Afflicted with a patronising head

Pat Denison

Pat Denison answers your leadership questions

I am starting my second term of headship of an infant school which shares its governing body with an adjoining junior school. I was warned by the previous head that there had never been any love lost between the two schools; she thought that the junior school head had very little understanding of the needs of young children. She assured me that the governing body was happy to let the schools "just get on with it" and, from my limited understanding of them, this seems to be the case.

The junior school head, while friendly, has made it clear to me that he expects things to go on as they always have. (Both schools' last Office for Standards in Education reports were "good"). The average results of the infant school make his value-added look very good. He uses words like "sweet" to describe our pupils and I suspect that he has a similar view of me.

I strongly feel that standards and expectations in the infant school are too low. How can I shake perceptions and drive up standards without antagonising the other head and causing unnecessary disturbance within the governing body?

There seem to be several issues at the heart of your question. First comes your belief that there are low expectations in the school with an accompanying degree of complacency. You are not clear about the extent to which the governing body should play a part in the changes you set out to make. And you suspect that the junior school head will be threatened by the erosion of his value-added results if the infant school succeeds in raising attainment.

It's important to treat these three perceptions as just that. You have come to these conclusions by way of relatively sketchy evidence after a short time in the post and you need to test them out.

Starting with your first impression - that attainment in the school could be better - this needs presenting to staff as an open question, devoid of criticism, with an implicit acknowledgement of their best work. "How good are we? How do we know?" presupposes a positive answer, finds the best practice and contributes to a nurturing emotional climate.

Teams could be set up to look at different aspects of the school - its learning climate, resources, pastoral care, behaviour. The brief for the team looking at attainment should be rigorous; evidence needs to be drawn from wide-ranging sources, from conversations with pupils, teachers and the children's parents. Arrange visits to high-attaining schools and talk to their teachers and pupils. Look for evidence of vocabulary of preconfirmed failure: "won't be able to", "can't", "yes, but", which deny the likelihood of success. The search itself can be stimulating as well as revealing.

Don't wait for the next governors' meeting to explain your plans. Get the chairman in immediately and describe what you want to do. Your enthusiasm should be catching, and your chair should feel that you welcome involvement. There could be a role for members of the governing body on every inquiry team, and it should be made clear that the enquiry will be conducted with openness and integrity. It is worth investing time in the working contract for the process, to guarantee unguarded involvement.

Put aside any preconceived notions of the attitudes of the junior school head; it is important for both of you to build a positive relationship.

Explain what you are doing in the school and invite the junior school's involvement. They could make a valuable contribution to standards of attainment after transition.

You should end up with a fairly comprehensive image of the whole school, and there will be much to celebrate. Your hunch about standards will undoubtedly be right, but you will now have illustrative evidence, found by a team which will be able to raise the question: "what can we do to raise attainment?"

There are always uncomfortable elements to any process of change, and there are likely to be pockets of resistance. But if you are inclusive and sensitive to the perceptions of others, you will find the resources to hold a steady course.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Pat Denison

Latest stories

Leadership: how to turn a failing school around

How to turn a failing school around

Rebuilding a school's shattered reputation isn't easy - but focus on belonging, brilliant staff and behaviour and you'll get there, writes Chris Edwards
Chris Edwards 22 Oct 2021
Staff surveys can be key to help uncover what CPD will really have an impact

How to use surveys to focus staff development plans

Staff surveys can be great for uncovering what teachers really want - but you need to ensure they ask the right questions and the insights are properly understood. Here's how you can do just that
Chris Lindop 22 Oct 2021