The Reality of Headship

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? 

You’re it

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. 

Feeling Presidential 


Barack Obama weighing up the options

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.”

                                               Barack Obama

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: 

  1. Selflessness
  2. Integrity
  3. Objectivity
  4. Accountability
  5. Openness
  6. Honesty
  7. Leadership 


Seeing the matrix for the first time

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…

15 thoughts on “The Reality of Headship

  1. Thanks so much for writing this and sharing your experience, Chris. As an aspiring head, it provides me with a really honest but very inspiring perspective. I will keep returning to this post.

  2. Thank you for your insight. As a new Head taking up post in six weeks ( my school is releasing me early) I found it thought provoking. Would you mind me asking how you went about your first week and how you dealt with your first meeting with the staff and assembly with the children? It is difficult to know where to begin -especially as it is not a natural point in the yearea to start. I would very much like to hear how you approached it and what you hoped to achieve in the first year. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

    • Good luck! In the meetings with staff, students and families I laid out my background, my values, and why I got in to education in the first place. I made it clear what I expected from them and what they could expect from me. In my case – because the school is already Ofsted outstanding and very successful – I made it clear that my first term would be about looking, listening and learning to inform strategic and operational planning after Easter, and that there would be no immediate changes. I suppose that part depends on your context!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences.
    This has come at a time when I needed a little bit of reassurance and a final push.

  4. Congratulations Chris. Looks as if you’re settled quickly and actively. Thank you for drawing attention to The Nolan Principles I’m going to share them with my colleagues at work. ‘Public life’ jobs can be tough but as you said and many of us share the reason for coming in to teaching was to make a difference. Seems to me you are doing just that to ALL the members of your school. Look forward to meeting you in situ in June.

  5. Pingback: The Reality of Headship | mohamoudyusuf

  6. Fantastic to read this, Chris – so pleased you’re still so positive, and it sounds to me as if you’ve made a really strong start. Hope to see you sometime and have a proper catch up!

    I do think the ‘judgement calls’ get easier as your experience builds and your confidence grows (though it doesn’t sound as if you lack confidence). Over time you also develop a clearer sense of where you can turn for guidance and inspiration when the situation is particularly problematic. You find you use different sorts of support for different kinds of issues.

    Absolutely agree that meeting staff one-to-one is time well-spent. It enables you to start to build relationships, which are key. I did the same in my first term, asking each person I met to tell me one thing about the school they would like to see changed, and one thing they hoped would never change. It was a really helpful way of talking the temperature, and starting to know and be known.

    And re: change – sometimes it’s tempting when taking over a successful school to reassure staff that you won’t make change too soon, but I’d just advise that sometimes you don’t know what might emerge that you find you need to act on. As you say, it’s often about compromise, and working out what you need to rise above, and what you need to tackle.

    Do keep reflecting and posting! It’s so important for future generations of heads to read such posts, I think. Did you also see Helena Marsh’s reflections on her first term?

    Hope Easter has given you the chance to rest and draw breath so that you feel refreshed and energised as the summer term starts! Very best wishes for the term ahead.

  7. Great blog post. Loved the Matrix analogy. It’s amazing how much new heads suddenly see for the first time (even though those things have always been there) once in post. Shows the influence of directed focus. Thanks for the insights and good luck in your role.

  8. There is no ‘one way’ but there are some common elements that make for good leadership. I agree with Jill re meeting staff – they are your resource after all. You may have already discovered that many of the maxims for engaging and motivating students apply to staff too, after all we are all learners. So Please Be Colleague Friendly – provide opportunities for Power (voice), create a sense of Belonging, offer Choices (explaining consequences) and don’t forget to have some Fun (associated with celebrating success) along the way. And finally a poster for the wall “Leaders E.N.A.B.L.E” – I’ll let you discover the acronym at: where you will also find the poster.

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