Look before you leap into a new job

10th October 2014 at 01:00
Naive headteachers can fall foul of internal politics, so research new schools carefully

In theory, a competent headteacher should be able to step into any school and make that institution a success. Moreover, they should feel comfortable in that environment and be able to make their vision a reality.

Unfortunately, this not always the case. All too often when a headteacher arrives at a school they feel very uncomfortable indeed. Rarely is this down to incompetence or negligence. Rather, it is more likely that they have failed to spot the hidden landscape - the politics, history and personnel that can thwart them at every turn. That failure can have dire consequences.

No fewer than 146 members of the Association of School and College Leaders, 67 of them headteachers, lost their jobs between September and December 2013. At the union's conference this year, general secretary Brian Lightman described these developments as "an intensification of the football-manager syndrome".

The analogy is a good one. Just like David Moyes at Manchester United - without the pay packet - headteachers can realise too late that the job they are expected to do is vastly different from what they thought it would be. More importantly, the freedoms and support they need may be frighteningly absent. Some schools are just not set up to work for certain types of headteacher. So how can aspiring leaders avoid the pain of getting caught in this trap?

Playing politics

The best governing bodies are passionate about the school but recognise that, in order to fulfil their role as overseers, they must respect the professionalism of headteachers and staff. The worst boards are dominated by a few powerful individuals. They can also make impossible demands of the headteacher. Tales abound of popular and successful professionals falling out with the board; in practice, they will have fallen foul of internal politics and power struggles. Always ask around, speak to predecessors and get a feel for the governing body of the school you are considering moving to.

Support structures

Every new headteacher needs assistance, ranging from finance, human resources and secretarial support to mentoring and guidance, both from inside and outside the school. Unfortunately, the myth of the fearsome, old-fashioned headteacher who did absolutely everything themselves still lingers in the memories of some parents and governors. But schools are different places now, and leaders should not worry that they are showing weakness by needing to have support structures in place. Ask for them as a condition of accepting employment.

Willingness to change

Any new leader will bring change. Dynamics will shift, fresh perspectives will emerge and opportunities will arise to do things differently. All schools need to move forward but the task will be harder if the staff and governors are resistant. Understanding this and working out the needs of individuals will help tremendously. Schedule meetings with key figures to discuss what you hope to do and get feedback about how that may be received.

Historical influences

A long-serving former headteacher can continue to dominate a school for years to come. It can be difficult for their replacement if a former post-holder holds influence over governors, staff and parents. Don't be afraid to ask about the destination of the previous incumbent and aim to meet him or her yourself.

Discover the school's real values

A school's stated values are meaningless unless they are lived out in daily interactions. Red flags should pop up if the abiding sense on visiting the school is of intrigue and sniping. Tempting though it is to think that you can save the day, if a culture of relentless criticism exists, this is likely to be aimed at any new leader too, with predictable consequences.

This advice is not intended to encourage prospective candidates to create impossibly exacting lists of criteria and wait for the perfect match. At some point, the only way to know whether a school is going to work or not is to take the plunge. What I advocate, however, is going into it with eyes open and with an awareness of the inevitable hidden agendas.

Dr Helen Wright is a former president of the Girls' Schools Association

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