Leadership: Three questions for new headteachers

Written by: Liam Donnison | Published:
Image: MA Education

What can you expect as you step-up to headship? Liam Donnison speaks to executive principal Peter Rubery, who offers three key questions to help you reflect on the challenges ahead

What drives you to want to be a headteacher? And what approach will you take when you’re in post? These are fundamental questions for anyone who is contemplating taking on what is a challenging but incredibly rewarding role.

Thinking about your motivation for headship, your leadership style, your purpose is vital for anyone contemplating headship, or indeed any leadership role in schools. Finding the space to reflect on these key questions can be tricky, but it is time well spent, according to Peter Rubery, executive principal and CEO at the Fallibroome multi-academy trust in Cheshire.

“I think it’s particularly important today, in a time of continuous and fast-paced change that would-be heads are really clear in their thinking about why they want the role and what sort of headteacher they want to be,” he explained.

Mr Rubery has captured his thinking in a contribution to the National Professional Qualification for Headship programme.

“My reflections come from 24 years of school and system leadership,” he continued.

“Two headships, more recently as CEO of a multi-academy trust and experience of managing a change agenda that survived multiple governments and secretaries of state. The number of titles associated with my schools give an indication of the frequency of change: grant maintained, foundation, training school, academy, teaching school and multi-academy trust.

“I think for the next generation of headteachers it is useful to think about what leadership characteristics will generate success in a future of further dramatic change.”
As such, here are Mr Rubery’s key questions:

Am I going to be the leader of my organisation or the manager of the latest government’s agenda?

“There is little doubt that the nature of headship is changing. Will your first job be as a standalone academy, maintained or church school, or within a multi-academy trust. Will you be accountable to a board of governors or a multi-academy trust CEO? Will you be expected to collaborate or to compete?

“The latest phrase to describe the current context is the idea that we are living in a ‘VUCA’ world – of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. How do you deal with it? Does such turbulence mean that it’s impossible to plan – or that you need strategies to deal with each aspect?”

What values are non-negotiable – is your vision strong enough to survive the demands of different masters?

“You have succeeded to date because you are good at what you do. You have been a specialist and delivered results in your areas of responsibility. This may not be enough as you step up. What will you bring to the role of headship and, more fundamentally, what are you prepared to sacrifice?

“If the core purpose of schools is teaching and learning how can you best lead that agenda? Will you lead from the front and teach or recognise that you are an expensive resource and other things are not getting done while you are in your comfort zone (without factoring in the additional marking and preparation time).

“Is data your strength? Or is it systems? Maybe its finance, or people? There is a theory that suggests you should play to your ‘super strength’, as long as you can also recognise your weaknesses and cover the gap by self-improvement or creating a team of complementary talents.”

Do you agree with the statement: ‘Most organisations are over-managed and under led’?

“In an era of high accountability headteachers are judged on outcomes and the ability to manage, interpret and respond to data is a key management skill, but it is worth reflecting on Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg’s advice: ‘Lead with small data – everyday observations and tiny clues that may not feature on spreadsheets.’

“And while we are on the subject of leadership and management – what do you know? Who have you read? Are you guilty of ‘confirmation bias’ or open to challenge? What are the characteristics of high-performing organisations, and will yours qualify?

“There are plenty of sages out there but most agree that ‘culture is king’ and your key task will be to establish and maintain a values-based culture that brings purpose and motivation so people willingly go the extra mile. Will your school be driven by systems or use systems to support a culture that inspires rather than controls?

“How much trust are you prepared to give or is performance management the only way to ensure people deliver your vision? Leadership is ultimately about influence and you will have the opportunity to influence the lives of thousands of children. And if you create the space for other leaders to flourish you’ll find it even more rewarding.”

  • Liam Donnison is managing director of Best Practice Network, a national provider of professional development, training and school improvement.

Further information

Peter Rubery has contributed his thinking to the new look National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH), delivered by the Outstanding Leaders Partnership. Further information at http://outstandingleaders.org/qualifications/npqh


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