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Stepping up, stepping out and stepping in

By Neil Reilly, Headteacher, Nene Valley Primary School, OWN Trust

A short sentence can describe my journey to Headship at Nene Valley Primary School: it has certainly not been linear. My career didn’t start in teaching. In my previous life, I worked in industry; as a salesman, and a mortgage advisor (amongst other jobs). However, I always wanted to be a teacher. As soon as I decided to break free from the shackles of industry and take the leap of faith to re-train as a teacher, I knew it was the perfect career path for me. It was and still is, the greatest professional decision I ever made.

Since embarking on a career in teaching, Headship has been a goal of mine. Why do something if you’re not striving to reach the top? However, it is one thing to have a goal and a different thing actioning it. It becomes real once you have said it out loud, that is when your inner monologue starts; which school is right for me? How will I find a school that aligns with my vision and values? When is the right time to step up?

As I have already alluded to, the path of any journey is not always a straight line. I had decided to step up, but no sooner had I said it out loud than more opportunities (and hurdles) came my way. I would ask myself: when is the right time? How could I step up now? I was getting more responsibility in my role, working alongside the DFE, when COVID-19 came along, and there were not one but two OFSTEDs on the horizon. These opportunities and barriers could have derailed my ambition to step up. It is easy to fall into the mindset of, ‘I’ll give it six months when a particular project is finished etc.’ I realised that there would always be another project, another barrier, and no time would be the perfect time to step up.

I was also in my comfort zone. I had been teaching and leading in London for over a decade. The logical next step was a Headship in the capital. Strangely, when the offers came, they were easy to turn down. I had set my sights on leading a school in Peterborough, my new hometown. It was time to step out.

Stepping out and finding potential opportunities wasn’t hard, but finding the right opportunity was. Deciding to move out of London created a lot of unknowns. I had insight into the schools in London - the ways of working, the communities being served, their strengths, and areas for development. I had the perceived safety net that the majority of schools were still under the local authority (I had heard many horror stories about academy trusts). The landscape in Peterborough was alien to me. How would I know which was the right trust? How would I ensure that I would get the autonomy I would need to lead effectively (and was that that even possible in a MAT?). To give myself clarity, I brought it back to my vision and values. I needed a school and a trust with whom I could have symbiosis.

When Nene Valley Primary and Own Trust appeared on my radar, it had a different feel from other settings I had looked at. OWN is a small trust that came together in 2019; three schools, looking to grow. I still had doubts. Nene Valley was still an Academy Trust not a Local Authority School and the question of earned autonomy was at the forefront of my mind. How would the school and the trust align with my vision and values? 

From my first meeting with the CEO, however, I already had a sense of belonging. There was something tangible that made me feel at home. My first encounter was a scheduled 30-minute conversation, which went on for 2 hours, talking about all things education. I knew from that moment OWN Trust and Nene Valley was the new place I wanted to call home. I wanted to lead this school and be part of the next chapter at Nene Valley and OWN Trust.

Since becoming the Headteacher at Nene Valley, my trepidation about joining a trust was not realised, quite the opposite. Leaders within OWN Trust have challenged and supported me in equal measure. This has been a major factor in allowing me to step into the role with relative ease. The autonomy I craved from working in a Local Authority school is evident. What I was not expecting was the level of support from the CEO, finance team, Headteachers, and senior leaders across the trust. OWN Trust feels like a family, with everyone pulling in the same direction, striving for excellence in all our schools.

Stepping up, stepping out and stepping into Nene Valley and OWN Trust is proving to be one of the best professional decisions I have made. Long may the journey continue.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash