Shift into first gear

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
Starting a new headship is a challenge, but promotion within the same school does not make the transition any easier. Janet Murray reports

Getting to know a new school, along with its staff and students, can make for a steep learning curve. But what happens when you're in charge? Starting a new headship could be one of the biggest challenges of your professional life.

Mark Cresswell is about to take up his first headship at a middle school in Lowestoft. At just 36, he admits to being nervous about managing staff who may be older and more experienced than him.

He says: "In many ways a staffroom is like a mixed-ability class. You've got your high achievers, your people in the middle who get on with things and don't say a lot and your lower achievers, who may have a lot to say for themselves! One of the challenges you face as a head is getting the best out of all these different people."

Managing change is another big challenge for the new headteacher. Get it right and your new staff will be eating out of your hand. Get it wrong and you could end up making enemies before you've got your feet under the desk.

"It's difficult because everyone wants a new manager to implement change, but not too much too soon," says Mr Cresswell. "I think my motto is going to be 'evolution not revolution'. I want to take some time to look at how systems work and what the staff and students need."

According to Pat Denison, New Visions facilitator at the National College for School Leadership, Mr Cresswell definitely has the right approach. "As a new head, people will look to you in anticipation, wondering what you are going to change and when. For many people, change can be daunting."

For this reason, it is vital for new heads to find out as much as possible about what drives the staff and students. They should also be open about their vision for the school and involve staff in the decision-making process where possible. "It's important to start by getting agreement about the culture of the school and what staff would like the culture to be. It may also be good to start with cosmetic changes, such as improving the staffroom facilities, as this can reassure staff that their efforts are valued. Something as simple as providing fresh fruit and free coffee in the staffroom, can be a real boost to morale," adds Mrs Denison.

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI school, a 13-18 mixed comprehensive in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, focused on culture and cosmetic changes in the early days of his headship. "As a new head, you have to demonstrate that change is possible, but I don't think you should start with the big issues. I started by updating part of the building. I also organised new planners, school signs and instigated a 'push' on uniform standards - all in the first eight weeks. It was very successful, demonstrated change was possible and prepared everyone for the big curriculum changes that came later.

"People do expect change when a new head arrives, but they like it to be gradual. But if it's a choice between doing nothing and doing something, you have to do something."

The degree of change instigated by a new head will be influenced by the school's history. If a school has recently had a poor Office for Standards in Education inspection, for example, rapid change may be necessary to motivate staff and students in order to raise standards. In a more successful school, a new head may need to tread more carefully, as there may be an attitude of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" amongst staff.

Either way, communication is vital, both on a formal and informal basis.

There is nothing teachers loathe more than a head who locks him or herself away in their study pushing paper around their desk. A successful head needs to have a visible presence; this might mean walking around the school at break and lunchtimes, popping into classrooms during the school day, taking regular whole-school or year-group assemblies and doing some teaching. But it is important to discuss this with your staff from the outset. As Tom Lewis, director of operations at the Teacher Support Network, puts it: "If your staff aren't used to a headteacher with a 'visible' presence, they may feel threatened if you're putting your head around their classroom door every five minutes. You need to make your staff aware of your vision and the kind of headteacher you want to be."

Taking up your first headship at a new school is a great opportunity to start afresh and create your own management persona. But if your first headship is at your current school, there may be another set of challenges to face. While you have the advantage of knowing the school, its culture and its students, it may be more difficult to establish yourself as a leader. As Mr Lewis puts it: "There may be people who are resentful about you getting the job, who may feel you are not up to it and be far too ready to criticise. If you've previously been a deputy, you'll need to carve out a new role for yourself, but some existing staff won't want you to do that."

It may, therefore, be necessary to take a step back and give your colleagues more space. Popping into the staffroom for a few minutes at breaktime may be good PR, but gossiping over your packed lunch in the staffroom might not be such a good idea. Or, sadly, joining your colleagues in your local for a Friday night booze-up.

Ian Bauckham is about to take up his first headship at the Bennett Memorial Diocesan school, an 11-18 mixed comprehensive in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, where he was previously a deputy.

He says: "I realise I will have to adopt a different persona as headteacher. I think people may continue to see me as a deputy for a while and the role of the head and the deputy is very different. There will be difficult decisions to make and not every decision will command universal popularity - difficult when you've got established friendships on the staff. And then there's the challenge of shifting students' perceptions and getting them to see you as a headteacher, not a deputy."

Nevertheless, he is clearly excited about the role. "It's great to have the scope to think innovatively about the future.I love working at the school and feel it has so much to offer. I'm so excited about working with colleagues to make an already fantastic school even better."

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