It's time to move on

19th March 2004 at 00:00
Janice Dyson advises heads on how to turn the closure of school into a celebration rather than a wake

Being headteacher of a school destined to close is not a vocation, though you would be forgiven for thinking it mine. In 2000, I closed a Bradford middle school and in 2002 a Leeds primary school. In my experience this demands higher-order leadership. What follows, therefore, is a personal prompt list for fellow heads.

Start by becoming knowledgeable about the statutory processes and make sure your community is aware of the checks and balances in operation. This is a roller-coaster ride and needs careful handling. You will never be more needed at the school gate. Be visible, approachable and smile.

Think once, and then again, about speaking to the press. You must walk the narrow line between advocate for your school remaining open and manager and inspiration for "good closure" if the decision is made to close. It will be more difficult to do the latter effectively if you lose your equilibrium in the former. Your professionalism and leadership will be tested to the limit.

Always be aware of the psychological impact of a notice of closure on your school community. Like bereavement, there are stages in recognising the inevitable and some people might blithely look it in the face and deny it despite all evidence to the contrary.

Cherish your positive souls - those who come into school with a smile on their face and who exude "can do". They will see you through. If you have a thoughtful and confidence-keeping chair of governors, thank your lucky stars. If not, seek a trusted alternative. Your deputy may be a support but could be overwhelmed by pressure too.

Encourage and organise "healthy living" for your staff. These are the people who influence the mood of children and parents. They need acknowledgments and treats. Fresh flowers and fruit in the staffroom, chocolate or cakes on "Fun Fridays", an in-service day at the local health spa with a stress management consultant - all these help.

Children are resilient, but listen and respond to their concerns. Little ones will relish the excitement of celebration events but find the anticipation of closure in 12 or nine or six months a bore or incomprehensible. Take time to be with them.

Make time for your own career plans. You will be able to cope with the concerns of others better with a clear mind about your own future. Keep parents fully informed of staff changes, but keep the message upbeat and focused on what is happening to maintain standards and create learning opportunities. Children only have one chance.

Take a keen interest in what will happen to the building and grounds. There might be a century or more of local folklore surrounding your school.

Invite in old scholars and learn from them.

Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate. All these have worked: a time capsule in the school grounds ("we were here and this is what we did"); special trips to a theme park; a centenary day dressed in Victorian costume; circus skills and concert; competitions, prizes and commemorative mugs. You will find a treasure store of goodwill and generosity for your situation.

Combine fund-raising and sponsorship to pay for artists in school and a souvenir bookCDplaquetextile-hanging with contributions from everyone.

Praise other local schools. The children and their parents need to have confidence in them. In good time, plan for joint professional development days to get staff from amalgamating schools together. Plan a phased transition programme for children and staff. This means flexibility on timetables, visits and parents' meetings.

If your building will be redundant after closure, leave it in good order.

Your grounds may contain special gardens, venerable trees or plaques dedicated to past pupils and staff. Give them an appropriate new home.

Staff need to exercise their best "moving house" routines, all the principles of good housekeeping and forward planning need to apply. Don't forget skip hire.

All staff will need support but be particularly aware of the needs of your support staff. They are often locally based so might find a new job difficult to find.

Adopt a special song, or adapt a favourite with new words and sing your heart out. This song will become an emblem for the whole school community and something the children will remember when you are long gone.

When you seal the letterbox on your last day, take a deep breath and look forward to the next challenge.

Janice Dyson has been a teacher for 27 years and is a former secondary school deputy and head of a middle and a primary school. She currently works freelance for Education Leeds, helping schools deal with the consequences of falling rolls

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