Ben Wood, Chair of NATRE explains how listening to others and learning from them has been a feature of his leadership journey:
My mum always wanted me to be a teacher. She always thought I had leadership potential. “A teacher! Really?” No chance, I wanted to work in national parks, something ecological and geological, something outdoors, something that didn’t involve interacting with lots of people.
So, inevitably of course, I began teaching in 2002. I landed on my feet with my first job at Haslingden High School, a large and proudly comprehensive, 11—18 school in the rather beautiful Rossendale valley in Lancashire. Nearing the end of my 18th year in teaching, I remain at the same school!
I moved up to Head of Department in 2007 and have remained in this position since, declining to go for promotions because I really enjoy what I am doing now.
Around 2009, I started to become involved in the local RE scene, attending local groups, contributing resources to the locally agreed syllabus, and through this, I got to know Helen Harrison, then Lancashire’s RE adviser. It was Helen that suggested I consider being part of the NATRE Executive, and I was elected to the Executive in 2012.
By this point in my career, I was interested in the political side of the RE world, becoming more aware of RE’s place in the wider educational landscape, and it was a desire to be more involved in this that I took with me to the NATRE Executive. In fact, I remember in my first meeting making clear that I was not opposed to the exclusion of RE from the EBacc, not exactly the most popular opinion in RE at that time. I figured that if I was joining a body such as the NATRE Executive, I wasn’t going there to make up the numbers. I thought that I had something worth contributing, but more importantly, other people, experienced RE professionals such as Helen Harrison thought I had something to contribute.
Working as part of the NATRE Executive gave me the chance to learn from those experienced in the political work of NATRE. Listening to Deborah Weston, Ed Pawson, Daniel Hugill and Fiona Moss meant I learnt (and continue to learn) a lot, and when offered the opportunity be become NATRE Vice-Chair, I was very happy to take the role, which in turn led to my election as NATRE Chair in 2018.
My work with NATRE has brought meetings with representatives of Ofsted, with Nick Gibb at the DfE, and dozens of MPs at party conferences. I’ve learned something of how the political world works alongside Chair of the REC, Rudi Eliott Lockhart ,and the PR and lobbying companies that work alongside the RE community. It still makes me chuckle inside when I think of the people who have taken the time to listen to what I have to say!
Since narrating the school production of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ age 10, I’ve always been reasonably confident in public speaking, and so during my time working for NATRE, I have taken chances to be involved in media work, including local and national BBC radio, faith based broadcasters and BBC TV. I’ve learnt that solid preparation, use of personal anecdotes about the school I work in, and clear phrasing are crucial in such presentational work. I remain honoured to this day that Eamonn Holmes said during an interview on TalkRadio that I made RE sound “sexy”!
I guess two lessons stand out. First, taking small opportunities, usually presented by someone who believes in you can lead you to places you never guess you’d end up. And second, at every stage, there is someone more experienced to listen to and learn from.
Oh, and not forgetting, mum knows best!
Ben Wood is currently Head of RE, Haslingden High School and has been Chair of NATRE since 2018