I finally set foot in the impressive National College for School Leadership building for the first time last week. Despite opening its doors in 2002 I never got to go there. I was a headteacher in the capital at the time and Nottingham seemed far too provincial. The NCSL was eventually closed down in 2013 when it was taken back by the DfE.
The NCSL building remains, although there’s nobody there any more other than a handful of tourists, a large open-plan foyer and hotel rooms overlooking the central atrium. The conference centre is still part of the university but is now owned by a luxury hotel chain. As I entered, it’s hard to imagine that it was once considered by many to be the ‘Sandhurst for schools’.
It was right and proper though that some of the (not so) old guard had returned to host the third Forum Education conference for new headteachers. It clearly felt like a homecoming for Michael Pain and his team as they welcomed delegates to the annual event. There was a definite sense of reverence from those that had been there before as they regaled us over lunch with heart-warming stories of a bygone era.
An event such as this always takes you back to when you first took up the baton as a new headteacher. I attended my first annual conference for new headteachers in 1999. It was then organised by the DfE at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre just off Parliament Square. I remember feeling awe-struck and very grown up as I emerged from Westminster station into the autumn sunshine.
I loved every minute of it, not least because the mighty Ben Zander stole the show and had us on our feet singing a rousing version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. We were all in good spirits though, as earlier in the proceedings the morning speaker had been interrupted by a couple of unexpected guests. They were David Blunkett and Tony Blair, still riding high on the back of their recent election success. The PM was there to announce on stage the creation of a new national college for headteachers. I never imagined that when I finally got to go there it would be gone.
As I reflect back on my time as a new head, here are 8 things that I wish somebody had sat me down and told me to do when I first started:
1. Write down your values and beliefs. I don’t mean by making a mental note of them or jotting them down on a post-it note. I mean actually writing them down in a book having first spent quality time thinking deeply about what they are. Be sure to use abstract nouns only and to describe why each one is important to you and what it looks like in reality. When you’ve done this, repeat the exercise but this time for all the things you believe in. Make sure you ditch your limiting beliefs and focus only on the empowering ones. Have your team do the same and then share. Remember though that you never have to justify your values and that you should be prepared to take a bullet for your beliefs.
2. Give out permissions. Find time to go round to each member of staff and give them explicit permissions. This is what allows you to share your values and beliefs and begin to articulate the culture of the school you want to create. Only you can do this and it needs to be done very quickly indeed. Permissions should include things like permission to fail, to take risks, to not have to mark every piece of work, to go home at 4.00pm, to play, etc.
3. Find yourself a mentor. Hopefully your new employer (LA or trust) will arrange one for you, but if they do not, don’t hang around. Go and get one for yourself. Use Twitter to ask for one. I guarantee that someone will step up. When they do, be sure to book a regular slot in your diary to meet or speak on the phone and keep to it. And if you are not on Twitter, then you should be.
4. Ask loads of great questions. Don’t be tempted to make wholesale changes during your first term, however tempting it may be. Watch, observe, walk the corridors, sit in on lessons, talk to the children and parents. Think about what you see, then write it down, reflect and reframe it and then go and look again, continually asking questions as you go. When you do ask questions, be rigorous and always look for the second (or third right answer). Never accept the first. Three great questions to start off with: What is it that we need to do less of? Why can’t our school be like Disneyland? And perhaps best of all, So what?
5. Know what fires up your staff. Whilst asking these great questions, be sure to find out what it is that people are passionate about. These are the key drivers in your school and you need to know them. It’s what gets your staff out of bed in the morning. Talk to them about it frequently; ask them to tell you what it is that they love doing and what it is that they are good at. Then give them permission to go and do loads more of this and to find others that do the same.
6. Surround yourself. Once you know what fires up your staff – their passions and their purpose – be sure to surround yourself with people that share yours. When you do, make time on a daily basis to go and find some quick wins. Celebrate these successes as quickly and as early as possible. This will allow you to build coalitions and synergy amongst the team, especially if you need to create a sense of urgency.
7. Measure what you value. This sounds obvious, but too often we get sucked in to measuring only what other people want, such as the DfE, Ofsted, LA advisers etc. Make sure to get your governors on board and that they know what drives you and are clear about the values and beliefs of the school. Create an evaluation framework that allows you to measure the impact of these. When the governors have to make a difficult decision, they need to use these values to guide them, ensuring always that they know to stick up for the most vulnerable child in the school.
8. Go back to basecamp. When climbing high, you always need to return to basecamp to refuel, re-energise, acclimatise, and simply to switch off. This becomes your release or safety mechanism. Know how to turn the noise down. Take great care to ensure that you know when to let off steam or vent your feelings with someone you can trust. It might be to a partner, your mentor, a family member or even to yourself as you drive home or lay in the bath. Don’t bottle things up. Headship can be a lonely place and so you need to bring people in and welcome them to your basecamp.
Even though each of the above are aimed at new headteachers, they remain as relevant for me today as they did back then. We have a new sponsored school joining us in a few weeks’ time and I shall be following my own advice diligently. Fads may come and go, but when it comes to good old-fashioned wholesome leadership, some things never change.
You can read more about how these have helped me as a headteacher in my book, available here.