Things are going too well: I'm worried

15th September 2006 at 01:00
Patricia DENISON answers your leadership questions

I am the new head in a school where I have been deputy for three years. I feel I know the school well and am fairly confident that I can do the job. Because it is successful and advantaged, there is no need to target any particular area: the staff are brilliant and positive, relationships are excellent, parents are happy and children industrious and achieving well. Where should I start?

This sounds like a problem which might look like a dream to those struggling in more challenging circumstances, and many in your position would not recognise the concern at all. Congratulate yourself that your antennae are in good order; you are alert to the possible pitfalls of complacency and misplaced action.

The quick answer to your question is that it depends where you want to get to; however, I suspect that you are a little at sea, not about the strategic direction of the school, but about your first steps on your journey.

The first thing that you will need to come to terms with is the way you will feel, as headteacher. You will have a new set of expectations of yourself - an awareness of the scope and breadth of accountabilities, and the unfamiliar weight of "the buck stops here" understanding which may cause your heart to race. Your question suggests that, rather than being impatient to make changes, put things right, address weaknesses in the school's provision, you are happy with the way things are. However, you are also mindful that if you don't do anything, working from the "if it aint broke, don't fix it"mantra, you will be perceived by colleagues to be ineffective and momentum may be lost.

You are not a newcomer to the school, but my advice is to behave like a wise one. Study of the Panda and other data will raise hypotheses which can be tested by enquiry within the school. Presumably, you will be familiar with this data, and with the questions it raises - no doubt actions are already documented in the school development plan having been thrashed out and agreed with governors. I'm assuming you will have been a key player in this process.Though how much you do know about the workings, norms, practices and systems of the school? Are you confident that you could describe these in every area of the school's life? It might be a worthwhile exercise to behave naively and explore the way things are done.

Don't make the mistake of believing that there will be seamless continuity. Your new role, and presumably the arrival of the new deputy, means that there is a new team. That's an important notion to grasp. A crucial action for you is to gather the new senior leadership team and create a picture of how you are going to work together. Look at some academic thinking on effective teams. Talk about what might be vital factors for success, and any potential barriers. One difficulty which may arise is the tension between taking an incisive look at performance and feelings of defensiveness from members who are accountable.

Do the same with other operational teams. Your curriculum leaders - is there absolute clarity about their role? They will welcome the opportunity to get together, share perceptions and redefine responsibilities and accountabilities. What has been their practice to date, and what would they like to do in the future? This may be the time to conduct a large scale audit of resources. What is available, accessible and redundant? Clear the clutter.

And your administration team. What is expected of them currently? What would you and they like? I always urge newly-appointed heads to get this right. You need strong secretarial support - do not fall into the trap of thinking that you need to be office bound, making low-level decisions. Look again at job descriptions and see if you can make yourself superfluous to need in this area.

Now is the time to look at the school through clear, unblinkered eyes. This is not easy when you have been so involved - think about inviting trusted friends made during your apprenticeship as deputy. These reciprocal visits - or "learning walks" - can sometimes root out possible barriers to a successful learning environment. It can take an outsider to notice something jarring - not quite in tune with the culture described in the school's mission.

Take a hard look at the governing body. Do its systems and structures support high effectiveness? How do governors feel about their role? This might be the time for them to raise a few questions about their work.

Finally, it is crucial that you signal your intentions very clearly. Staff need to hear you talk with passion about your values and beliefs - don't assume that they are known - and ask for full involvement in the process of enquiry. Enjoy the journey.

Patricia Denison took early retirement in July after 25 years in education, 14 as a headteacher. She is now working as a consultant. If you have a leadership question, email:

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