In a new series focusing on the people who lead our academies, Fuzel Choudhury, Headteacher at Heartlands Academy, reflects on the lessons he has learned over the course of his career.
My school life had a huge influence on the career path I’ve taken. I grew up in an area called Aston, about two miles from Nechells, so I’m familiar with this area. It’s changed a lot since I was younger but I went to two secondary schools in Birmingham and the first was a fairly tough, inner-city school.
I was very fortunate – I had parents with high aspirations so I got a lot of support at home. My headteacher Mr Finley, he’s a man I’ll never forget, really made an impression on me. What got me where I am today is firstly down to my parents, but also the expectations that Mr Finley had of all of his students, as well as his drive and belief in us all. Even though I had a privileged childhood, one of the things I learned from him was that coming from a disadvantaged background is not an excuse to allow children to underperform.
“I want senior leaders who are passionate about delivering outstanding outcomes for young people like I am.”
I feel like I got into academy leadership by coincidence. I was so passionate about my subject and I consistently delivered good results as a science teacher, so I ended up becoming head of science within three years. We delivered some great results in two schools which led on to me becoming the assistant head at what was then the worst school in Sandwell. I moved up to deputy head and after the school became an academy, vice principal and then senior vice principal. During that time it became the highest performing school in Sandwell, a position it held for five years consecutively.
I used to always think that if everyone did everything like me, we’d be amazing. As an inexperienced leader I honestly thought that it would be easier if everyone operated like me, and I’d get frustrated when they didn’t. But with a few years of experience under my belt, I now know that it works best when you’ve got a cocktail of different personalities and different leadership styles in your team. Otherwise there’s a danger that your viewpoint becomes too narrow. What I don’t want is to sit around a table with senior leaders who think like me, operate like me and lead like me. I want senior leaders who are passionate about delivering outstanding outcomes for young people like I am.
“I don’t believe in excuses, I get paid to deliver.”
I’m definitely attracted to challenging schools. The team of people I’ve got with me, such as my deputy head who has been with me for seven years and one of my assistant heads who has been with me for twelve, have the same passion for taking tough inner-city schools and turning them around, and we do that together. There’s nothing tougher than taking a Trojan school like Parkview (now Rockwood Academy) and turning it around. When I became principal at Rockwood there was a feeling that it wouldn’t be possible to fix the school. But within seven months we had taken it from special measures to good. And by the time I left last year, we were in the top 100 schools in the country for achievement. That taught me that anything is possible.
My first impression of Heartlands…I would genuinely use the word magical. There is something about these students: they’ve got big hearts, they’ve got high aspirations and they’ve got a drive to succeed. They just need someone that can help them put that all together, and that’s what my team do.
I say this to the kids and the staff and I live by the same philosophy: high expectations, no excuses. I don’t believe in excuses, I get paid to deliver. That’s what I expect of my students, my staff and myself. My staff are not going to tell me that just because we’re in Nechells, just because 80% of our students are classed as disadvantaged, our students can’t perform. If that’s what they’re telling me, they’re in the wrong school.
“I’m thoroughly enjoying being part of the E-ACT drive to change the life chances of young people.”
This is the third trust I’ve worked with. I’ve had quite a lot of experience of working with trusts at this level, and they’re all different. I remember at interview being told – “E-ACT want their heads to focus on teaching and learning, raising standards and the children, and what E-ACT will do is look after the back room operational matters.” And they’ve delivered – as a head, I feel like all my time, rightly so, is invested in the children and raising standards. I’m thoroughly enjoying being part of the E-ACT drive to change the life chances of young people.
The very first headteacher I worked with was a lady called Julie. She said to me, “Fuzel, when I was an assistant head, even though the sign on my door said ‘Assistant Head’ and I got paid as an assistant head, I operated as a deputy. And when I was a deputy, I operated as a head.” And that’s what I’ve always done, and what I now say to my team – I say to my deputy, Rebecca, “As far as I’m concerned, you are the head of this academy.” That’s my advice: whatever level you’re at, always try and perform as the post above. If you do that, you will make a real difference and, if you have aspirations to do so, you will climb the ladder. I’ve applied that in my career, and so far it hasn’t let me down.