Stepping up: Taking on your first headship…

Written by: Sean Harris | Published:
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Taking on a new headship is as daunting as it is exciting. Martyn Gordon made the step-up last September. One year on, he speaks with Sean Harris about the experience so far, what leadership lessons he has learnt, and his advice for other new headteachers…

In September 2019, Martyn Gordon accepted his first headship. Originally, he had focused his energies on becoming a headteacher of a mainstream setting. However, after spotting a headship opportunity at Hartlepool Pupil Referral Unit, which incorporates a home and hospital school service, he decided to take a leap of faith.

I discussed with Martyn his experience of choosing a new headship path and he shared with me some of the insights he has learned and the challenges he has faced.

Don’t look back in anger

Martyn has served in a number of roles. From PE teaching to the pastoral pressures of being a head of year, from head of upper school to assistant and deputy headteacher. These experiences have been critical in shaping his approach to the first year as a headteacher of a PRU.

For Martyn, the process of thinking again about what he believed the purpose of a school to be was critical in helping him to face new challenges and to connect to his new staff team.

He explained: “When I looked back at my earlier successes and failures as an early career teacher, and then as a pastoral leader, I reminded myself of the type of school I wanted and started to think about the ways in which I would communicate this to my new colleagues.

“This was important in establishing new routines, introductions, processes and systems in the PRU. I kept getting into the habit of thinking about not just what needed to be done, but why we were doing it as a staff team in challenging contexts.”

These questions were critical to Martyn and colleagues in setting out their vision and ambitions for a new season in the school:

  • Why did we first enter the profession?
  • What difference are we trying to make to the young people and families in this specific community?
  • What are the top five takeaways from your career/role to date?
  • How will you instil these in colleagues or those coming into the profession for the first time?

Read the temperature

Martyn gets heated when talking about the value of metaphorical barometers in his school and the need to “temperature-check” the school culture, vision and values.

He told me: “One of my top priorities, having spent some time looking back on my career, was the need to check the culture of the school and that of staff morale. Staff who feel valued are motivated to provide a better deal to children.”

Martyn spent the first few weeks of the term meeting with each staff member individually and inviting them to talk about their experiences of the PRU – both positive and negative. Staff were also invited to submit anonymous comments if they preferred. This is something that the team has now built into the annual and termly review cycles.

Extra-curricular life

The team at Hartlepool PRU recognises the need for a wide range of cultural enrichment and extra-curricular activities.

On entering the PRU for the first time, I was stopped by two year 10 pupils asking me for money! They had been entrusted with setting up a charity stand at the front of the school, inviting visitors to donate to a raffle to raise funds for cancer research.

Martyn said: “Motivated staff are more likely to provide a wider range of enrichment activities, which in turn results in happy and motivated pupils who actually want to engage in school and achieve.

“Some of these pupils have felt written off by mainstream classroom teaching, and while this may not be the case, this is how they feel. So, putting in place activities to rebuild confidence, develop trust, support character and integrity has to be a key priority for us as a whole staff team. It’s what is needed.”

Martyn and his team spent time reviewing the extra-curricular opportunities and tracking individual experiences of the PRU for different pupils, asking what types of activities they were able to access and which activities, if any, could support the development of their character and confidence. Questions to consider for your own setting may include:

  • What stops colleagues from offering activities outside of school time or in their free time?
  • What are colleagues most passionate about? Which of these topics could be turned into activities to better develop confidence and a sense of identity for pupils?
  • Out of the activities we currently offer, which activities offer pupils the chance to develop confidence? What do we need to start or stop doing and why?

Celebrate the wins

The school has had a difficult history. Poor Ofsted headlines, rising exclusion figures, and the public perception of the PRU were not positive.

When Martyn arrived, the staff spent the first few weeks understanding what was working and not working in the PRU; honest feedback was needed from colleagues, pupils, parents and other local schools. Martyn was keen to embrace this because he believed that, in time, being able to tackle some of these perceptions would further motivate pupils and staff.

He explained: “Once again, I looked back to other points early in my career and recalled those times when I felt motivated in my role – an encouraging comment from a senior leader, a set of good results, turning around the life chances of a particular young person, or just having a positive comment from a local resident or parent.

“I wanted this for the school too, but this also meant first giving stakeholders the opportunity to say how they were feeling, even if this was going to be uncomfortable.”

This led to colleagues revising routines in the school, re-establishing clear boundaries and revisiting the ways in which pupils and adults communicate with each other, with a focus on de-escalation and empathy in communication.

The senior leaders also spent time reviewing the processes for behaviour, sanctions and rewards with individual teachers and pupils. They wanted to consider how these routines were understood by teachers and external stakeholders.

The team also concluded that positive news stories might be better celebrated and shared with other schools, for example by showing the progress that pupils in the PRU were continuing to make. Martyn added: “There was a sense from teachers and pupils that once pupils came to the PRU, they were forgotten about. We wanted this to change.”

The work seems to be paying off. Writing in November 2019, Ofsted concluded: “Since the appointment of the new headteacher in September, pupils say there has been a huge change in culture and atmosphere. Staff agree. The school is now a calm and friendly environment. Pupils are happy, safe and able to learn.”

The statistics show a similar narrative. Of 34 permanently excluded students who started the 2019/20 academic year, 11 have been re-integrated to mainstream schools and another six should return soon.

What is more, outreach work and support for other secondary schools led to a 66 per cent reduction in permanently excluded students within Hartlepool during 2019/20.

And then there are the immeasurable aspects of care and support extended to children during the Covid-19 lockdown. The PRU team organised a food bank for local families, directed a radio station coordinated by pupils, and launched a student newspaper for pupils, staff and the residents of local care homes. They also delivered food parcels (and Easter eggs).

During my visit (which took place before Covid-19), I noticed in the senior leadership meeting room a number of quotes on display from parents and pupils:

  • “It feels like we finally have our daughter back.”
  • “At first I was really scared to come here, but it has turned my life around.”
  • “My child is always cared for and listened to. I really liked the awards assembly at Christmas, it allowed us to feel proud of our children again.”

Connect the CPD

Early into his headship, Martyn was aware that staff had limited CPD development and, of the little that had been implemented, it was not connected to the gaps or areas of development that colleagues said they had.

Martyn told me: “As a graduate of the Future Leaders programme (run by Ambition Institute), I was committed to ensuring that our colleagues can continue to get better. I know, first-hand, the value of effective CPD and teacher-instruction. This isn’t just something that you can read a book about, it has to come from carefully mapping it to teacher needs and, where possible, coaching peers to better practice.”

The leadership team spent time exploring what CPD had taken place, considering the impact of this and then considering the overarching CPD priorities and what additional coverage was needed. They also listened to feedback from teachers and pupils, considering the areas of school that needed more attention.

Middle leadership proved to be a key theme for the teachers. Martyn, drawing on the Future Leaders network and through support from the local authority, was able to identify a range of opportunities for his team to access CPD, research-informed approaches to teaching in challenging contexts, and support about what it means to be an effective middle leader.

This has also leveraged greater links with other local mainstream settings and Ofsted has recognised this change too: “The headteacher has introduced a new middle leadership programme to develop various areas of the school, such as teaching and learning. Staff appointed to these roles are at the beginning of their development. The roles add strength to leadership and leaders believe this has been vital in securing the rapid improvement that has been shown since September (2019).”

Martyn suggests some of the key questions that new leaders and their teachers should ask at the start of another academic term:

  • We talk lots about learning gaps for pupils. But, where are the learning gaps for our teachers? What do they need to know that they don’t yet know?
  • What are the progression pathways in the school and how does your CPD support adults for the next chapter in their career?
  • What are the key priorities for the school? How does your CPD reflect this?
  • Teachers lead busy lives. Who are the contacts that you can use to expose your teams to the latest research, thinking and resources with little fuss or time commitment?

Moving forward

This work is not finished. This year there will be pupils facing new challenges who need the support of the PRU. But Martyn and his colleagues are optimistic, even in the face of a global pandemic and potential further lockdowns. He said: “Our students are a real credit to the PRU. There is sometimes a view out there that a PRU isn’t a ‘real’ school. But, the changes here have been a team effort between pupils and teachers, and they have changed lives.”

Final thoughts

I asked Martyn for his tips for colleagues new to the headteacher role, perhaps those starting this year. Drawing on his own experience, he advises:

  • Connect to other schools: They are not your competition, especially in the new post-lockdown learning culture. Working with other mainstream schools to reduce exclusions has been one of the single biggest lever of changes in my new headship.
  • Get out there: Being actively involved in local educational partnerships and networks will enable you to learn from others and offer your own insights in return. As the chair of the Behaviour and Attendance Partnership (BAP) in Hartlepool, Martyn spends one day a week in a school to support them through challenging periods and he supports the outreach work of his school and his team too. This in turn has an impact on the number of pupils coming through the doors of the PRU.
  • Link with your local authority and other leaders: The local authority has been invaluable in supporting me and helping colleagues to implement the changes needed. Find out who the local champions are for your local children. Invite them into school and use them to find out where the best practice is and what support is on offer.
  • Martyn closes our meeting by sharing his personal mantra: “There is something good in everyone, sometimes you need to look a little harder, but search and you will find.”

  • Sean Harris is the North area director for Ambition Institute, a doctorate student at the University of Teesside and a governor of a school in Northumberland. You can follow him @SeanHarris_NE. To read his previous best practice articles for SecEd, visit


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