Leadership - Take charge in your first few weeks

Be courageous and make bold changes when you start a job at a new school

Geoff Barton

"The boldest measures are the safest," declared Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson on the eve of the Battle of Copenhagen in April 1801. So it proved, with the English fleet securing victory over their Danish-Norwegian opponents.

While being a principal may not carry the responsibility of leading a strategic battle between two great nations, Nelson's comment does have some relevance. In particular, it is important to heed his words in the first few weeks and months of taking up a position: bold measures should be the order of the day.

Eleven years ago, when I became a principal, making changes went against the majority of the advice I had received, but I felt that if I took it steady I would lose the initiative.

Those initial steps do not have to be big ones. In my first days, I looked at a lot of relatively cosmetic areas of the school and, working with the leadership team, changed them. For example, we tightened up our uniform policy, informing parents that no student could attend lessons without the correct footwear.

Other changes included overhauling the school website, repainting some corridors and changing the look of the school newsletter. These small alterations had an energising effect - change is infectious and it forces people to have an opinion, pushing them out of the status quo.

Importantly, making small alterations at first paves the way for more significant changes later on. I was able to move from steps to leaps: to turn off the bells, to gain specialist status, to restructure the day into three periods of 100 minutes and to overhaul the curriculum.

Being bold early on will inevitably lead to issues. Fortunately, you have much experience that you can call on from your time as a teacher. Dealing with an irate parent, for example, is something most teachers will experience very early on in their careers. You will encounter this kind of resistance when making changes, and I knew from experience to let people rant themselves to a standstill before trying to inject some rationality.

In other areas, though, previous experience may not help you. With change, you will inevitably be forced into difficult conversations with people, including staff. The prospect, and the fallout, of these exchanges can keep you awake at night. The best advice is to have the difficult conversations as early as you can. Shakespeare wrote that "our doubts are traitors", and it is true that worrying makes things seem much worse than they ultimately prove to be.

Change, of course, is not the only area where boldness may be required. As a principal, you will encounter many situations beyond your experience. The worst and loneliest of these is when you are representing the institution during a difficult time.

In my years as a principal, a number of students and staff - too many - have died. Initially, I wasn't sure how I could possibly remain composed while having to break such appalling news to everyone. Fortunately, as a church school, we have a strong link with the cathedral in Bury St Edmunds, England. The advice of the acting dean at the cathedral has served me well through these occasions: switch on autopilot.

By that, he meant that you have to play the role of principal and play it boldly, carefully and decisively wording what you will say and saying it clearly. Only afterwards, with friends and family, should you attend to the personal emotions you have so far withheld.

Nelson's view, then, I have found to be close to my own: leadership, particularly in those first few terms, is about being bold. The decisions you make may not always be the right ones, but the risk of not making them, by being too tentative, may often prove to be too great.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, England.


As a new principal, it is important to establish yourself by being bold in your decision-making from the start.

Small changes can nudge people out of the status quo, paving the way for larger changes later on.

You will encounter resistance but be strong and communicate your reasoning clearly.

Be proactive in tackling issues - it is important not to postpone difficult conversations.

Being bold can also get you through difficult periods, such as when staff or students have died.

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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