Can I keep up the success?

I am giving some serious thought to making an application for the headship of a highly successful school. It has recently undergone a stunning Ofsted inspection with Grade 1s across the board. I like the location, it is conveniently situated within a good catchment area. It is obviously popular with parents and seems to have everything. I suppose I'm hesitant about applying because I'm worried I may not be able to sustain its success. Do you think I would be better off going for a less effective school where I would be more likely to make a difference?

Only you can answer that question. When a school seems to have found a formula for success it is not always clear what difference a new leader will make, or whether the difference will have a positive or negative impact. I have heard of many incidences when a school's reputation for excellence has acted as a deterrent to potential applicants.

First, consider what leading a successful school might be like. You should certainly find a clear and shared vision, alignment of values, beliefs and attitudes, and a culture of quality which is evident in its conditions for learning, relationships and environment. You should meet people, both children and adults, who believe in themselves and see themselves as great learners. The school will most likely be held in good regard by its community and there will be high levels of trust.

There will certainly be a strong sense of the need for continued action leading to change. Truly successful schools are alert to sociological, technical, economical and political trends. Leaders in them know that expectations and methodologies must be constantly challenged, to make sure that what the school offers meets the needs of modern learners.

It is safe to say that no one responsible for learning and teaching will ever say, "We've got it cracked". Complacency is unacceptable. This brings its own pressure, of course. Adults in a successful school are resilient and resourceful - they need to be if they are to deal with the pressures of a change culture. They work hard to make the school the best of its type, but they know how to acknowledge and rejoice in what they are doing. In other words, they have got what it takes.

Crucially, your vision needs scrutinising. What is your dream? What does your perception of the world young learners inhabit tell you how best they might access significant learning experiences? How sensitive are your antennae? You need to acquire a keen sense of the direction in which the government (of any hue) is taking schools.

What is your idea of leadership? If this school is successful across the board, its success cannot be dependent on the exhortations of the heroic, charismatic leader at the top - that is never sustainable. (You may have come across an extremely well-thought-of school deteriorating all too rapidly once that type of leader is gone.) No, sustainable success happens when every adult has the willingness and capability to take responsibility. You will see leadership throughout the organisation. Teams will form and disband, pulling together to get a job done, and regrouping to drive through the next project. A new leader coming into this culture needs to be confident and grounded. New heads can be forgiven for feeling somewhat uneasy with these levels of powerful independence.

So the role of head in a school like this will differ enormously from what might be needed in a school with difficulties, challenging circumstances or in a school which is coasting. The job is about finding highly-effective practice and asking how it is done. What is the blueprint? You need to discover it, unpick it, make the intangible tangible.

It is about making it easy for leaders to operate, identifying constraints and barriers and getting them removed. It is about asking "What do you need?" and finding ways to get it. It is about supplying the oxygen so that energy and momentum are maintained.

You need high confidence to lead a school like this. But do not mix up confidence with control. Leaders of effective schools are light of touch, keenly alert, ask the right questions and engage in productive dialogue.

They take real delight when they hear it said about the school's success, "We did it ourselves".

Find out all you can about this school from every source. Start to form a hypothesis about the true nature of its success. Get some trusted friends to ask you searching questions to help you examine your beliefs and attitudes and lead you to some deeper insight into whether this school could be right for you. And then go with your instinct.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary school, 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

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