It’s been very quiet over here on Teaching: Leading Learning since I started my Headship on January 4th. I have been blogging every week on The Headteacher’s Blog but the first two terms in a new job have left little time for anything else! The Easter break has given me space for reflection and a chance to write a companion piece to The Prospect of Headship from back in July. What’s it really like taking the step up to Headship?
Coming in new, I’ve been conscious of setting the tone. Vic Goddard’s excellent book The Best Job in the World outlines the advice he received on taking up the role: “You make the weather.” Every decision, every interaction in fact, sets the tone for the sort of Headteacher you’re going to be and the sort of school you’re going to lead. There’s an inevitable realignment of priorities and setting of agendas. I’d thought long and hard through my Aspiring Heads course, NPQH and the application process about my vision and values, to the point where I’d almost overdone it. I used this process as the acid test for my approach – is this decision aligned with my beliefs and the kind of Headteacher I want to be?
I’m also conscious of being the voice and face of the Academy in public. It’s made me think harder than ever about what I tweet and blog. Also, of course, it’s been a period of taking stock – my “look, listen and learn” agenda – so there hasn’t been a great deal to blog about…yet.
Towards the end of term, a colleague and I were having a conversation about leadership and how I’d been finding it. We ended up discussing Barack Obama and the excellent series Inside Obama’s White House on BBC2. To be clear, neither of us were suggesting that being the Headteacher of a secondary school was really comparable with being the leader of the free world, but we did find some common ground! In the series, Obama describes the kinds of decisions that he has to make:
“Most of the decisions I make don’t lend themselves to a clean, crisp, wonderful solution; when they do somebody else typically solves them and they never arrive at my desk.”
I have been really struck by this in my few months of Headship. On a daily basis, I have been faced with 50/50 decisions with no clear “right” answer; decisions finely balanced and often with potentially negative consequences on both sides; decisions which are all grey area. If a decision reaches the Headteacher, it means that it’s sufficiently problematic, difficult or of such consequence that the Head needs to make the call. Having a clear sense of what I believe to be right has helped guide me here, but this is not a perfect world and it’s often been about deciding which compromise I’m prepared to make, and which I’m not.
Everything has a cost
Much is made of the importance of financial management as a Headteacher. This was really brought home to me in the first week as I was registered as a director of the Academy at Companies House, and signed up as the chief accounting officer. This was accompanied by a copy of the Nolan Principles – the 7 principles of public life – that all public servants are expected to uphold. I’d never come across them before! They are:
This was one of those sit-up-and-take-notice moments for me, when I took on board the gravity and responsibility of the post. I’d sat on the Governors’ finance committee as a deputy head, and I came into Headship with a good handle on how school finances work, but that’s very different from being responsible for the delivery of the budget and signing off the multi-millions of public money invested in the education of the young people at my school. Suddenly, I started seeing every decision in relation to the impact on the bottom line. Walking past an empty classroom with the lights still on, or considering whether we could cover a member of staff to take students on a last-minute trip, or how to advertise a teaching vacancy…every aspect of the school suddenly had costs attached. It was like that moment in The Matrix where Neo suddenly sees the corridor in computer code, except I was seeing £ signs. This was perhaps the most unexpected shift in becoming a Headteacher. It’s not one I particularly enjoy, but I suppose it’s inevitable. It’s really come home to me how little I understood about whole-school finances even in middle leadership.
You are not alone
“It’s a lonely job,” I’d been warned. But it’s really not! My senior team have been excellent through the various twists and turns of a spring term in a secondary school. Colleague Headteachers from local primary and secondary schools have been hugely supportive. The admin and support team have been incredibly helpful. I’ve made good use of our SSAT membership and my own membership of ASCL to leverage professional networks. But by far and above the best thing I’ve done is sat down for a one-to-one meeting with every single member of staff at the school. Being able to make a personal connection with every teacher, administrator, teaching assistant or member of the support staff has been invaluable. It has been time-consuming but getting that variety of perspectives and having the chance to listen to what it’s actually like to do their job – and how I might be able to make it better – has driven my planning and helped me clearly to see what my priorities need to be. The corollary has been to enable those passing-in-the-corridor chats and on-duty moments which make working in schools such a pleasure.
Above all, of course, we have the most amazing students. Tom Sherrington wrote at the end of term about 1200 reasons to love his school, and I know exactly what he means. I have nearly 1500 of course, which makes it even better! I’ve got my own class of Year 7 for English which has been fantastic, and I’ve visited lessons every single day. Seeing the learning that is going on, the pride and the sense of achievement really never gets tired!
It’s a privilege
In The Prospect of Headship I was looking forward to the privilege of leading a school. It certainly hasn’t disappointed. It’s been a huge challenge and responsibility, and it has definitely been difficult, but I have been thankful every single day that I am doing this job. It’s cliché to say that I got into teaching to make a difference, but I did, and as a Head I feel I can achieve this on an institutional scale. It’s humbling. But the possibilities are awe-inspiring. And I’m only just getting started…