Get it right from the start

7th November 1997 at 00:00
New heads have to contend with the demands of staff, students, parents and governors, says Mike Fielding. But with one researcher (below) finding that more than one in three heads is stressed - one in 10 is on anti-depressants - they cannot afford to neglect themselves

As the large crop of new heads who took up post in September settle into their jobs, they might pause to file a mental progress report. The events of this first term could have a significant bearing on the rest of their headship and any similar post that follows. So it's worth asking a number of important questions - and being honest about the answers.

For instance: "What do the staff think of me?" These first few weeks are a period of mutual discovery, and the emphasis is usually on heads finding out about the staff. And they're not always very complimentary. You hear phrases like "they really need stirring up" or "the problem is they've had it too easy". Heads new in post rarely say "it's a brilliant staff" or "I've got a really good team". That might mean admitting that the head is the one with a lot to live up to.

And yet that is closer to the truth: the new head is the least aware of how things work and the one with most to prove. So paying attention to the staff's perception of you is essential in the early days. Almost everything, including mode of dress and style of memo-writing, will be discussed, analysed and, if deemed unsatisfactory, will haunt the new head for months, or years, to come.

It can be a time of deep misunderstanding. Failure to acknowledge individuals in the way they've been used to, for instance, may be taken as curtness when the real cause is distraction or reticence. And the issues that crop up in these early days will assume great importance precisely because of their timing, and so should be handled with care.

Most schools work pretty well, but most new heads want to change them - and that's where conflict can arise. Teachers are not opposed to change - change is at the heart of the teaching and learning process - but they prefer it to happen at a manageable pace. New procedures that are introduced hastily look good on paper but mean little in practice.

How new heads handle the early jockeying for position which goes on among any staff with a new leader will also be watched closely. Is he or she a soft touch? Do they promise everything to everybody? Are they reluctant to make decisions?

Non-teaching staff will be similarly alert. It is easy for a new head to alienate them by paying them insufficient attention or appearing to treat them as second-class citizens. They oil the wheels - including making sure the head is well looked after - and any hint of undervaluation will soon bring demoralisation.

It's not just the staff who will have been focusing on the new head over the past few weeks. Students are just as keen to know how they should adjust their behaviour to accommodate a new regime.

There is a universal myth among young people that a new head will be stricter than the old one, so most fear the worst. Also, apocryphal tales abound in the period between a head's appointment and arrival, and the new head may be credited with all kinds of intentions and expectations; again, the most trivial evidence will be taken as confirmation of the pupils' worst fears.

Students want to feel their new head is interested in them. The frequency with which he or she is seen around school; what he or she says about their work; whether he or she seems approachable - these issues will all be chewed over until children are satisfied they understand the newcomer.

It is the parents, however, who have the biggest stake in the headship working well. In any review of progress the head mustn't forget to check what he has done to ensure their approval.

And, as if satisfying the needs and diminishing the fears of these stakeholders weren't enough, new heads should also be looking at what contact they have with people outside the school; how well they are doing with the organisational and administrative load; and, if they do any, how good their teaching is.

Most important of all, perhaps, the new head should be checking on progress towards the targets he or she set for the first term, and asking what compromises he or she has made. Inevitably there will have been some - that is the nature of the messy business of leadership and management. New heads must hope, however, that none is fundamental or goes against the high ideals which brought them into the position in the first place.

Knowing yourself is an important factor in successful headship. Being comfortable with what you know is absolutely essential.

Mike Fielding was formerly principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon

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