New captain of sinking ship

25th June 2004 at 01:00
Pat McDermott answers your leadership questions.

I have just taken over a school facing challenging circumstances: we have high staff turnover, a poor physical environment, and difficult children to teach who experience family problems and negative peer influences. Where do I start?

Firstly reflect on the fact that the governors of your school have made the best start possible by appointing you. A new headteacher is an opportunity to make a fresh start and change the culture and expectations of a school.

You have chosen this post and the governors see you as the best person for the next crucial stage in your school's development.

The first thing that you need to signal to staff, pupils and the local community is that you are here for the longer term and are not only interested in quick, short-term wins.

While these may be necessary and significant, sustainable improvement is the main way to success. Second, you need to focus on the things that are really going to make a difference and drive the school on. For this you will have to rise above mere conflict resolution, where you are seen as and expected to be the latest emergency service.

The emphasis must be on raising achievement, the fulfilment of each individual, the development of authentic teams that can be autonomous and effective rather than dependent and always seeking approval for everything.

You will need confidence, resilience, persistence and determination. Seize every chance to reaffirm your commitment to education for all and raising achievement.

Third, initiate discussions and debates about the meaning of school improvement at all levels: staff, pupils, governors and the community.

School improvement can be defined in many ways. In a narrow sense it is taken to mean improvement in attainment as measured by exams and league tables. But, this is only a part, albeit a necessary part of improvement.

What do your school and community believe should be your definition of school improvement? Try to come to a shared sense of what it means for you.

Fourth, how well do you know your school? Do you possess a recent Ofsted report on the school? How good are you at accurately identifying the present problems? If you are confident that you can do this, then how confident are you of suggesting appropriate strategies for improvement?

It is always possible to obtain help with these key tasks from external sources. Are you part of a federation or local educational network that may help in these areas of school improvement?

Fifth, get a plan. Engage as many people as you can in dreaming up what the school could be like given your context. Embed this vision in specific targets in key areas and mark out milestones along the way to improvement.

Let everyone know what is expected of them.

Decide what expertise you have in the school, the capacity available and what you need to bring in from outside. Remember that external support should assist the leadership team, not replace it. Have a planned exit strategy for such support from day one.

Once you have your plan, monitor it rigorously and often, to review your progress.

This would be one way of making a start. Let me know how you progress.

Pat McDermott is head of St Joseph's College in Bradford. If you have a question for him, email

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