That's the way to do it

15th August 2003 at 01:00
How to make an impact in your new job in September: whether you're a head or an NQT, our seven-week summer series will make sure you arrive ready and raring to go

Make your mark from day one if you want to be a successful headteacher, writes Gerald Haigh

You've been promoted to head. You're no longer one of the crowd. When you arrive at your new school next term, people will nudge and point. Every detail of your dress, deportment and manner will be examined for clues to your personality. More importantly, everyone is waiting to see what you'll do. And you're itching to get on with things. Why else did you want the job?

There, though, is the rub. What do you change? When? And how? You can't march in and turn things upside down. Today's thinking demands the winning of hearts and minds: staff should participate in decision-making, so they "own" the policies that emerge.

Pauline Dixon, head of Rockland primary in Norfolk, says too much haste at the start may backfire later on. "It may take longer to consult," she says, "but if you take people along with you, you'll save hassle and endless meetings later on."

On the other hand, if change is going to take time, is it enough to settle down for the long haul? Apparently not, says David Playfoot, former head and now international educational consultant. "It's a big mistake to go into a new school as a senior member of staff and do nothing. It's all about symbolic acts at the start."

John Jones, on his third headship, at Maghull high school in Sefton, his third headship, agrees. "For a start, you need to make some sort of physical change - redecorate the foyer or staffroom so people know things are beginning to happen."

Cosmetic changes are statements about values - that staff and students are to be cared for. More overtly political was the change John Vickers, head of Coundon Court in Coventry for just one year, made in hisstudy. "I moved the desk from the centre of the room up against the window. Now it doesn't come between me and my visitors. I also established that my door will be open unless I have somebody with me."

Use of names is important, and one head advocates starting with those of the catering staff because the kitchen is often isolated from the rest of the school, physically and by working patterns, and an early listening visit goes down well with a team of people who usually live locally and have many contacts within the community.

The first assembly is a key moment. Heads usually want as many staff there as possible because the content and style of the presentation carries a host of implicit messages - this is how I speak to children, this is my chosen tone of voice, this is what I deem important.

Early on, too, most heads interview every member of staff. Mr Jones says:"I ask them to give me two things they like about the school and two things that need changing. I also ask all 1,500 children to write me letters. At Maghull, that filtered down to priority lists - high, medium and low - and informed the school improvement plan."

Gradually, with plans emerging from those staff interviews and other meetings and consultations, the pace picks up. Confidence rises, and for fortunate and able leaders, people's readiness to change becomes clear.

When Clare Robertson became head of Huntington primary in Staffordshire in December 2000, with Ofsted looming, she took the responsibility on herself.

"I told staff they didn't need to worry. I said all you need to do is make sure the right things are happening - that the philosophical direction of the school is a leadership issue, and not your problem."

She had put the processes of learning high on the agenda - a strategy Mr Playfoot evangelises about. "Don't make the mistake of quickly identifying good and bad teachers," he says. "Instead, identify good learning." He reinforces this with a tip for new primary heads. "When children go home, parents ask them what they've done today, and they always say they don't know. So ask the teachers to sit the children down for five minutes at the end of each day and ask, 'What have we learned today?' They come up with three or four things that they can go home and tell their parents. And they're saying what they've learned and not what they've done."

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