The Conversation - Advice for a new head

5th September 2008 at 01:00
First-time head Sue Savage quizzes Sue Robinson, an old hand in the job, about the challenges of headship

Q: As a new head, what would you say to staff in your first meeting?

A: The important thing is to establish yourself as a leader and begin to build a team by showing all staff that you will develop your relationships with them in a climate of trust. This isn't a time to be critical. Staff need to know that you understand the context of their school and that you are committed to their development and wellbeing, as well as that of the children. State what you believe in. Seek staff's opinion about what they are proud of and what works well in the school. Ask them what they think are the three main priorities (no more than three) that would improve provision and what they think you should do as a partnership to facilitate this.

Q: I can see it is important to get to know the school and staff quickly. What do you think is the best way to do this?

A: It is useful to read as much as you can about the school from official documents, which you probably already have from interview preparations. But this only gives one view of the school. I find it informative, even now, to spend time walking around the school and visiting classrooms during, before and after school, and talking to people as often as I can during the week. This gives me the opportunity to praise, helps me to make judgments on what is happening in school, and identify any issues that need to be addressed. If you can offer time to staff to come and see you informally, this too gives them confidence in building a relationship with you, informs you about what they think is happening in school, helps you to see how people fit into the team, and can contribute to making improvements.

Q: How do you encourage parents and the community to get involved?

A: The key is communication. It is ideal if you can spend time with the parents and get to know them, but this isn't always possible. All staff should be involved, though, in trying to find out what parents know, and what they want to know. We have tried to establish this through questionnaires, parents' workshops and meetings - to offer a two-way system of communication. Be approachable - the community gets its impression of your school from the way you and your staff respond.

Q: How do you encourage governors with work commitments to come into school during the day?

A: Most employers know that governors have this responsibility, and are usually receptive to their employees coming into school. We link governors to areas in school such as inclusion, standards and assessment, and pupil voice. If governors feel that they are meeting the children and staff and making a difference in school, they are more likely to come.

Q: When the roof is leaking, half the teachers are off ill, you have a queue of parents waiting to see you, how do you cope?

A: By remembering I am not alone. It is possible to anticipate problems such as cover situations, and to have systems in place, but yes, there are days when everything comes at once. Experience has taught me to delegate to staff, and I find one of the best supports for me in such situations is our school business manager, who deals with premises and personnel, which leaves me to deal with the parents.

Q: I know I have a lot of work to do, especially in my first year. Have you any advice on how I can maintain a work-life balance?

A: It isn't easy, especially when you are a new head, because it's knowing where to get help and to whom you can delegate and distribute leadership. The key to this is good communication, in that everyone is aware of what is expected, and of the resources and help available. It is essential to prioritise. Have the courage to bin paperwork that comes to you that isn't mandatory or can be used to improve the school. There are a lot of networks designed to help you: the National College for School Leadership, your local authority, and other headship associations. My favourite antidote to stresses and strains is to phone a friend, or sit with the children and remember why I came into the job.

Q: Is there anything else that might help me get through my first year?

A: Try to enjoy it. I know it's easier said than done with the demands of accountability on schools, but leadership is a privilege, and success is about forming good professional relationships from the start. If you can do this with staff and the community, they will help you to improve the lives of children. The partnership is what leadership is all about - and you aren't alone.

Sue Savage started her new job as head of Albert Village Primary in Swadlincote, Derbyshire, this week.

Sue Robinson is head of Cherry Orchard School and Children's Centre in Birmingham.

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