I hadn’t intended to take over a school in difficulty. It wasn’t the plan. But on an April evening in 2007 – just as I was stepping out the door, en route my leaving do at the school where I was deputy – the phone rang. It was the chair of governors at the school where I was due to be starting as head after the Easter break.
“Four children have just tried to burn down the school,” he said. “What would you like to do?”
And so it began. Since then, I’ve been headteacher at two schools in difficulty – the first by accident, the second through choice – and have supported many more. School improvement is a lengthy business, with few shortcuts. As a new head, you only get one opportunity to make the right impression and set the tone and pace of the school improvement work to follow. This is where the first 100 days come in.
Leaders from all walks of life often talk about the importance of their first 100 days. It’s that brief honeymoon period where, unencumbered by complex issues of your own making, leaders have the opportunity to create some momentum and push through quick wins and big ideas. In a school experiencing difficulty, the head gets just one shot at doing this – so using those 100 days well is a must. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learnt along the way…
1. Doing nothing isn’t an option
Being a bloke, my internal heroic monologue casts me in any number of heroic movie roles. As such, the only way I can describe starting your first headship at a school in trouble is by pointing to the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.
Having landed at a Normandy beach in a hail of murderous machine gun fire, Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, cowers behind a metal post whilst his platoon are cut to ribbons around him. He doesn’t know what to do, so he does nothing. It isn’t until a private shouts “What would you like us to do sir?” that he remembers he’s in charge, that and doing things is what’s expected of him.
Taking over a school in trouble can feel a bit like that (albeit without the machine gun fire). The scale of the challenge seems overwhelming, and the temptation can be to watch and wait. In a ‘normal headship’, taking time to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the school before deciding how to move things forward is a good strategy, but a school in crisis can’t waste time.
There’s likely to have been a recent period of inactivity and/or chaotic leadership, resulting in the need to inject a sense of urgency into the school’s work. In that situation, doing literally anything is better than doing nothing.
2. Repeat your key message
When addessing staff, pupils and indeed parents for the first time, everything you say (or don’t) will be scrutinised for hidden meaning. Think carefully about what your key message during those first couple of days will be and keep it simple.
At my first school, the most pressing problem was poor behaviour. When I asked a Y6 boy to quietly enter the hall for that first assembly, he calmly told me to ‘fuck off’. My message therefore concerned the importance of mutual respect, and agreeing to the basic school rules we would all live by. At my second school, the children and some staff had low expectations of what they could achieve, so the key message there was one about being ‘champion learners’.
Once you’ve decided on your message, it becomes a case of repeating it constantly, putting up displays and other reminders that this is the thing that matters most right now. (Incidentally, I immediately excluded the sweary Y6 boy for two days, as everyone was watching to see whether I meant what I said).
3. Get a skip
The first piece of advice I give to all the new headteachers I mentor is ‘get a skip’. The second is ‘get another skip’. I learnt this from the brilliant Simon Rowe, headteacher at Waycroft Primary school. A couple of weeks into my headship I asked him what I should tackle first. “Environment, then behaviour, then teaching.” was has unequivocal response.
I’ve yet to find a school in trouble that’s tidy and organised, so this is a good place to start. Change the foyer, mount any awards in nice frames and model it on the image of the school you want to convey. Tell staff to throw away every last piece of junk. It’s a quick win, and everyone feels better for it. Controlling the physical environment shows staff that you’re a headteacher who’s taking control. It’s a physical manifestation of change – and you can’t improve a school when there’s crap everywhere.
4. Define your values
All of the vulnerable schools I’ve worked with had at one time forgotten their raison d’etre. They may have had values and aims up on display, but they would be rarely referred to and inevitably not ‘lived’. In your first 100 days, define four values you want built into the DNA of every child. Be bold – look ahead to a future where the school is Outstanding and define the child you want the school to create.
Next, create five aims – ‘Every child will…’ statements – which define in short sentences those qualities and skills a child should exhibit at the end of every day, week, term and year. This must be a three-way collaboration with parents, staff and children all contributing.
In a headlong rush to get things done, heads will sometimes dream these up alone and present them as a done deal, but this is one area you have to agree on as a community. The conversations you have in agreeing those five aims will help you discover what the staff truly think their school is capable of.
5. Watch your language
The language you use or accept from others around school defines the professional standards adopted by the whole school team. Professor Tim Brighouse talks about this power of language in his excellent book Essential Pieces – The Jigsaw of a Successful School. If you allow yourself to moan and be negative around colleagues, don’t be surprised when they do the same.
Conversely, positive and ambitious language can have a huge impact on staff morale and expectations. Starting sentences with ‘When the school is Outstanding…’ convays the message that you believe success is the inevitable outcome of everyone’s best efforts to improve the school.
6. Use symbols and rituals
Schools are essentially a tribe. As such, staff and pupils will often act tribally, ascribing meaning to symbols and rituals which may appear insignificant. On more than one occasion I’ve caused huge upset by cancelling or changing something I assumed meant nothing, but actually meant everything to the tribe. Unpicking the hidden meaning in existing symbols and rituals can be a good way of understanding the school’s USP.
At my second school, before the first 100 days were out we had already created a new school uniform and badge that incorporated our ‘Champion Learners’ motto. From then on, we told the children that whenever they pulled on their school sweatshirt we should see them transform into champions, the characteristics of which were discussed over a series of assemblies.