Educational leadership & learning

Talking New Heads

I have had the pleasure and privilege to attend a new HT 2 day residential this week with 22 other colleagues. As I said it has been a privilege to spend time and work with these colleagues, who without exception are: passionate about their new role, highly intelligent and reflective, dedicated and hard-working and absolutely determined to make a positive difference. It was inspiring.

We were also very fortunate to have a number of inspiring presentations from a range of Local Authority advisors and more experienced HTs. I produced pages and tweets (#hantsnewht) worth of notes, scribbled lots of possible future actions, but am trying to assimilate it all into some themes through this blog. So it won’t be as long as it could be!

What has been regularly evident to me since starting my post in September 2014, and was a recurring theme throughout the 2 days is the complexity and enormity of the challenge of headship. I am not going to bemoan my lot, or suggest we have it harder than other colleagues. I chose to take on this role, I am choosing to continue with it, but this is the reality. For me the other theme that struck me was the tensions in the role. Generally I try to approach things with a positive mindset and wold usually refer to these as balances, but I think tensions is a more appropriate word.


Tension 1: prime focus on Teaching & Learning.

Without exception both colleagues and those presenting to us highlighted the importance of keeping the prime focus of work on T&L. I absolutely agree. It is why we exist as schools.

However the tension of other constraints, legalities, priorities… do not make this a simple formula. Hence the use of the word tension, as you are being pulled in different directions, often away from that which you value most. The adage of spending 80% of your time on the 20% of your role which will have 80% of the impact is a good theory, but it is a theory.

On returning to my school on Friday I spent much of my day: negotiating with heating engineers (it’s not been working for 3 weeks now), completing the annual update of a Fire Safety (the deadline is looming), finalising a recruitment process with my Admin Officer (the advert had to go out that day), debating an attendance letter with LA and other external advisors… I did spend some time discussing English planning with colleagues, with pupils both in class and at lunchtime, leading a Collective Worship celebrating and discussing our achievements for the week and taking a multi-skills club with Y1 and Y2 pupils after school.

For me a key part of my role within T&L is to encourage / ensure my teachers spend 80% of their time focused on T&L. Having quality time to think, plan, assess and develop. For me to spend 80% of the conversations I have with them to be based on T&L, even if my time is not spent on that. To ensure 80% of the time in staff meetings and INSET days is spent on T&L.


Tension 2: self-evaluation.

Another theme that became apparent with every presentation by an experienced HT and every conversation with one of the other new HT, was the view of the performance of the school. Without exception every school had staff and/or governors who believed that the school was better than the incoming HT evaluated it as. Another tension. And one that made me wonder why.

Why is it that the school I have just left feel confident in the accuracy of their self-evaluation? Why is it that so often new HTs coming in have a different view? We discussed it may be because the school have become very successful and efficient about working in a previous way for a previous HT, but someone new coming in wants things done differently. It may be that is a school achieved a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ grade a few years previously that some staff & governors have an assumption that is still seen as that. A new HT brings new, broader and hopefully up to date perspectives on expectations and aspirations within the profession. Fundamentally I think a new HT comes into a school wanting to help it develop and improve for the benefit of the children and therefore identifies areas that require improvement (a descriptive phrase not the Ofsted judgement).

That of course is a tension within this. How will we be judged as school when we are visited by Ofsted inspectors? How will that judgement affect the development of our school and the trust that staff, governors & parents have in the new HT to develop the school successfully?

The tension with staff & governors regarding the accuracy of self-evaluation can be very time consuming and detrimental for the relationships within school and the capacity to improve. Therefore as a new HT honesty about the situation is important but the tone and style of delivering those messages is also important. How do you bring people with you and motivate them to improve their practice if they disagree or feel insulted? Definitely a tension on a tightrope to be navigated carefully.


Tension 3: staff development, retention, capabilities: short and long term.

Linked with the second tension is staff development or capability. Much of the content from the presentations was about supporting professional development, coaching models, colleagues working on collaborative projects both within and between schools, giving staff time and space to take risks / learn from mistakes /grow as practitioners, building staff trust… All of this I whole-heartedly agree with. I love working with people, whether they are children or adults, and the biggest ‘buzz’ I get professionally is seeing them thrive and flourish.

However in the profession at the moment there is also a fairly dominant trend about improving performance quickly. “6 weeks and I want these practices embedded and the progress data to show this.” There is also much stronger advice from external sources that if staff are not ‘performing’ at an acceptable level, then capability procedures should start quickly and the process should be worked through rapidly. For me this is a worrying and complex tension, as it can have such a positive or negative impact on all aspects of school life and work.

It is also a conundrum when we are looking at judging the quality of teaching over time. There may be a member of staff who does some things well, other things less well, is aware of those targets for development and generally shows a positive an open attitude towards improving them. What if improvements aren’t quick enough? What if there is still a lag in the progress data? What if you damage relationships across areas of the school to use capability procedures to manage someone out of their role, only to find that in the midst of a recruitment crisis there is no-one better who is applying for the vacant post?

We discussed during the day the need to give learners time, space, support and challenge to learn and develop. To give them opportunities to learn from each other, from their mistakes, to develop their confidence and resilience and to “be patient to allow time for deep immersive learning.” Surely this should be as true of adults as it is children? Yes we would all want to have amazing, inspirational, effective, ‘outstanding’ teachers in every class. It would make the job of developing a school so much simpler for HTs. But if we don’t value, grow, retain and support our staff in every school, how will this happen?


Tension 4: networking & professional reflection v the day job.

Understandably and I think quite rightly many of the presenters stated that as HTs we needed to ensure we found time for our own professional development and learning. It’s the classic, put your own oxygen mask on before you help others with theirs scenario. Again personally I agree with the importance of this. I love reading, working with my staff of developments, networking, discussing aspects of education with colleagues (either in person or Twitter), visiting other schools… However time, energy and other focuses are always overwhelming present.

We were encouraged to view the residential as a 3 day conference and to work from home on the Friday to reflect on our learning. I think 4 out of 23 of us actually planned to do so. Again for me it comes back to the complexity and enormity of the challenge of the role of headship. It is not possible to spend as much time as would be fully effective of our own professional development, instead I think when we have time allocated to it we need to make the most of that time. There is just too much to do, though I agree without stopping and reflecting we are probably not identifying the most effective and efficient ways of doing. As with everyone working in education, and I am sure many, many other professions the ‘To-do list’ is never-ending and priorities and deadlines can swamp us.

I really did value the 2 days of this conference, but found myself after lunch on day 2 listening less and planning my tasks for the evening and the next day in more detail. I have spent time reflecting on my learning through this blog, but have got up at 4 am on Saturday to do so, so I can spend the rest of the morning analysing data and Sunday afternoon updating Performance Management documents after the latest interim meetings. Again I am not bemoaning my situation, or whinging about how hard my life is, merely stating facts to show the difficulty of this tension.


My hope is that as I become more experienced within this role, as my school develops in the way we would like it to, that some of these tensions will ease slightly.

I led a network meeting of RQTs recently and was struck by the number of aspects of their roles which they were finding challenging, which in discussion with another colleague afterwards we realised rarely raised a heartbeat for us now as we had discovered strategies and ways of working to overcome them and make them manageable. My hope is that when I return to this blog in 5 or 10 years time I will feel the same about these tensions. No doubt I will have new tensions, but that is because as a profession I think we always challenge ourselves to improve and become better at our roles.


Interesting books, people and links. (These are some of the points/links shared over the 2 days).

  • “Creating Learning without Limits” (Alison Peacock)
  • “Teaching backwards” (Andy Griffith)
  • Co-acting styles
  • Change curve (
  • Austin’s Butterfly (youtube)
  • Dan Meyer (
  • TES, BBC & Guardian education news feeds
  • Oliver Burkeman ( & Warwick Mansell (
  • RSA animate & RSA shorts (
  • Pisa in focus (
  • TED talks (
  • (




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