IWD2018 Unsung Heroines | Jo Warnock

To mark International Women’s Day, LEAD is running a special feature showcasing women who go above and beyond the call of duty – those who deserve a little recognition and thanks. We were delighted to be inundated with nominations and after much inspiring reading present your LEAD Unsung Heroines.

Jo Warnock, Headteacher
St John’s CE Primary School, Canterbury

The American writer, William Ward once said that a good teacher explains but a great teacher inspires. Indeed, ‘inspirational’ was the word used to describe the leadership qualities of Jo Warnock, headteacher of St John’s CE Primary School in Canterbury.

UK schools today face the perfect storm of pressures, ranging from budget cuts and teacher recruitment issues through to changing government priorities and demanding assessment criteria – and Jo’s school has had its fair share of these.

When she first took on the headship, Jo inherited a number of challenges – not least that this was a new school being created through an amalgamation of several schools, something the parents had resisted. The school is located in a deprived community, with many students having limited English language skills, and who frequently either arrive or leave in the middle of a school year. Ofsted results were initially poor, but Jo has battled on, determined to overcome these issues and to deliver education that works for everyone.  

Her hard work is paying off. As the most recent Ofsted report highlighted: “The headteacher, despite significant staffing difficulties, has focused well on the quality of teaching and pupils’ achievement, which have improved since the last inspection”.

Meanwhile, Jo is described by others as having “transformed the school to a vibrant, forward-thinking, creative place where the children always come first and the staff are supported and cared for.”

“Jo is an inspirational leader, dedicated to the community that the school serves and most importantly believes in the school; its children and teachers,” said Catherine Carden of Christchurch University who nominated her. As a result, “the school has high expectations and aspirations, and a headteacher that many, more experienced teachers, could learn from.”

Here’s what Jo had to say…

“I lead a primary school of 50 staff and 320 pupils and their families. My main aims are to improve the outcomes for all pupils, including their academic, social and emotional needs.

No two days are ever the same, but they all involve a combination of meetings, both during and after school hours, with staff, parents, governors and local authority representatives. I am responsible for school policies and the school improvement plan, as well as staff development.

And make sure you get a work-life balance – I had to learn that leadership was not about more hours! I am better leader when I have a break at weekends and holidays

I will always make sure that if children want to share their work with me that this is celebrated – even if I’m in a meeting. This might mean giving them a headteacher sticker and making a big fuss of them!  These interruptions often serve as a gentle reminder of what we are here for…our children.

Children are our future and I want to give them the best education and experiences possible in the early years and through primary.  I want them to go into the world strong enough to stand firm in what they believe and have the academic skills to make their dreams come true.

All my decisions are focused on what is best for the children.

Not everyone will always like my decisions, but they are based on a set of core values that never change. I aim to ensure that everyone – children, parents and staff – have the full story to understand my decisions, and when this is not possible, there is trust already established to know that the decision has been made in their best interest.

For me to lead well and to make good decisions I have to know the staff, the children and the parents, so building relationships is important. This takes time though, and means I have a constant battle to find the balance between operational and strategic leadership.

My career first started out in nursery nursing. Whilst training, a tutor told me I would struggle to go through university – although I received distinctions for practical placements, the theory was a struggle for me. I ended up working as a full-time nanny for a few years before deciding that I wanted to teach (and to prove the tutor wrong!).

I studied teaching at Christ Church University College, which was when I was diagnosed with dyslexia. I then spent 10 years in the classroom before achieving my National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) and started my first headship at the age of 34.

I believe that to make a difference, you need a good team around you and a clear shared vision.  

Having a good support network of friends and family who believe in you makes a huge difference. Know yourself – your strengths and be open about your weaknesses (everyone has them!). Make sure you have a ‘coach’ – you need to talk things out.  I make the best decisions when I can just talk things through with someone that asks the right questions but doesn’t give me the answers! I think I am resilient and like a challenge! 

Good leaders take time to make decisions – obviously some things need a quick response but, if you can come back to it another day, do. Just driving home or going for a walk can change your thinking.

And make sure you get a work-life balance – I had to learn that leadership was not about more hours! I am better leader when I have a break at weekends and holidays.”