Rebecca Leek is the Executive Director of the Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association, and a trustee for Suffolk Libraries. Here, the self-described ‘Essex girl’ explains what draws her to the county over the border – and her hopes for Ofsted reform
Who are you and what do you do?
That is a big question for someone who has gone through a bit of an existential crisis in the last couple of years. I have always been involved with arts, education, eco-projects and social enterprise. I have managed to travel up the ranks in schools – as a teacher, SENCo, Headteacher and, last of all, a CEO of a trust. Just before Christmas I changed tack. I am now the Executive Director of the Suffolk Primary Headteachers’ Association, but it is just for two days a week, which is allowing me to breathe a bit and explore other interests. I write as much as people will let me. I run as much as my body will allow. I also have three daughters – that requires a lot of doing.
How long have you been in the role as Exec Director and what were you doing before?
I picked up the reins in January. Like so many things, the Association was affected by Covid. The power of networking which I think it was so good at historically got shut down essentially. It’s been slightly dormant. However, it’s been incredible to see it blossom again this term. We have got some real force behind us and there is such an appetite from headteachers to learn from and connect with each other. I am starting to get messages from headteachers – saying they are proud to be represented and part of something so strong. It’s really heartening. Before that I was a CEO of three schools in Essex and before that I was a headteacher in Ipswich. I loved that – it gave me a chance to get really connected with the town. I feel at home in Ipswich now (although I don’t live there).
What are your connections to Suffolk?
I’m an Essex girl. I was born in Harlow and spent my early years in Stansted Mountfitchet where my dad was a GP; he had his surgery in the front room. I live in Essex now – but right on the border in Manningtree. I have always felt very drawn to East Anglia. I have a theory that I have Iceni blood in me. I love running the rivers – the estuaries have a rhythm and a feel that resonate with me.
You’re also a trustee for Suffolk Libraries – would it be fair to say you’re a champion of the county?
If it will have me! The more I connect with the county the more I see the strength of local networks – and the county-wide scale makes sense to me. Schools from one part of the county can connect and learn from each other. Any further and it gets trickier. Similarly, Suffolk Libraries is a very magical web – of places at the heart of their communities but that are also plugged into a powerful, background engine. And the outdoors is a big draw for me. Suffolk is so beautiful. I do wish there were more hills, but the forests and the rivers more than make up for that.
What are the main challenges faced by primary headteachers at the moment – and how do you and the association help?
In a recent questionnaire the three things that came out most strongly were funding, Ofsted and time. I think they are all a problem and it’s a real shame. Because headteachers will do anything for their schools. So if we could give them more time and more funding, AND reform the punitive inspection regime, then I think schools would be flying. As it is, sometimes it feels more like surviving. We help, I hope, by being a listening ear, sharing information and representing headteachers when there are larger scale consultations – for example with proposed changes around travel plans, or SEND funding, or Ofsted frameworks. I also think we are a great connector. Someone will tell me that they are interested in a sculpture project for their school grounds and I’m getting better and better and being able to point them in the right direction.
What are your interests outside of work? What’s this about combining running with school visits?
I went to a school on foot this week – what a treat! I ran 15 miles that day. And I’m starting to plan that in when time allows. I did run the Suffolk coast from north to south in the summer over two days although that was more of a holiday (well, my kind of holiday). I make sure I take my trainers with me on my travels so I can hop off into somewhere like Rendlesham forest for a midday breather. I run about 150 miles a month. It keeps me sane.
You’re hoping to write a book on school governance – and make it fun?
Yes – I have just been commissioned to write a book on school governance. I have no idea if it will be fun to read. It’s fun to me but then I get interested in quite niche things. Seriously, if you think there are 300 primary schools in Suffolk alone, that’s potentially 1500-2000 governors. That’s just one county, and one phase of schools. My mother is a governor and regularly asks for my advice. I don’t think there is enough information – basic, interesting, engaging information for school governors. There are reams of documents, but we need more that gets to the heart of the matter. What is a governor for? What is a governor not for. How has governance changed? Those kinds of questions are fascinating.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
I’d like to grow old gracefully. I’ve watched my dad stutter into a decade of Alzheimer’s and have had to manage that with my three siblings. He is in a care home in Colchester. You can read a bit about that here. I would love a different final act for myself. I’d like to be remembered as someone who made people think and be less programmed. We all do lots of things that are quite strange – like asking children to walk down corridors with fingers on their lips or attach weird geometric pieces of nylon to their collars with a metal clip (there’s not much ‘tie’ in ties anymore). I also hope that my children’s children might grow up on a planet that isn’t dying. That would be good.