Under new management

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
A new head can put people on edge: new policies and dazzling ideas need to be discussed with staff if they are to work. Janet Murray reports

If your boss has been around for a while, you may be working in the comfort zone, but the arrival of someone new at the top can make everyone edgy.

Expectations alter, boundaries may be redrawn and the working atmosphere can change beyond recognition.

The arrival of a new headteacher resulted in Phil Ward's swift departure.

"After a recent Ofsted inspection, which suggested that the school was underachieving, we were ready for some new blood," recalls the English teacher, who now works in south London. "He was a deputy head from a very good school and seemed to have plenty of good ideas. The trouble was, he wanted to change everything overnight, and he wasn't prepared to listen to staff.

"We were particularly disgruntled at his decision to take away the on-call system, which meant that a senior member of staff was always available to supervise students whose behaviour ruled them out of the lesson. His philosophy was noble: keep kids in the classrooms. But in practical terms it was a nightmare. We were the people who had to deal with disruptive students in our lessons, not him. We weren't given the chance to express our thoughts."

Within weeks of his arrival at the beginning of the Easter term, the new head had alienated many staff.

"He wasn't a people person," says Phil, "and, unfortunately for him, the previous head was. We were used to a head with an open-door policy and suddenly there was this guy in charge who locked himself in his office, pushing paper. He seemed to have little interest in getting to know the students. I swear some of them hardly knew who he was.

"The paperwork for monitoring and assessment became unmanageable and staff were left exhausted and demoralised. I voted with my feet, but those who stayed are still suffering."

According to Tom Lewis, information services manager at the Teacher Support Network, the arrival of a new head can be a stressful time for teachers.

"There can be a degree of anxiety about how things are going to change," he says. "There's a great fear of the unknown. Mostly, teachers are concerned about changes to their workload and routine: whether there will be more meetings or whether they will have to increase the amount of reporting or planning."

History teacher Tania Nicholls is still trying to adapt to the arrival of a new head last autumn.

"When our head, who was very much loved, retired after many years at the school, we were all nervous about the future," she says. "Her replacement was young and dynamic and, while the school had many strengths, it was never dynamic. Suddenly we were faced with a new structure for the school day, a stringent timetable for after-school meetings and a host of government initiatives to implement.

"Many staff, particularly the more experienced ones, dug their heels in and insisted they knew best. Relationships were strained. It's only now, almost a year on, that people are starting to see what the new head is trying to achieve and are starting to work with him, rather than against him. I can see what he was trying to do, but he went about it the wrong way. He didn't take the time to get to know us, to gain our trust before subjecting us to change."

But the arrival of a new boss is not stressful only for teachers. Taking on a new school is one of the biggest challenges a head can face.

"It's a very lonely time," says Geoff Wybar, head at Gravesend grammar school in Kent. "Everybody is nervous of you and, however well-prepared you are, it's inevitable you're going to make mistakes. If I were starting at my current school again, for example, I'd be less laid back, perhaps more prescriptive.

"As a head, there's a tendency to expect your staff to know what you want them to do, but sometimes that needs spelling out. It's tricky when you're new; you can't just wade in and interfere."

Robin Attfield, assistant director at the National College for School Leadership, says new heads need to observe, listen and find out.

"It's important not to jump in without detailed knowledge of the school and its staff," he says, "and this makes for effective working relationships.

This means spending as much time as possible in school and being visible.

It's important to set realistic targets and remember that lasting change rarely happens overnight."

New heads also need to consider the impact that change will have on the working lives of their staff, says James Williams, PGCE programme leader at the University of Sussex. This can help determine how change is managed.

"While changing the headed notepaper or simplifying a routine may not require a consultative process, other issues will, and heads need to think this through carefully," he says.

"If you decide to change the school day, for example, this will have a big impact on staff routines. They may need time and space to rearrange issues such as childcare. It's about taking the time to listen and make judgments on how change will affect staff."

"Change is a two-way process. New heads need to ensure they keep lines of communication open and remember to listen to their staff," says Tom Lewis.

"Equally, teachers must be open to change. If this happens, the transition is likely to run much more smoothly."

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