Five rules for a new headship...

Written by: Brian Duffy | Published:
Photo: iStock

Headteacher Brian Duffy gives Colin McLean his five rules for a successful new headship

Whether you’re new to headship, an experienced head in a new school, or a middle or senior leader thinking of applying for the role, taking on the top job is a major challenge in any school. Headship is complex, fast-paced, pressurised and exciting and it can be easy for a new head – especially those who are also brand new to the role – to be carried along by powerful forces beyond their control.

So how do you avoid getting swept along as a new headteacher? Getting advice from other leaders who have experienced it themselves is always a good start. One of them is Brian Duffy, who has been headteacher of Tottington High School in Lancashire – his first headship – for the past seven years. Here’s his advice:

Familiarise yourself with the school’s story so far: “As new headteachers we look at the school in the ‘present’ and determine how we want it to be in the ‘future’. But do we know how the school reached this point? Is it on an upward or a downward path? Are staff screaming, ‘Thank heavens you’re here!’ or ‘We don’t need anyone changing what we do, we’re fine’? Two schools may look similar in the present but they may have had entirely different journeys to that point.”

Invite your staff on the journey: “Most of us dislike change, or are wary of it at best, even if it is likely to be for the better. Therefore, we need to be aware of ‘how’ we take staff on the journey – when to ‘consult’ and when to ‘instruct’. Working groups may result in exactly what we may have ‘instructed’ weeks before, but the process is necessary if we are to take staff with us on our journey. We’ve set up working groups for the development of a new marking policy, for example. This involves a senior leadership team member and a member of staff from each faculty. They’ve gone away, created a policy and consulted with staff before putting it in place. They own the change rather than it being imposed on them.”

Make sure your best staff lead teaching and learning: “The quality of staff involved in teaching and learning is key. Therefore, we must pay attention to it, whether it is developing staff already in school or recruiting new staff. Also key is ensuring staff in charge of teaching and learning are the ‘right’ people to keep it a priority in school. You do this by observation, consulting with others and looking at the data. Teachers who lead teaching and learning do not necessarily have to be outstanding though. They do need to be good but most importantly they should know how to lead and put across their vision of teaching and learning effectively.”

Make professional development for teaching and learning central: “Keeping an eye on what is best practice in professional learning and development in this area is also key. We need to give our staff the very best training and develop their abilities to ensure progress happens every day in our classrooms. In Bury, we have developed a secondary learning collaborative that includes all secondaries in the authority. We have created subject networks and schools co-ordinate their INSET days so staff can meet and share best practice. Within school, our CPD and teaching and learning coordinators link up to look at the exact development priorities of every member of staff, but it is down to staff to ‘own’ their development.”

Know what is working: “We have the right staff in place, we know the very best practice out there – but how do we know what we and our colleagues are doing is working? We can’t simply rely on your end-of-year results. We need a robust pupil-tracking system that is accurate and can quality-assure what we are delivering to our young people.”

  • Colin McLean is chief executive of Best Practice Network, a national provider of training and CPD.

Further information

More advice from Brian Duffy and other secondary leaders can be found in a free guide to assembling the best senior leadership team, published by the Best Practice Network. You can download a copy at


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