School leadership is school leadership right?


An experience secondary headteacher could easily transfer her leadership skills to a local primary school right? Er, well...

One of the nine feeder primary schools within our partnership is a rural Victorian village school with 67 children in three classes. This small size brings with it considerable financial strain as the loss of any child from its role has a highly significant impact. 

As is becoming ever more common in such circumstances, when the headteacher announced her plans to retire at the end of the last academic year, the governing body took the bold step of seeking an alternative model of leadership. 

While I accept that schools cannot become time-bound theme parks, I do believe that these small rural schools are special places and should be supported and protected wherever possible. In the light of this, I was really keen to offer leadership support and now find myself in the role of executive headteacher. 

Having already acted in a similar, but temporary, role for a large secondary school, I had put my faith in my belief that leadership skills are fully transferable. I very quickly realised that, while partly true, this was not the case and I had a great deal to learn about the running of a primary school. 

In fact I was quite shocked when realising how ignorant I was about the education received by students in our feeder primary schools. This realisation hit me like an express train when, as part of the information-gathering process for the SEF (that is no longer a SEF), I found myself armed with nothing more than a generic observation form in a foundation stage class full of over-excited four-year-olds up to my elbows in glue, glitter and play dough while trying to assess who was making the expected progress. 

Never have I felt so out of my depth and out of control as I stood frozen in blind panic with my life flashing before my eyes. I felt just as I had done when I faced my first class on teaching practice many years ago. 

Following this class, I went to a staff meeting at which I wanted to share my vision for the school and hold an open and honest discussion about what makes outstanding teaching. 

Instead we spoke about who would empty the dishwasher and fill the kettle each day, concerns over the bus driver not waiting for students to be seated before driving off, how we get parents to make sure children have coats, and how we were not able to cover all the duties each day because there are so few staff. 

Later, lying in a darkened room playing soothing music, I reflected upon my failings. Was I wrong to think I could add value to this school? Could my leadership experience in a large secondary school be transferred directly to a small primary school? 

While I was clear that the answers to these questions are no and yes, respectively, there is a large caveat. Those of us in large schools are used to having a team of colleagues who deal with the day-to-day operational issues so that we can focus upon teaching and learning. Many of our primary school colleagues simply have to roll up their sleeves if the toilet is blocked. 

Don’t get me wrong – I love my new role and consider myself to be very lucky. It has given me the opportunity to really understand the environment from which our year 7 children come, how they are taught and assessed, and how they view the world of a secondary school. This information now feeds into our transition programme and shapes how we teach year 7, so that we are able to offer a much-improved package for our new intake. 

I strongly believe that this model of shared leadership will become ever more common and the education we offer to our children can only benefit as a result.

  • Diary of a headteacher is written anonymously and in rotation by three practising headteachers from schools across the country.


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