park Academy in Sheffield, a 'good' school in a challenging area. Having worked in inner city schools for 17 years, Mat has worked regionally and nationally on both Science teaching and Outdoor education. He is part of the MyScience alumni and hosts the regional Triple Science network. Outside of work, Mat splits his time between his young family and Sheffield Tigers RUFC.

Follow @mjogalvin1

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1. Tell us about how you got into teaching.

To be honest, it’s the vocation I always wanted to follow. I loved teaching and learning right from being a leader at my local church youth group as a teenager. After completing my degree and PGCE, I went straight into the classroom and have never looked back. I’ve met other fantastic teachers who have joined teaching after several career changes so there are plenty of routes in! I think the key to remaining fired up is to evolve your role in different schools. It will keep you fresh and motivated. Over the years I’ve been an assistant head of year, outdoor education and expedition coordinator, departmental and faculty leader, and now senior leader. All have had their unique rewards and challenges.

2. You're both a regional Science lead and an SSAT aspirant headteacher. Tell us about that.

The regional science work has come from working for a large MAT, Academies Enterprise Trust (AET). Although there are different opinions about MATs in the education community, personally, I’ve found it’s opened up unique opportunities which simply would have not been available in previous schools. I work with 16 schools across the north of England for one day a week, to improve Science teaching, learning and outcomes. It’s both an opportunity to support schools and fantastic CPD for me. I’ve been working with lots of “Tweeters such as @LeadingLearner and @jillberry102 offer great ideas.”hard working leaders and teachers across the area, part of Ofsted inspections and led school reviews. It’s an enlightening experience and one which I take back to my own school and practice. The national team I work within is also full of high quality leaders, so we’re always swapping advice and ideas. It’s long hours on the visit days but completely worth the time and energy.

The SSAT Aspirant Heads course was a great chance to learn about headship with like-minded colleagues, visiting lots of high-performing schools to see what works for them. We were taught by successful heads from different types of schools, all of whom had a great deal of experience and advice. The chance to network and talk through challenges with other senior leaders was inspirational. I’ve taken so many ideas into my current role and binned a few along the way as well! In my first ever interview, I stated that I wanted to be an experienced head by the end of my career and things haven’t changed!

3. What’s the best part of being a school leader that you didn’t have as a teacher?

There are lots of great aspects to being a school leader. Two which immediately spring to mind are seeing other leaders grow and bringing about positive change in areas you’re passionate about. At Firth Park Academy in Sheffield, I’ve been working with middle leaders to develop and increase the scope of their experience. It was great to see them either move on to promoted posts or join the extended leadership team, looking and feeling the part! In terms of bringing in changes, we’re looking really closely at the marking policy to make it impactful but manageable in terms of work life balance. Having seen outstanding practice in other schools, listened to our regional advisor and read widely, our principal Dean Jones has given my senior colleague Bal Sembhy and I the green light to pilot a new system. It should make learning better for our students and give our teachers back some balance. If it’s successful, it will be a huge step forwards for us, which all came from spotting an issue and creatively working up a solution for our school and pupils.

4. What kind of challenges do you face as a school leader, and how do you tackle them?

I think the challenges you’ll face will vary according to your context, leadership team and teachers. Working hard every day, showing resilience, determination and being a great teacher, with the dedication associated with this, “In my first interview, I stated that I wanted to be a head by the end of my career. Things haven’t changed!” just go without saying! In some schools, you’ll be working with challenging students and parents, but your work will make a huge difference to the life chances of those you teach and lead. At others, the behaviour may be compliant but you’ll be looking to engage and inspire students to the most challenging destinations. Your staff may be onside and ready for change or possibly resistant to alter what they see as a steady school which is working just fine! Selling the vision is key here. Any school standing still is actually a school going backwards. Roy Blatchford’s book The Restless School is great reading to understand this concept.

For me, these last few years have been about discovering who I am as a leader and making the best of my positives whilst mitigating, or at least being aware of, my weaker areas. As Stephen Tierney says in his book Liminal Leadership, you bring yourself to leadership! I’ve been working hard to do less and do it better, as I tend to see creative solutions to challenges but need to concentrate on ‘landing the plane’ before sending another up into the air.

Surrounding yourself with honest colleagues who will tell you straight, when asked, about how things are going is key. There are so many informative and inspirational school leadership books out there, so get them open and get reading!

5. Tell us about your favourite resources and activities for this role.

As my colleagues will tell you, I absolutely love using Twitter (@mjogalvin1). I find it’s a fantastic way to share ideas, keep up to speed with the latest developments and ask for advice. I was blown away last week when Pete Ottley-O’Connor, an experienced headteacher, took the time for a half hour chat about systems and processes. This all came from interactions on Twitter over the years. Other favourites are Stephen Tierney and Jill Berry for keeping up with great ideas.

When I have the time, I’m an avid reader and enjoy working my way through an ever-expanding list of recommended books. I find it’s great to read both leadership books centred around education but also in other areas. There is a great deal of commonality for challenges we face in school leadership and those for business.

Another favourite resource would be the SSAT senior leaders forum, which connects SLT across the country to network and help each other. There was an hilarious instance when a poster had not realised the forum, which connects over a thousand senior leaders, is not the place to ‘reply all’ to seek assistance for an unruly class in their library. I very nearly posted that I’d be ‘on my way but it would take me three hours to reach the school’! In general, though, it’s full of great ideas, advice and support.

In terms of my Science role, I find it’s best to go as high as possible to get the latest on exam changes. For instance, the AQA advisors are really helpful, as I’m sure they are for all exam boards. Hearing it straight from them is the best way as it avoids misinterpretation, omission or reinventing the wheel. At AET we work closely with science organisations such as the National STEM Learning Centre (www.stem.org.uk), who offer fantastic courses for NQTs, experienced teachers and leaders.

6. If you had one piece of advice for school leaders, new and established, working today, what would it be?

Invite support, guidance and feedback from others. In Steve Radcliffe’s book Leadership Plain and Simple, he suggests building a core group of colleagues at all levels of your organisation to tell you what you’re doing well and talk straight about things that you’re doing badly. Great advice I’d say. Get your ‘support team’ organised and feeding back to you every term.

Are you a school leader? Add your thoughts in the comments below!

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