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When a dream team's had its day

Pat Denison answers your leadership questions

I am feeling apprehensive about the coming year. For the past five years we have had a stable and highly effective teaching team that has been creative, worked well together and understood the school's commitment to excellence. But nearly half the staff at our school left at the end of the summer term, including some key senior leaders. We have since made some good appointments, but I worry that it will be very difficult to maintain our success.

As the summer break draws to a close, many of us wonder how we will summon the energy to resume normal service. We begin to think about the start of the school year with mixed feelings, depending on where we are on the journey to perfection.

Some colleagues, often newly appointed, may not have relaxed; rather, they may have used the time to plan, organise, sort and set goals. They can't wait to meet September with high hopes and impatience.

Those of us who have been in challenging schools for some time may feel dread that the new term will bring the same old problems - disaffected pupils, needy parents, exhausted teachers - which sap energy and drain our reservoir of optimism.

Other colleagues are in the enviable position of starting the year with a team that is in tune, works together harmoniously, creates and embraces change and sets out to provide the very best for pupils. These heads know that the team is self-propelling, and that their own job is to encourage and acknowledge, to nurture and celebrate.

For some years now, you have been in that very fortunate position in which the team is functioning at its best, everyone has a shared purpose, is chasing the same dream, uses expertise and talent, and makes a huge contribution to the school. You are anxious that the school should survive its major surgery, and you wonder how your own role needs to change to enable that to happen.

First, cast from your mind the idea of "maintenance". It suggests you are hanging on to a status quo, and that is debilitating and self-defeating. It creates a focus on "slippage" and draws attention to the shortcomings. It mourns what was, often romanticising it, when you should be alert to signs of growth.

You and your staff must accept that your winning team has gone. When a successful group of teachers disbands, there is inevitably some grief and your staff no doubt feel as apprehensive as you do.

So, how to start again? Identify the systems, routines and procedures that the school uses to ensure that its day-to-day operations are well-oiled. If you haven't done it already, get these into a staff handbook and make sure that they are known and adhered to. I'm talking about timetables, access to stock, rules for behaviour, policies on display, data collection, playground and lunchtime management, collection of cash and the myriad "ways things are done" which help to stabilise the school structure.

Give time and opportunity to enable people to get together and talk. Plan days for this so that colleagues can build some rapport , understand each other's ways of working and begin to develop a team behaviour. It is more effective to provide a focus for the talk, rather than a blank agenda - for example, a question or hypothesis that stimulates enquiry, or a statement of values or beliefs which invites challenge, or perhaps a piece of academic research that provokes debate.

As the new team begins to take shape, be prepared for a sense of dej... vu as you hear the same discussions and debates, policies being thrashed out and wheels being reinvented. Take a deep breath and have confidence that, given the right conditions, your new team will emerge with strength enough to take the school forward into a future that you and your colleagues have created together.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary, near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship. She is also a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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