BLOG: National Early Headship Conference 2016

Making new headship burn brighter

Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

George Bernard Shaw’s moving words about the importance of a purposeful life were recalled by former London schools commissioner Sir Tim Brighouse during his keynote address at our second annual Early Headship Conference.

His linking of Shaw’s words to the idea that headship is a torch which needs to be grasped and kept burning as intensely and as long as possible in a time of both unprecedented change and opportunity was a powerful piece of imagery that echoed throughout the day.

But the naked flame is a fragile thing. Strong gusts can snuff it out, as Tim seemed to suggest earlier in his presentation, which kicked off a day of discussion, inspiration and practical advice.

“The government sends us hurricanes and your job as a new headteacher is to shield your colleagues,” he said.

The sentiment was echoed by Mark Smith of conference partners Schools Advisory Service, who discussed the important of protecting staff health and wellbeing in a later workshop.

The current policy and accountability climate threatens further unwelcome gusts for school leaders, but the sense that headship still provides an unrivalled professional opportunity to create massive change for children is still very strong. Indeed, there was a palpable sense of excitement and desire to make a difference amongst our delegates.

How to make the most of that exciting professional opportunity for your pupils, your school, your colleagues and yourself can seem at first to be an intimidating challenge.

But the speakers and workshop presenters at the event focused on sharing practical – and inspiring – advice that delegates could take away and use in their own leadership journeys.

The leader’s role in culture change / Butterflies! 

Tim talked about the skills and attributes needed to be a successful head: managing complex change, managing a team and understanding delegation.

There were eight processes new heads had to attend to in order to be successful, he said. These included creating an environment fit for learning, developing staff, and ‘creative review’. A head might combine these three approaches when pursuing major changes, such as making significant changes to the curriculum or the format of the school day. “If a change is worth making you’ll not get it right first time,” he said. “Keep asking for feedback, be a learner and a listener, and don’t do it in isolation. Build in a tweaking session where you can also involve others in refining your ideas and have a review session after six, nine or twelve months and you will get it right.”

He spoke of the ‘butterfly effect’, in which small acts needing little effort could create a big impact. These included keeping a small fund of money aside so that any staff requests for funding for CPD could be quickly agreed.

It was also vital that the successful leader built their headship on some firm principles, said Tim. “The courageous leader must handle unwarranted criticism, regard crises as the norm and complexity as fact, have a bottomless well of intellectual curiosity and a complete absence of paranoia and self-pity. You also need to be able to spot the ‘holes in the hedges’: short cuts or gaps that will help you keep to your principles.”

The importance of the transition

A major stepping stone to headship remains the deputy role. Advice on making a smooth transition from this position was the focus of Dr Jill Berry’s address, which opened up the afternoon session.

Jill drew on her Doctoral research into the transition journey. These are fleshed out in her excellent blog for Forum Education but one of her strongest messages for our delegates was to make the most of the period between appointment and taking up post. “This was a crucial period for me, although I didn’t realise it at the time,” Jill admitted. “It was a time when I started to know the school I was joining, and started to be known as well. It wasn’t a bumpy start because I’d used that lead-in time well.”

Seeing headship as a jigsaw puzzle 

Headship was a jigsaw puzzle consisting of a set of interlocking pieces – the job for new heads was to puzzle those pieces and fit them together, said Sir John Dunford.

He described four pressures faced by modern headteachers that he did not experience during his time as a secondary headteacher in the 1980s and 1990s. These were the speed of change, instability caused by the politicisation of education, conflicting pressures pulling headteachers in different directions – such as an expectation to collaborate with other schools in a seemingly competitive system, and the introduction of policies not grounded in evidence.

Key actions for heads trying to turn this environment to their school’s advantage included looking differently at accountability, he said. “I think we have got into a trap as a profession by looking at accountability as something nasty that’s done to us by Ofsted. I want you to think about intelligent accountability and how you can do that in your school. This includes looking at the aims of the school and thinking about how you can use internal professional accountability that can help you hold colleagues to account for achieving these aims.”

John also urged new heads to “water the plants” – that is, encourage and develop their colleagues wherever possible. “Tim spoke earlier about keeping a small sum of money back for CPD. That’s exactly what I did,” he said. “It gave encouragement and inspired innovation. And it makes a big difference: leading teachers’ learning and development is actually the single biggest impact on pupil development.”

And he appealed to heads to work with other schools, and not against them. “You are not running a shop in competition with the shop around the corner,” he said. “You are a co-leader of education in your area. You have wider responsibility for youngsters, not just those on your register.”

The three lenses of school improvement planning

Andrew Morrish, CEO of Victoria Academies Trust in the West Midlands, ran a workshop on creating a stand-out school. Leaders, he said, needed to use three different ‘lenses’ to plan and evaluate effectively in their own school.

A ‘calibration lens’ allowed you to focus on vision, values and beliefs, organisational culture; and taking a regular temperature of the school.

The ‘kaleidoscopic lens’ was about looking at creativity; innovation and continual improvement, while the ‘telescopic lens’ was about addressing the mistake many heads make of looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope, focusing on only a very narrow set measurable aspects of the school and failing to see the big picture. School leaders needed to climb high so that they could see this big picture, horizon scan, search for excellence and network.

And he added: “There is a danger in thinking as a leader that you can take a model from one school that has been successful and drop it into another school and it will work, but this is very often not the case. You need to take the time to make the conditions right for change in your school.”

The relationship between head and business manager

There was also guidance for heads on developing a successful working partnership with their school business manager, in a workshop hosted by Diverse Academies Trust’s executive head Simon Jones and Karen Bonser, business development, standards and project manager.

Mutual trust and professional respect were part of the foundations of a successful partnership, along with agreement to develop the business manager role together and giving that business manager professional the skills and support they need, as well as a place on the school leadership team.

Communication was as crucial to nurturing a new head’s relationship with his or her SBM as it was to any other relationship across the school, and Simon Jones’ advice reinforced the idea suggested by other conference speakers that small acts help to make a big difference to headship and, ultimately, the success of a school. “Meet weekly at a regular time,” he advised. “It’s really important that you should never be too busy for this. If you are you then will in effect be saying that you are too busy to improve.”


Further resources / information

You can hear more from some of our speakers by visiting Forum Education’s youtube channel 

Contribute to the discussion on twitter using the hashtag: #NewHeads16

You can read Mandy Gallagher’s (Head of Nursing at Schools Advisory Service) article on strategies to ensure staff wellbeing here:





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