A head start

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 115 | Autumn Term 1 2020

New Headteacher Will Manning shares his experience of leading a school this past year and offers advice and tips to new heads starting in September.

I imagine that for any school or college leader, the respite of this particular summer break was needed like none other. In an unprecedented period for the nation, our schools and colleges closed, Zoom and Teams became our natural leadership habitat and we set about studiously decoding guidance to reconstruct a socially distanced school, reintroducing rising exam cohorts and, as far as possible, planning for the imminent September restart. All this, coupled with a Section 8 Inspection in mid-February, added genuine texture to my first year in post as a Headteacher. Looking back, I am inordinately grateful for two things – first, the unrelenting support and encouragement of the professional network that I had around me, the resourceful and determined leaders in my team and within the trust and, second, the plain fact that I didn’t know any different.

Clearly articulate your values, vision and purpose

Now, if you are starting your first headship this September and taking on the unique responsibility of shaping young people’s futures, while the break may have been physically restful, I imagine your mind has remained furtively busy. From that moment back in April 2019 when I put the phone down to the chair of governors offering me the post of Headteacher of St Birinus School, my mind visualised a myriad of obligations and impending scenarios that the top job in a busy secondary school would surely entail – none of these included a global pandemic. That heightened sense of expectancy and anticipation is absolutely normal and you will feel an enormous weight lifted the second that you sit down after your initial address to staff on the first Inset day in, now, your school. Channel this emotional energy into impact and the clear articulation of your values, vision and purpose. The high-stakes firsts will come thick and fast in the first fortnight in office and there is nothing like getting off to a confident start with all your stakeholders on message and imbued with your passion and ambition for the school community.

Promote great teamship

As you inhabit it, the vastness of the role and depth of the responsibility will become ever clearer but rest assured that effective delegation to the leaders around you and your authenticity and honesty will promote great teamship. Your clarity now on expectations and what is important to you in all aspects of what happens in your school or college will generate touchstones for whatever challenges arise over the coming weeks and months. Every investment you make now to empower and to enable, nurturing gumption and initiative will pay dividends. This will allow you to focus on core purpose and unravelling what is required to rebuild your school community, ensure safety and confidence among students and staff and bed down the necessarily complex logistical template. The first 20 days of this coming academic year will require you to make the complex simple and to showcase the moments of success and validation – progress, after all, is the very best source of motivation.

Ask questions, actively listen and take note

Doubt, or simply not knowing the answer are also completely to be expected. Your consummate performance as an experienced deputy has now been trumped by a wholly new – and unfamiliar – role. Like it or not, you are to an extent de-skilled. Now is the time to reconnoitre every aspect of your school or college and capture the essence of what the priorities are in terms of school improvement from what you see, what you feel and what you hear. Defining potential risk, posing apposite pre-mortem questions and interrogating your understanding of this summer’s internal outcomes, the efficacy of curriculum, teaching, behaviour and the extent of parental confidence. Ask good questions, actively listen and take careful note of what conversations with your staff reveal. Invest in high-quality and creative CPD to develop and inspire your most valuable resource and while I remember, two things to do before October. First, book in some external quality assurance focusing on systems and structures to audit the culture and the impact of your first couple of months in post and, second, be sure to book a great getaway for the half-term – you will need to refresh and consciously step away to sustain your energy for the run into Christmas.

Be visible, prioritise and take a higher view

Your commitment, conviction and ambition to deliver a high-performing school or college with you at the helm, especially given the current circumstances, will undoubtedly preoccupy you. Ensure that amidst your prominent visibility and daily feeling of the pulse of your school, you prioritise taking a higher view. To use the dance floor and balcony analogy, don’t lose yourself in the music, be jostled and knocked off balance – yo-yo on and off the dance floor, strategically moving back and forth, bolstering your knowledge of your school or college to make better interventions and observe their impact in real time. Prioritise this time; it is your professional responsibility. Reflect on decisions but don’t prevaricate – your students only get one chance.

Use your inner strength and agility

Finally, though, expect to be influential, to prompt change and improvement and to have a profound impact on the young people and the professionals that you serve. Your new start will offer your school a huge shot in the arm in terms of adrenalin and a fresh and exciting view on its future. Of course, you will face challenges, challenges that you have not had to deal with in a previous professional life, but you have within you the ability and skills to meet them. While this job will test your every sinew, your strength and agility in moments of professional adversity will surprise you and the soundboard of a good leadership coach or mentor will be invaluable.

Whenever you are unsure, you will have built the network and the trust to collaboratively establish a way forward. You are now firmly in the chair but the sense of accomplishment, personal and professional growth and the realisation that you will indeed deal well with whatever is thrown at you is inspiring. Your ability to influence, shape, guide and offer the young people and professionals within your school a bright, fulfilling and ambitious future is an absolute privilege. Just keep asking yourself the fundamental question: What is in the best interests of the child? You’ll not go far wrong.

Will Manning
Headteacher of St Birinus School in Oxfordshire

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