Leadership: Start as you mean to go on…

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As the new academic year begins, what priorities should school leaders focus on in the coming weeks? Experienced former headteacher Dr Bernard Trafford advises

The long weeks of holiday are over, as is that frenetic build-up to the beginning of term. Now it’s underway, what priorities must school leaders address in this first phase of the new school year?

It is all about ensuring that you start on the right note and (to stretch the musical analogy) in the right key. You know your aims for the coming year: there will be a particular focus, specific tasks and targets (I don’t mean government-imposed ones) that, as a team, you’ll have planned. Whether you drew them up as head, a member of the senior leadership team, a subject leader or coordinator, or in any other leadership role, and however collaboratively or democratically you did it, this is the time for you, as a leader, to be very active in leading their implementation.

It is not all about improving grades – though getting the best for every individual student is central to any school’s purpose. The messages you need to impart will involve increasing wellbeing and strengthening pastoral support. They may include promoting fitness, language across the curriculum, resilience. Indeed, schools pursue many and complex objectives: but, at the start of the year, the key is to focus on two or three core aspects.

In my long years of headship I used to start the new school year with something of a sermon to the teaching staff (though I never ran a faith school). Sometimes I feared I was becoming preachy. But, I reasoned, if the head doesn’t remind everyone what they’re there for, what the school’s aiming for in both the short and the long term, who else will?

Some teachers, especially the old lags in the corner of the staffroom might mutter: “We know all that ethos stuff. We know what we have to do. Give us a break!” A decade ago, newly in a school and facing some cynicism, I realised a “jargon bingo” game was being played among some of the staff. I like to think no-one managed to win a line or full house, because I avoided the management-speak my silent critics feared, instead using real language about real issues.

Teachers are not the only adults in school. I’ve never placed faith in corporate strategies that demand all staff, regardless of role, sign up to (and parrot) institutional mission statements. On the other hand, I never quite cracked the challenge of truly engaging all support staff in the complexity of the school’s mission.

Still, it’s those in leadership positions who truly spread those messages to the staff who work shifts or in different sections of the school, and are less easily gathered together than teachers. They do it in the way they conduct themselves and, above all, in how they act.

At the same time, don’t forget the pupils! To them the message will be couched in different terms: but they need to hear, and clearly, where the school is aiming this year, where the particular focus lies, and (above all) how it will affect their behaviours, their attitude to school and what is expected of them.

If the first step is about reinforcing core messages, the second is must be concerned with helping new arrivals to settle in.

Of course your induction programmes will have been planned long ago and will, by the time you read this, be well underway. I’m thinking of something deeper than those necessary organised activities, icebreakers and social events that furnish information to new teachers and pupils alike. In addition there’s a need to help them understand that school is about more than routines, rules and timetables: underneath lies a complex and unique culture.

“This is how we do things here,” is not merely a reasonable thing to say: it’s vital! Once again, this calls for leaders constantly to talk the talk, and explicitly spread the message.

This will probably include the particular way your school seeks to achieve excellence. Excellence is by definition unattainable: but as an aim you can’t fault it!

So if your school really believes that nothing is done just for fun or merely because it’s required, but rather because everyone seeks to do and be the best they can, that message must be broadcast.

Similarly, if your school believes (as I hope it does) that every individual is different but equally valued, that message must be promulgated consistently and thoroughly. Even teachers need to be reminded of it: and every message put out to children must help them to believe it.

This question of belief, of embedding the ethos in the school’s bloodstream, is vital. Children already some steps down the road towards alienation from school will readily convince themselves that teachers don’t like them, that no-one cares about them, that the same happened at their last school. So positive messages require reinforcement not merely by talk but also through particular actions.

All adults in the school should be encouraged to seek opportunities to show individual pupils that they are indeed recognised and valued. Staff who serve school dinners need to care about the children, and show that they do: even to take an interest in their food choices. Tiny, generous gestures count hugely: but their absence does great damage.

New teachers need the same care, and love a senior leader to stop them in the corridor and ask how it’s going. I tended to use a tired old joke about how the first week is the worst – but the next few weeks are pretty tough, too! The joke’s shared, the individual has been noticed and encouraged, and goes on their way feeling a bit better about themselves and their place in the school.

Finally, people are welcomed and valued, and ethos and aims are being constantly reinforced: job done! So the next task for the senior leadership team is to ensure that the necessary routines and practices are operating smoothly. From the very first day teachers and students alike need to see senior staff on the corridors at lesson changeovers, checking that people are on time, letting teachers whose lessons overrun know that they’ve been spotted!

A bit of good-natured chivvying is important: a reminder that all the teachers need to attend assembly or be in a particular place at a specific time: above all, senior staff out and about – and visible. Management guru Tom Peters asserts that being mobile allows leaders to “catch people doing things right”.

The opportunities this approach affords are enormous. Colleagues and pupils encountered, gently applauded, encouraged and supported don’t just feel better in themselves. The knowledge quickly spreads that their contribution is noticed, that leadership is looking out for them. As a result the need for criticism or reproach is minimal, because the positive reinforcement is so powerful.

Two or three weeks further on, I hope you will be enjoying a school enthusiastic about the new year and its opportunities, settled into its routines, remembering and doing what’s important.

It is not rocket science, of course: indeed, this may seem all rather obvious. But it’s not enough for all the participants merely to know what needs doing. Leaders need constantly to remind them and, gently, positively but relentlessly, reinforce. Good habits well established tend to last: and bad ones will creep in more slowly!

Enjoy it – and good luck!

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer and educationist, a former head and past chair of HMC. Follow him on Twitter at @bernardtrafford


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