Leadership: Avoiding the distractions

Written by: Colin McLean | Published:
Photo: iStock

How can school leaders stay focused on their core duty – student outcomes? Colin McLean seeks some advice from secondary headteachers

Faced by a multitude of demands the modern school leader can find it hard to stay focused on the core of their job – giving their pupils the best possible chance in life.

These pressures might come from many directions – policy changes, national and local initiatives, colleagues, governors and Ofsted – and can pull the leader every which way.

The risk of this can be that leaders will lose focus and find themselves consumed by areas of work that, although important, divert their energies away from their pupils. In today’s frantic and highly pressurised world it is important that you as a school leader focus on doing the right things right. But how do you do it? Here are some approaches used by secondary leaders that should be helpful.

Ask yourself tough questions

Peter Devonish, headteacher, Dereham Neatherd High School, Norfolk: “Ask: ‘Is doing this task or attending this meeting going to make a difference to teaching and learning in my school in the short, medium and long-term?’ If you can’t readily justify it you shouldn’t be doing it. Until recently, we had not pursued academy status because we were worried that would distract us from teaching and learning. I know of schools putting together multi-academy trusts and the results going down. Before embarking on projects like this you need to establish if you have the capacity to handle it. I like writer Stephen Covey’s quote: ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.’ The main thing is teaching and learning but you have to keep checking that you are focusing on that main thing all the time.”

Stick to your principles

Peter Rawlinson, deputy headteacher and director of Teaching School, Bishop Rawstorne CE Academy, Lancashire: “Don’t lose sight of your principles – they will help you determine what priorities you should keep and which you can ignore. We are a community school with a Christian ethos and these principles govern what we do within the school and how we work with other schools. As part of our school-to-school support work we went into a school where the headteacher was having challenges with her leadership team. She wanted me to tell them that they weren’t any good. This was something I wouldn’t do because we are driven by working with schools and supporting them to improve, not by condemning them.”

Anticipate rather than react

Sara Lalis, headteacher, Dacorum Education Support Centre, Hertfordshire: “Education is now so fast moving and ever-changing that it can be easy to be reactive and on the defensive. You need to scan the landscape locally and nationally and then compartmentalise and categorise these developments so that you can relay what they need to know and filter out what will be a distraction. For example your team will need to know the big picture if you are becoming an academy or joining a Teaching School Alliance, but not at a level of detail that might distract them from the day-to-day of their jobs. Networking with local and national colleagues and being aware of education developments in the media and social media will help you build up a clear picture of current and future developments.”

Clearly communicate your vision

Sara Lalis: “You should revisit, review and reaffirm your vision and check how this fits into your development plan regularly. Make sure that you consistently relate this vision in your various communications with all of your stakeholders so that people know what the core priorities are and what is expected of them. A clear consistent message helps all of us decide what is a priority and what isn’t.”

Lead – don’t micromanage

Peter Rawlinson: “The desire to micromanage your team can be a temptation and a real distraction for leaders. We employ a group of talented people who can do the job and we leave them to do the job. You are not going to create leaders by interfering and meddling. You need to give them a sense of freedom.”

Professional development is key

Sara Lalis: “I completed the NPQH in my first year of headship and it certainly helped me to establish that clear vision that I needed to communicate to colleagues. I’m now a co-facilitator on the programme and I think it gives aspiring and new heads a rare opportunity to reflect and refine their thinking in these areas. It’s an opportunity that they might not have otherwise.”

  • Colin McLean is chief executive of the Best Practice Network, a national provider of training and professional development. Visit www.bestpracticenet.co.uk

Further information

More leadership advice can be found in a guide to assembling the best senior leadership team published by Best Practice Network and available as a free download at http://teacherleadershiptraining.com/


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