Whether you’re a new head or an experienced one, changing schools is always a source of anxiety.
There’s a good reason why some heads, once they’re established, settle in for many, many years. It’s like setting up a business – once you have everything ticking over nicely, why upset the apple cart and move to a new school to start things afresh?
In the current climate, some heads may well find themselves in the position of being ‘asked’ to lead another school. This is because heads are expensive. Hundreds, if not thousands of schools are facing the prospect of closure if they don’t radically change their leadership model. This is particularly true in London, where following many years of pupil growth there’s been an unexpected drop in pupil numbers. This has resulted in schools having to review their pupil admission numbers in light of dramatic falls in the size of their rolls. So whether you’re being courted to become an executive head, or moving to a new school for whatever reason, here are a few tricks to help make the move as calm and orderly as possible.
Pleased to meet you
Firstly, get to know your new staff. When entering a new establishment for the first time, you’re an outsider and they’re the old guard. They’ll know which families need that extra bit of TLC, their colleagues’ strengths (and weaknesses) and, most importantly, the pupils. It’s in their gift to share this information.
Remember that they’ll be sizing you up just as much as you’ll be sizing them up (and you will). If you can, set up a whole team meeting. I recently encountered a situation with a new team where they were quite intimidated by me, based purely on rumour. This was easily dispelled once we met face to face, so try and do this as soon as possible.
Given the current recruitment cycle, it’s likely that you’ll have secured any new role in February/March, so aim to meet the team before the end of the spring term. Keep the meeting open-ended and don’t go in with an agenda. Share your experiences by all means, but this isn’t the time to set out your table with high expectations. You have months of research to do before that will be needed, which arguably won’t be until September.
Equally, set up meetings with the leadership team. If the deputy is staying, then it’s crucial that you establish a partnership with them. These are your closest allies, making it critical that you develop a strong relationship with them. If you’re starting at a new school as an executive head, then you may have a promoted head of school – a very different role, whereby you both work in partnership, but it’s your vision that governs the direction of the school. Moreover, your role will include drawing multiple schools closer together. Even more so than in other models of leadership, you’ll be reliant on your head of school’s experience to fill in the gaps. This is critical for the inevitable ‘game-playing’ that will take place between the date of your recruitment and the day you start.
The games people play
For new heads, this process of gameplaying always comes as a bit of a surprise. When a headteacher departs a school, there’s a precious window of opportunity for the rest of the staff to re-negotiate their contracts. The obvious recommendation here is to not agree in haste to anything. Even if the outgoing head agrees to a particular change, the obvious question to ask is ‘Why wait until you’re leaving to decide this?’ You could easily land yourself in a situation that you’ll regret at leisure. The sure-fire way to sidestep this is to pass matters relating to staff pay and terms on to your governors.
Next, your budget. This may not seem to be at the heart of what we’re trying to do – namely realising every child’s full potential – but without a comprehensive understanding of your finances, you won’t be able to establish a strategy for your school. The bottom line is that all schools are stretched. If you’re an executive head, chances are that you’ve been brought in for your experience and because you represent a cost saving.
If you can, try and involve yourself in setting the school’s budget. This will allow you to influence how the available budget is spent, rather than inheriting a budget that might run counter to your own ambitions for the school. During your first few weeks in September you’ll need to work hard and fast. Use this time to identify the strengths of the school, set up your plan for the year (sometimes referred to as an SDP or SIP – essentially your business plan) and audit. You must audit all of the school’s policies, with HR being the most important of all, especially if you’re faced with staff changes due to budget restrictions.
Time is not on your side here. If the governors don’t approve any proposals you have for reforming these policies you may have to wait until the end of term before the process is complete. Don’t rush into things, and know that you can fall back on extant LA or diocesan policies, should there be any, as these will have been previously reviewed by unions.
From a practical point of view, visibility is key. Make you sure you’re outside in the playground at the start and end of each day. Get to know your community. This will build the type of trust that’s core to an effective school. For colleagues, set up a learning walk in September with at least one other senior leader. You need to get to know how effective your teaching staff are, and if it emerges that some have unmet needs, these can be addressed with them as part of your performance management process. (Note – performance management will need to be completed for all colleagues by October.)
Equally, however, you also need to gauge the strengths within your other members of staff. In short, your task is to gather a great deal of information, on everyone, as soon as possible. The spectre hovering over your shoulder will be inspection. However far you are into the cycle upon arrival, it’s essential to familiarise yourself with Ofsted’s latest School Inspection Handbook and ensure that your strategy reflects the changes that have taken effect as of 2019/20 – the most notable of which relate to the breadth of the curriculum.
The start of a new academic year affords a moment to refresh. New leaders should want to hit the ground running – you’ve had a glorious summer to set up your plans, and now you’re able to put them into action.
The advice presented here focuses on those preceding months, and the need to review the school’s staff and the various political manoeuvrings in play. It then goes on to consider the key action points which, as a new head, you must carefully consider during the very first few weeks of headship.
Even if this is your third headship, starting at a new school is always nerve-wracking, often with echoes of your NQT year. Everything seems new and different – how long will it take you to adapt and shape it?
Anthony David is an executive headteacher