Why your first leadership role should be in a challenging school

Moving to a challenging school might be just the thing your leadership career needs. Headteacher Chris Wain explains why toughing it out at the top is the best way forward.

Chris Wain

Challenge School

When I applied for my first headship there wasn’t exactly a stampede of applicants for the post. The reason for the lack of interest was that the school was known to be “challenging” and Ofsted had solidified that reputation by using the word in their inspection report.

I applied regardless and, when I got the job I instantly regretted it. In fact, I cried on and off for two weeks, uttering “What was I thinking?” over and over again, interspersed only with cries of “I can’t do it!”

But 19 years on, I am convinced that taking on schools deemed to be “tougher” is the best decision a teacher can make for their first foray into headship.

First day nerves

On my first day in post I had to return a condom to a parent whose son had brought the item into school. This should have been the moment when all my fears were proved true but instead it was the making of me.

The parent attempted to use the incident to embarrass me but found himself embarrassed instead. I had to stand up for myself and in doing so I set the tone for my headship.

Could everyone react that way? I believe everyone is capable of it and that people can surprise themselves if they take a chance.

Room for improvement

Of course, you could take on that “nice” school with the Ofsted “outstanding” badge and all the benefits that go with that. But why would anyone ever want to take over a school that is doing brilliantly? The only way is down.

If you go for a school that requires improvement, in its broadest sense, there is something to get your teeth into. You can make your mark, staff will be grateful that they have got at least got a headteacher at last and the likelihood is that you will be welcomed with open arms.

You will gain the satisfaction of really making a difference, building a team of your own which will, in time, not even be aware of the history of the school and assume that it has always been a great place to work.

Ready for a challenge

Most of all you should take on a challenge because those children and staff need you more than any other school.

As I reflect on my term of office, I look back and smile. I love my job, my school and everyone in it.

We have grown together over many years and I am confident that if you choose wisely you will feel exactly the same as I do as you come to the end of your career.

Chris Wain is headteacher at Pallister Park Primary School, Middlesbrough.