The end of last term was a personal moment of significance. As I waved my Year 6s out of the door for the final time, I came to realise that they were the first cohort that I had seen all the way through their primary education as headteacher.
It was a proud moment. I thought back to when I first walked into my school and all the hopes and fears that I carried with me. I remember vividly that mix of heady excitement and a nervous worry that I would ruin everything and somehow fail the children in my charge.
Those feelings of apprehension I remember from starting out as a headteacher are not uncommon. A National College for School Leadership report found that those entering headship often experienced anxieties as the reality of having to take the reins becomes ever more imminent. The range of usual worries extends to:
- feelings of professional isolation and loneliness
- dealing with the legacy, practice and style of the previous headteacher
- dealing with multiple tasks, managing time and priorities
- managing the school budget
- dealing with (e.g. supporting, warning, dismissing) ineffective staff
- implementing new government initiatives, notably new curricula or school improvement projects
- problems with school buildings and site management
Brighouse and Woods (1999) also identified some generic early headship issues experienced by appointees:
- an initial honeymoon period
- inheriting problems from their predecessor
- feeling overwhelmed
- feeling excited and emotionally drained
- feeling isolated
- needing to be able to stamp some initial authority by tackling quick-fix strategies
- variable induction programmes
The research went on to suggest that the seeds of success or failure are often laid in this very early period, a time that is recognised to be challenging and exhausting.
The good news is, if you navigate this early period, and move into being a headteacher who sees a cohort all the way through, you pass through a phase of middle headship where – according to the Brighouse and Woods research – the successful head achieves their most significant gains.
So how to do this? Admittedly my remarks are not arising from research; rather they are taken from the experience of just having lived and worked through this middle phase of my headship career.
I’m not talking about the first 100 days, the first year, or even how to handle any of your “firsts” as headteacher: first staff meeting, first parents evening etc. My focus in this blog is on the longer term. I’ll be looking at 5 markers of success that effective headteachers should be able to reflect back on as they wave goodbye to that first cohort they’ve seen all the way through their school.
1. Less “quick fix” and more “strategic direction”
The interesting observation I can draw would be that as you continue through this particular phase of being a headteacher, one experiences significant changes in terms of operation. On a personal note, I’ve noticed that there has been a shift in my focus from the “quick fix” or “survival” mode towards implementing an extended agenda of school leadership, an increasing willingness to involve others in school leadership and a more relaxed approach to risk assessment. As one becomes more controlled and at ease with the pressures of headship, it will – if arrived at properly – have come with a range of challenges and, indeed difficulties, such as tackling deeper-rooted problems. This will have required resilience, strength of character and leads to personal growth and a level of confidence not seen on appointment.
2. Personal philosophy is seen everywhere
Embedding a philosophy obviously takes time; a personal philosophy cannot be installed upon a school in a matter of days, weeks, or months. But the successful headteacher will have a clarity about what they stand for and believe. That is not to say one should not or cannot evolve their thinking and positions / points-of-view over time, but they will know their own self and this should be reflected in the schools they lead. By way of example, I stand for developing relationships; strong relationships which form the bedrock of my schools. Looking at my school now and seeing open door-policies, a happy parent interface, well used and well organised websites and social media feeds, vocal pupil councils, a continual flow of visitors into the school, strong engagement with community events and lots of professional talk, happy faces and smiles, is evidence to me that the putting people first mantra has transitioned from a belief existing in my head to the everyday norm in my schools.
I also believe in inclusion and making sure that barriers to learning are removed so that anyone and everyone can thrive, meet their personal best, better themselves and improve their learning constantly. Independently, externally validated inclusion assessments which have led to inclusion quality marks for my schools is another example of my philosophy being realised in the every day.
3. The team is right
As with most incoming headteachers, I inherited a team. The team I have today after seven years of headship is different to the team I inherited – and so it should be. Even where some of the personnel are the same, they have been coached, professionally developed and appraised, and brought along the same philosophical and visionary journey.
Some staff members have moved on to other schools, gaining promotions along the way. I look back with genuine satisfaction that my schools have given opportunities for personal and professional growth to others.
The “new blood” that has come in are good fits for the school – but believe me, recruitment is an area that I have got wrong before I’ve got right. Importantly though, several years into headship should have given the successful headteacher an opportunity to develop a team that (i) is comfortable with the direction of the school; (ii) buys into the ownership of the vision for the school; (iii) supports the philosophy of the headteacher and adds value to it; and (iv) understands the rhythms and working practices expected of them. A team that “sings from the same song sheet” is largely in place.
None of this is to say that the team is set. Good teams never are set in stone, and effective headteachers recognise this. Much like the best football managers, effective school leaders manage teams which experience ebb and flow, with incomings and outgoing all the time which build around a slowly evolving nucleus of like-minded leaders on the pitch.
4. Big embedded change in big areas
You can’t do everything all at once, but effective headteachers reaching the stage where they say goodbye to the first cohort they’ve seen all the way through should be able to cite examples of big reform along the way. In early headship, a new marking policy or the introduction of a new assembly programme may be highlights. But after several years in the job a successful leader will be able to pinpoint aspects of significant school improvement: a new curriculum, or a new assessment regime for example.
And such changes will be led by and built upon the aforementioned personal philosophy.
5. Know the school (the parents, the community, the pupils, the staff)
After seven years at the helm, I know my school inside out. There are different levels to this. In terms of parents, pupils and the community, I have developed a good understanding of who people are, what is important to them and where the school fits in. In terms of practice and what goes on in the classrooms, it comes down to a professional trust. A trust of those other professionals in the school to be delivering against what we’ve said we will and in the way that we’ve said we will; and trust of oneself that enables you to be comfortable with what is going on and why. On this second point, it is vital though that you regularly test this, and effective headteachers will often ask colleagues for feedback, undertake walkarounds / observations, and speak to parents and pupils as much as possible. External eyes are also very important for validating ones own perception of how well one knows the school – for example, I invite in Investors in Children, Inclusion Quality Mark, moderators, and engage a whole plethora of other mechanisms to give an external perspective and oversight.
I consider myself to be an experienced headteacher these days; I’ve seen a cohort through their entire primary education. I lead a school where my personal philosophy is evident – where the team has been developed and built and fits together well; where big changes have been worked through, introduced and are now deeply embedded; and where I know the school inside out. I’m also in a second headship, and have experience of leading more than one school at once. It is personally important to me that I now face my next challenge head-on: avoiding the generic trend, referred to in the National College For Leadership report Should I Stay or Should I Go? which speaks of a plateauing and withdrawal as headteachers achieve as much as they feel reasonably able to at the end of the middle headship phase (6-7 years.) Part of that is being aware of my insatiable desire for professional challenge that comes from my passion for education and young people: there is always more that can be done and further improvements to make. And part of it is ensuring that drive remains in my school. Re-inventing oneself for the next phase of headship.
At the end of last term, as I watched the Year 6s leave that day full of confidence, resilience, pride, skills and knowledge, I felt proud. But I also felt a relief that I hadn’t ruined everything; and I felt a renewed sense of optimism for my school as I reaffirmed in my own mind that I could do this job, and that my passion for education could lead to good outcomes for children.
Ashby, P (2003) “Issues for Early Headship – Problems and Support Strategies” National College for School Leadership, London
Brighouse, T & Woods, D (1999) “How To Improve Your School” Routledge, London
Ingate, C (2006) “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” National College for School Leadership, London