Okay, here’s the frame of reference – I run two schools, both judged as Outstanding. I set up a new school from scratch that was quickly regarded as the ‘go to’ school in the local area. I’ve mentored new heads, trained heads, identified and grown heads. Successful? You betcha.
So what stops a head’s head from inflating? Just remembering those first few months….
Exhilarating and crushing
I have a memory that I can’t shake. I’d been a head for four months at a lovely but tired school that needed a shake-up. I’m sure you can visualise it – some things had been left to fester, and I was the clean-up person. Trouble was, I’d only been in the job for five minutes, barely knew where the Pritt Sticks were kept and certainly wasn’t prepared for the expectations placed on my shoulders.
One day had been particularly hard, involving a whole catalogue of events which, in most cases, you wouldn’t expect to take place over a whole year. It didn’t help that it was the end of term and I was tired. I’ve certainly not experienced a day like it since.
I remember driving home when a colleague from the diocese rang and asked me how I was doing. It was a simple question, but I pulled over and literally started sobbing. It was also my son’s birthday. Happy birthday, son. Your dad feels like he’s having a breakdown.
You can’t underestimate the pressure you’ll experience in your first year as a new head. If you can remember how exhausted you were when you finished your first year of teaching – most likely very – magnify that by a significant degree, and there’s your mental state following the initial year of being a headteacher.
It’s both exhilarating and crushing all at once, but if you ride the year carefully you’ll learn lessons about yourself and your own style that will shape your leadership for the rest of your career. Put simply, how can you be shown the ropes without landing on them?
Are you experienced?
Headship, like all areas of education recruitment, is experiencing a downturn. If you want to secure a headship, then at least right now you can certainly find one. That said, it’s in your interest to acquire as much experience as possible before you start applying, since you may well find yourself being appointed to a new headship role faster than you think!
By ‘experience’, I mean leading whole school strategies, working closely with your current head and identifying those areas where you lack experience. If the latter includes financial matters, then make a point of working with your head on setting the school budget. If the head in question is experienced in doing this themselves, ask if you can try setting the budget yourself, subject to their approval. This will help you to consider what’s core to your leadership style.
I’m a person-led leader myself, always looking to secure equity for all across my community – staff as well as pupils. It’s driven my leadership style for many years, and the upshot has been Pupil Premium and EAL pupils at my schools significantly outperforming national and local stats, and colleagues being given genuine opportunities to grow.
Did I arrive into headship like this? No. It’s an approach that I’ve carved out and honed over a number of years, but the essence of it was always there. I was able to germinate it by working closely with generous heads who allowed me to lead and make mistakes.
Pause, then fast forward
Consider carefully where you’re going to apply. For me, there were two LAs I’d researched that I felt would support me the most. Consider also who you’re going to work for. Will it be the LA, a MAT, a federation or a diocese?
I’ve previously worked for all four, and while all have their benefits, there’s something to be said for the additional support heads receive at church schools. Dioceses typically have dedicated education teams, which have largely not been as affected by recent funding cuts as LAs. By default, church schools are pastorally motivated, which extends to supporting their heads. In my experience, the added support I’ve received at church schools has been very welcome.
When it comes to selecting the school you wish to apply for, don’t be afraid to discuss mentoring and support either during your research or at the interview stage.
You need to be secure in the knowledge that the governing body will take your wellbeing as seriously as they do other members of staff. After all, you’re the most expensive member of staff on the team, and if you’re a good head, that will resonate across the community. Nothing crushes a school faster than the suggestion that the head simply ‘isn’t very good’.
The likelihood is that you’ll be partnered with a mentor. I remember my own mentor well – Tim was an experienced head, well respected, and taught me a key skill; think deeply, then act swiftly. It’s all too easy to either not act at all, or to act too swiftly. Hit the pause button and give yourself a bit of thinking space, then press fast forward. Tim still remains the type of head I aspire to become, even now after many years in the job.
The key requirement for mentors is to be a sounding board, since you’ll be hit with a catalogue of events that you’re not prepared for. The most vulnerable time for any school is when a new head starts. People take it as an opportunity to leave, renegotiate their contracts or conveniently ‘forget’ good practice. Use your mentor as a guide, since they’ll have likely had similar experiences themselves
Don’t for a moment think that your first year will simply be a case of ‘jogging along’. Too many heads have had to manage inspections, contend with mass resignations, respond to drops in standards and oversee restructurings. Be prepared to inherit a bit of a mess; if it’s anything less than that, then you’re doing well.
In my first year I was inspected twice, supported a family through an infant death, restructured the staff, took staff through accountability procedures, inherited a court case and, finally, was asked to bid for a new school – at a time when I barely knew how to manage one, let alone two. Adrenaline will be your new friend.
As a head, you’ll quickly find that learning slowly isn’t an option. Yet if there’s one final piece of advice I can give about how heads should learn the ropes, it’s that you’ll make mistakes and that this is important. If you’re driving a school forward, don’t expect everything that you hope to deliver to succeed immediately. But some of it will. Maybe the shadow of a good idea will evolve into something hugely successful.
Arguably, the most important thing for the school is how quickly you can pick yourself up from the ropes, dust yourself down, learn from the last punch and start dancing in the ring once more.
Anthony David is an experienced headteacher, executive headteacher and educational writer and speaker.