Leadership: Prepare for a blockbusting first day back

21st August 2015 at 01:00
Want to get the year off to a flying start? These tips from the top should help you plan

I once watched a documentary about Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise in which their former colleagues explained the painstaking processes of planning and rehearsal that went into making the comedy duo's television shows such a success - even their ad libs were carefully choreographed. The same should be true for school leaders getting ready for the start of a new academic year.

We all know what getting that first day right means for the pupils and staff: it sets the tone for the next 12 months. So what are the key ingredients for making things run smoothly? There is no definitive answer - we all have our own ideas - but there are inevitably some common themes. Here are my top five tips:

1 Lay the groundwork

An agreed plan should be put in place before the end of the previous summer term for how everything is going to operate on the first day back. In our school, we usually start the new term with one or two professional days followed by a day where students work with their tutors before lessons commence. Each one is carefully scheduled so that everyone knows where they need to be and when, and, most importantly, what they will be doing. When your school has more than 2,200 learners you don't leave too much to chance.

2 Get the key messages across

By the end of August, with our A-level and GCSE exam results published, the time for analysis and reflection kicks in with a vengeance. The excitement of knowing how the school has performed is understandable, but the focus needs to shift to the lessons learned and how to apply these to the plans in place to support students' success. Equally, it's really important to devote time to sharing the broader key priorities and messages for the year ahead. This is about wanting staff to be energised, focused and clear on expectations.

We communicate priorities through staff meetings and activities during our professional days. This is then reinforced by assemblies with each year group on the first day back.

3 Give staff time to prepare

The start of an academic year always brings the challenge of getting to know new classes, and it is essential for teachers to hit the ground running. Giving them a rich spread of information about pupils helps. Having important information at their fingertips - for example, academic progress to date, data about background and attainment - can prove invaluable in ensuring that the first lesson gets off to a positive start.

During our professional days, we set aside time and space for staff to look through the latest data on their classes and use this information to plan effective lessons and devise appropriate seating plans.

4 Focus on the learning environment

Schools can learn a lot from the basic principles of marketing. Just as a department store will dress its windows to attract customers, it's important that every opportunity is taken to make the school's environment reflect its key priorities and messages. Ensuring that the site is clean, tidy and, above all, welcoming is a good start, but you can do so much more. Classrooms and corridors with refreshed and exciting displays reflecting a strong learning culture will help to reinforce that sense of renewed energy and optimism that should come with the beginning of the new year.

5 It's all in the delivery

When all the preparation is done and the first day of school arrives, it is important for leaders to have a strong presence around the site rather than being tucked away in their offices. The new intake of pupils is always a priority group and should be given close attention. In my experience, the vast majority have few if any concerns on their first day - especially if there has been a positive transition activity previously. However, coming into secondary school can be daunting for some. Being a welcoming presence at the gate and offering a cup of tea to anxious parents can go a long way.

From there, it's about getting into the classrooms, delivering assemblies and walking around the school, particularly at break and lunchtimes. Using every opportunity to talk to pupils and staff allows you to model highexpectations and can set the school up for a great year.

David Hall is associate headteacher at Bay House School and Sixth Form in Hampshire

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