The leadership values that led to our school’s West End debut!

Karen Dwyer-Burchill

I am the headteacher of a small-but-leading performing arts school with a healthy reputation for giving pupils excellent opportunities in the arts industry. A recent inspection stated that the personal development of our pupils is excellent and that their vocational training is exceptional. Starting out as a Music teacher, over the years I’ve taken on many roles. I am currently involved in establishing a free school in my home area for the benefit of our local young people. Facebook: facebook.com/coneyhallschool.

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Images courtesy of author. Images courtesy of author.

I’ve always seen teaching as fun, inspirational and aspirational. Don’t get me wrong, there have been doubts and difficulties at times in my career, but even on the tough days I can honestly say that I’ve never had a dull moment. The level of creativity needed in teaching and leading a school community is driven by an insatiable passion for the people you serve. You want the best for them, and this absolute belief has stayed with me throughout my career.


Having had many roles in education over the years, real learning for me has been in extending and enhancing the innate aspiration of the learning community. I now work in a specialised school where children have a real sense of purpose because they’ve actively chosen the subject area we cater for. Combine this with staff who collectively share this vision, and it makes it an excellent environment for learning. There are still challenges along the way, but those shared values along with an overt passion for our pupils’ development, is a wonderful position to be in.


Central to our appraisal cycle is the core understanding that our professional development underpins the learning capacity of the school as a whole. We work collectively in sharing best practice, including that learnt from lesson observations. Performance reviews, meanwhile, are about ensuring that our team feel empowered to lead their classes confidently and securely through respected pedagogies, which in turn empowers our learners. Teaching staff work closely with our SEND specialist in ensuring that our learners are able to access the curriculum successfully through personalised learning plans, and our pupils are equally happy to self-refer when intervention is needed to support their learning.


This collegial approach stemmed from my experience in a challenging school many years back, where a young deputy headteacher really instilled a passion in his young staff to do the best we could for the children we taught. That sense of shared leadership, with a clear vision, has steered me through many milestones in my teaching career. While attainment results reflect the impact of an effective school environment, there’s so much more involved in that process.


I’ve found the best way to lead, whether in the classroom or the school itself, is to reflect and model the principles and values that underpin a healthy learning environment. I see teaching and leadership in education as an absolute vocation. Self-evaluation or self-reflection reminds me why I love being a teacher / headteacher, and I sincerely hope that my enthusiasm for the learning community I serve will always continue to grow.


These values often lead to amazing school projects. In 2016, I was asked to support songwriter/composer Keith Hale (known for this work with Toyah Willcox, Hawkwind and Ginger Baker) who wrote a musical based on the boat people of Vietnam in the 1970s. Rice Harvest merges the horrors of refugeeism with a love story, helping the audience relate to the main characters. This project has opened up so many avenues for the pupils and teaching team involved, and we’ve gained much in terms of empathy and knowledge. It’s been a real collaboration of key experts from the musical industry, our specialist staff and pupils. Our team and pupils brought the showcase out to five schools in the Primary and Secondary sector as a Theatre in Education (TIE) project, and this year we performed in the Actors Church in Covent Garden.





Leading the way falls back to sometimes taking calculated risks. These risks enrich the school community as a whole, and ultimately help us to share best practice. Our innate integrity ensures pupils are always central to everything we do as teachers and educators. I feel privileged to say that I’m a teacher first and foremost; therefore a life long learner; therefore a leader.


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