Time to hand on the mantle?

6th April 2007 at 01:00
There's a right and a wrong way to pass the baton to an incoming leader, writes Gerald Haigh

there's speculation that the plan to split the Home Office into separate security and justice departments is a hurried attempt by the Blair regime to lock Gordon Brown into a policy he's against. A classic example, you might say, of the lame duck demonstrating that one leg, at least, can still administer a kicking.

Can the same thing happen in school when there's a change of head? Do outgoing heads try to commit their successors? My friend Bob, who retired from his headship in the summer of 2005, believes any such attempt is doomed to failure.

When I described to him how a head I'd met was working hard to establish a particular approach so firmly into classroom practice that its own momentum would carry it on, he was instantly sceptical. "I don't think it's realistic for a head to try to embed anything in the hope that it will continue," he said. "It will only take one word, one hint, even a raised eyebrow, to give out the signal that the new head doesn't like it. Nothing will ever survive that the new head doesn't want. Except for daffodil bulbs, perhaps. Plant daffodil bulbs - that's my advice. Mind you, I've known people who'd go out with a spade and dig them up."

That said, there are decisions that will take significant effect under the coming regime and can't be deferred until it arrives. Two years ago, I saw this at work in Bob's school. During his last few months in post, a new head - Anne, deputy head of a school in a neighbouring local authority - was appointed for September. In the summer term, a number of those transitional issues came up. As with most primaries, for example, there was the all-important matter of how teachers and teaching assistants were allocated to classes - a delicate juggling of skills, relationships, preferences and priorities that in the end, when all the talking's done, calls for a straight cut-to-the-chase executive decision by the headteacher.

Bob obviously had to help and give advice, but he was sure that Anne, who would have to manage the day-to-day consequences, should make the decision.

Anne, for her part, has a clear memory of the day it was finalised and was to be published to the staff.

"I was driving over to do it, and I had a puncture," she says. "Bob was so certain that I had to do it that he came out and fetched me."

Then there was the vexed question of statutory planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time, which arrived in September 2005. This involved a lot of planning and some difficult matters of principle, all of which had to be sorted out in advance. Again, Bob was the person in post while Anne was the one who would have to live with what emerged.

Inevitably, there was some discreet and polite fencing and circling. Also inevitably, because we're talking about seasoned professionals and decent human beings, a workable solution emerged, helped by the desire of the whole staff team to see that their new head had as smooth an induction as possible.

"It's obviously in the staff's interest to see the new head in smoothly,"

says Bob. "I guess there'll be roughly three groups - the ones who think in terms of moving on, the ones who positively welcome the change, and the ones who may or may not like what's happening but recognise that they just have to get on with it."

Anne obviously found that summer term exciting, although it wasn't always easy. "I needed to be involved," she says. "But I still wanted to do my deputy's job properly. Then it was the final term in Bob's career, and I couldn't detract from the experience for him."

Inevitably, the school has changed. In the air, though, there is the kind of legacy that Tony Blair yearns for.

"Children and parents still talk very affectionately about Bob," says Anne.

"That's inevitable and I accept it. He'd been in the job a long time and was much liked in the community. My hope is that people will talk about me in the same terms when I move on."

Both she and Bob reminded me of how together they marked the most important kind of continuity - that of commitment to the community and its children.

It came about when Bob insisted on involving Anne in his final assembly. A short handover ceremony was devised. There were simple and dignified words, the keys were passed on, and symbolic welcoming gifts for Anne brought forward from various groups in the school community - children, parents, kitchen staff, cleaners, teachers and teaching assistants.

It's an easy thing to do once you've thought of it, and yet quite moving and much appreciated by children, staff and parents. I recommend it. Bob's daffodils are still there, by the way. They look glorious in the early spring.

Tips for the top

For the incoming leader

1 Don't be afraid to participate in decisions taken before you arrive which you will have to manage.

2 The outgoing head is taking leave of people and an institution that he or she holds dear. Be sensitive.

3 Some established practices are there for good reasons. Don't rush to sweep them all away.

4 Do nothing to distract from your predecessor's enjoyment of his or her last weeks in office.

For outgoing leaders

1 Involve the incomer in decisions he or she will have to manage.

2 Tell colleagues to be ready for change, to look forward not back, and to welcome the new head.

3 Take time to reflect on, and plan for, your own future.

4 Don't cling on. Once you've said you're going, you become a lame duck.

For governors 1 If the transition doesn't look smooth, it's up to you to sort it out.

2 Don't expect the new head to fit your preconceived stereotype.

3 Change will be slow. Be patient.

4 Know when to keep out of the way.

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