Who's in charge here? Oops! Suddenly it's me

14th November 1997 at 00:00
In his excellent book on the public school system, No Ordinary Place, Christopher Hibbert writes of the arrival of George Wharton as Warden of Radley College in 1880. Radley was on the verge of financial extinction. Addressing the common room: "The Warden made it plain to them that the easy-going days were over, that they would have to work much harder [and] be prepared for change which they might not like". In the following weeks the hapless staff "agreed to more and longer teaching periods, to an extension of the curriculum... to the Warden's monthly examinations, his personal 'reviews' of all the forms in the school".

In a short space of time, "He had brought a new, invigorating atmosphere". It was a remarkable model of school improvement driven by an able new head, and it happened more than a century before Barber, Brighouse and Blunkett. Now, more than ever, new heads are expected to change things for the better. A teacher looks forward to the arrival of a new head with considerable anxiety. The one thing new school leaders are most unlikely to say is: "Everything is fine here. Just carry on as you are."

The new head, typically and in the spirit of the times, tries to "hit the ground running". Staff apprehensions apart, staff expectations that things are going to happen is an advantage for the head. As Ruth Snow, senior education adviser in Coventry, says: "The pace is quite critical. It's a time when staff expect some changes and you can lose that window of opportunity."

At the same time, the new head is not writing on an empty blackboard. Wharton of Radley was able to create an earthquake of change because the very survival of the school was at stake. The same thing can happen today, and there have been some well publicised recent examples. More commonly though, a new head steps warily into a chair vacated by a respected predecessor, in an institution with its own traditions and methods. Everyone will expect change and welcome it, but everyone will also hope that some cherished areas will be left alone.

The new head who, like Graham Legg of Woodlands School in Coventry, confounds expectations by respecting and retaining a long established feature of the organisation, probably builds up a lot of credit. Woodlands,one of the first Coventry comprehensives - dating from the Fifties - has a vertically organised house system, understood and cherished by the whole community. At one time many comprehensives were organised thus. Today, most have moved to a horizontal structure with year heads. Woodlands staff feared - probably expected - that a new head might want to do the same. But Graham Legg, who became head of Woodlands in January this year, had taken the time to understand his new school and its values. "I announced that the house system would stay in place, but that there would be a thorough review of the way it worked."

Making good judgments about the extent, the pace and the direction of change is probably the biggest challenge for a new head. It certainly preoccupied Martin James, who became head of Manor Way Primary in Dudley in September last year, intent on building on the achievements of his predecessor. There came a point, about three months into the job, when he began to worry that things were not moving forward fast enough.

"It was silly really. I had a sleepless night." He talked this over with his pastoral inspector. "She said, 'Right! Let's go through what you have achieved'."

Maureen Johnson, who took up her post at Stopsley Grant-Maintained High School also in September 1996, echoed some of Martin James's thoughts. "You always want things done yesterday. I think the dilemma is that you want to consult, but you know also that there are some things you just have to get on and do."

This urge to keep moving can obviously be stressful and Jean Kelly, who has been head of Elmlea Infants in Bristol for two years, discovered early on that: "If you're careful you can manage the stress levels by setting realistic targets and going slowly and steadily."

Graham Legg, although he was surprised by the pace of early events, also learned not to respond too quickly to demands and requests from others. "I want to get it right so I try not to make knee-jerk decisions. I need time to think and talk to other people. "

In common with many other heads he had realised that the most casual of responses can be taken very seriously. As Maureen Johnson put it: "Staff don't really know you, and so they hang on every word and assume it's policy. "

Learning about this is part of the process by which new heads realise in the heart as well as in the head that they are actually now in charge. All describe a thought process which goes something like, "Now, who do I ask about this? Oh Lord, it's me!"

Maureen Johnson felt that the newcomer's feeling of insecurity and exposure was greatest when the problem was relatively minor. "It's the small things that throw you - like a false fire alarm that makes you think that perhaps you haven't got a total grip."

For these heads - all seeking headship before the NPQH qualification started - formal preparation consisted of looking for suitable management courses. Graham Legg spoke very warmly of the courses run by the Secondary Heads Association.There seems little doubt that they all perceive a deeper level of preparation that goes back years into their teaching careers.

Before they were deputies, both Graham Legg and Martin James had periods out of school working with teachers and local authority officers. Martin James, who worked at Dudley's educational development centre, appreciated the opportunity to work with a wide range of professionals. "I often had it said to me that being out of school was not good preparation, but I would say it was exactly the opposite."

Undoubtedly, though, the best preparation - the kind that nurtures a vision and a philosophy as well as a set of working tools - is the opportunity to work with headteachers who consciously try to develop the careers of their staff. Maureen Johnson said: "Yesterday I had to deal with something difficult and I was quite consciously thinking of Michael [her previous head] - using his methods and the way he thought things through."

Graham Legg said: "Rob Gwynne [head of Longsands Community College in St Neots where Legg was deputy] was a brilliant supportive head. He has seen nine deputies go to headship and he does it by empowering his staff - giving them the green light to go ahead and then acting as a critical friend."

Martin James told the same story. "My head was telling me I was ready for headship. He was incredibly supportive of me and he involved me fully as a partner in running the school."

Once the job is landed preparation is transformed into induction. Here it is very clear that local authorities - driven presumably by their newly sharpened sense of accountability for standards in schools - are working very hard to keep the initiative. The authority approach to induction usually has several facets. There will invariably be a mentoring system whereby a head is put in touch with an experienced colleague who provides informal telephone and face to face advice and support. Then the link or "patch" inspector usually gives a lot of time to new heads. In addition, there will be induction sessions and courses, some of which can be funded through the Headlamp scheme.

They generally recognise that new heads do not rush to join courses. Ruth Snow in Coventry describing a modular menu of courses, said: "But we are careful with the timing of it. In some areas - Child Protection for example - they do need something pretty quickly, but generally heads do not want to be out of school in the early days." Part of the task is to help heads understand what they have taken on. Often, this is largely a matter of discussion with the patch inspector and the governors.

A much more active approach is exemplified by Warwickshire's "Entry Audit" which is available for new heads through Headlamp funding. This is a four-hour detailed and structured discussion carried out in the first or second half term between the head and an inspector (two inspectors in the case of secondary heads). Together they work through a county document drawn up by experienced heads which asks questions about every area of school life. The inspectorate provides written feedback on the session, helps to draw up action plans, and carries out a review at the end of the first year.

Shona Walton, the inspector who manages this programme, admits that it has risks because a new head may back off from such intense early intervention. "It's a high wire act" is how she describes it. Even where there is no formal review of this kind, authority inspectors and officers always try hard to keep in touch with new heads.

Both Martin James and Graham Legg were visited early on by their chief education officers. All the heads I spoke to were full of praise for their inspectors.

Graham Legg said of Mike Torbe, senior adviser in Coventry, since retired."I cannot speak too highly of him. What a friend, and what a great colleague!" Martin James undoubtedly spoke for all the other heads when he said: "It's the best new job I have had, and the most tiring."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today