A number of years ago I was asked to write a piece on my first hundred days of headship. It was a great opportunity to reflect on my well meaning incompetence, in the early days of headship, as I attempted to learn my “trade”. Learning as a headteacher can be a pretty exposed place. I’ve resurrected the piece and summarised it below.
- Given our current demographic profile as a profession with many heads, senior leaders and teachers retiring or approaching retirement the demands for headteachers, senior leaders and middle leaders will significantly increase over the coming years.
- The current and on-going political rhetoric and demanding levels of accountability make leadership positions at all levels, but particularly headship increasingly akin to the football management roundabout.
- This potential leadership shortage is exacerbated in deprived areas. I once saw a statistic from Ofsted that showed 89% of outstanding schools/headteachers were in schools with below national average levels of free school meals. Will these additional demands see “leadership flight” from schools in deprived areas?
It’s easier to look back at my early days of headship now and reflect on what went well and what didn’t. I came into teaching because I wanted to make a difference to young people and their life chances. Headship was the place where I felt I could make the greatest impact. In September 2000, when I joined St. Mary’s in Blackpool it was a school with a strong Catholic mission, ready and willing to renew its vision with a large number of really good staff.
Before the end of my first fifty days of headship Ofsted had landed for a week and within a hundred days of starting the Diocesan Inspection team had also inspected and reported on us. There were a few dodgy and difficult moments during both inspections, particularly with Ofsted, but we were eventually graded satisfactory by both.
I produced the first whole school development plan of my career with fifty two objectives and I was responsible for monitoring them all! In my defence some of the objectives were identical as we included the post-Ofsted and post-Diocesan Inspection in the overall development plan and similar issues were identified in both inspections. So, there were only actually forty six objectives, not that many really.
As you can see, in the early days the language of me, my and I (I am a recovering control freak who has too many lapses) with fifty two or as I prefer to think nowadays only really forty six objective development plans (manic change agent) predominated. This couldn’t continue for my own sake or that of the school. It is a challenge to manage the tensions and expectations of early headship, for example, how do you prove and show that you are a capable leader whilst not doing everything yourself? How do ensure that your leadership develops a momentum in moving the school forward, taking the vast majority of the staff with you, without giving the impression that the school is a mess (and so requires radical change)?
In writing this short piece, I reflected on a great discussion with John King, the Headmaster of Gable Hall School until recently, which received four consecutive outstanding Ofsted Inspection Reports, about his work in supporting other schools. His systematic approach is based on the 4Ds (plus a later D):
- Diet – What does the curriculum look like?
- Delivery – How good is the teaching & learning
- Development – Professional Development: Who? What? How? When? Where?
- Democracy – What is the culture of the school like?
- Demography – Looked at later to see what is happening to the student profile, what is on the horizon and what do we need to do in the future?
Using the outrageous skills I have for plagiarism I have adapted this into five steps for the first 100 days of headship but I also wonder whether they might work for any leader in a school.
A. ALIGNMENT & FOCUS
An early process for determining the key priorities for the school looking is essential. Look at the data available including RAISE plus other achievement/attainment reports, financial data, the current staffing structure and roles of key staff but in particular the senior leadership team. Much of this work can be done prior to taking up headship and you can come to the school with a number of hypotheses or areas that you want to investigate further. From this you should be able to pull together a number of key goals (expressed as outcomes), explain to staff why they are important and start the process of engaging staff to help you take forward the implementation process. This is key to aligning and focussing the work of all staff within the school – have two or three key goals. Make sure you use your senior leadership team to the fullest by making sure you distribute leadership challenges to them with decision making powers (not merely tasks) whilst also holding them accountable for the outcomes.
This is likely to be a key issue for staff even if you think the behaviour in the school is great! Whilst staff often seem to think behaviour is getting worse it’s important to remember that they are also the people who will bear the brunt of poor student behaviour as they operate for most of their day in the classroom. A presence around school, “pop ins” to see how students are behaving in class (I use to monitor how often I stood on a corridor each week at lesson changeover/popped into classrooms and all senior leaders have targets for this as part of their performance management!) and if necessary implementing a more systematic approach to behaviour management in the school are all needed. You might be interested in having a look at The Behaviour Collection.
C. CURRICULUM & CHALLENGE
There are two massive checks that will have an impact on the future academic success of a school and will be critical to keeping the “wolves” away from the door. The first check is curriculum and challenge. Does the curriculum allow all students in the school to be successful or are a number disadvantaged? Through a combination of traditional GCSEs and appropriate vocational courses including courses at the local FE College (insist on level 2 only) a challenging and relevant curriculum offer can be made for all students. I recently blogged on our curriculum offer for students which is aligned with our own values whilst taking into account the proposed “Best 8”.
D. DELIVERY & DEVELOPMENT
The second important check is to determine the quality of classroom delivery. This can be a worry to staff if they are not use to being observed (and a worry sometimes even if they are) this can be mitigated by training a number of people in lesson observation including those who are just interested in the process even if not currently responsible for performance management. Look to identify and collate information on strengths and areas for development as these can feed into professional development programmes. Time spent on high quality professional development is never wasted – invest and keep on investing as it will take time to change some practices but this will be time and money well spent. There is a difficult side to the job that cannot be dodged and that is dealing with the very few staff whose performance is poor – the unwritten D of possible dismissal. Whilst time consuming and emotionally difficult work it is not the key. Working with all the staff who are capable, competent and committed is the key to moving the school on, these are the teachers students experience for the overwhelming majority of their curriculum. Give people who are struggling clarity around improvements needed, time and support to make the changes required. Make sure the process is fair and just without letting it drift. Ultimately we are here for the students and their education – would you be willing for your own children to be taught by the person is a useful touchstone.
This will start to develop as a consequence of what you do and how you do it right from your first day in the school. Try to be totally clear in your own mind what the school should and will be about. Develop staff and student voice if you want a high degree of participation from people or look for opportunities to develop an extended school if you want high community engagement. These clearly aren’t either/ors but time and resource is limited so act with strategic intent. What will/should your school be like and then make it happen by design rather than hoping for a happy accident to get you there!
St Mary’s has moved on over the past thirteen years despite me veering from genius to incompetence with a lot of time spent in between. The school’s major strengths are around its staff development programmes and in particularly work on leadership that now means most decisions are made by senior and middle leaders with my focus more on visioning and ensuring a greater coherence to the work we do. The impact has been significant with Ofsted (2011) grading us as good with many outstanding features (we continue to strive for the elusive outstanding which no Blackpool secondary school has ever achieved) and a third consecutive outstanding diocesan inspection report in January 2012. Since our Ofsted Inspection the bar has been raised yet again. There is still much to do.
There are many merchants who are striving to make St. Mary’s “a pearl of great price”. (This quote is in remembrance of Mark Condron, a wonderful colleague).
I now refer to early headship as my first phase and have since moved through second phase headship (from “I” to “we”) and onto third phase headship (from we, inside one school, to we the extended system of schools). If you want to read something a bit more visionary on leadership try the Tom Sherrington blog on “Plantations & Rainforests”.