Ten top tips for headteachers

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
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Superb article that I have taken a lot from after just taking up my first headship. Thanks so much!

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This summer, headteacher and SecEd contributor Dr Bernard Trafford retires after a long and successful career. We asked him to give us his top tips for aspiring and new school leaders

As I approach retirement, I’m frequently asked how I’ve done the job – or, at least, survived it – for 27 years. So here are my 10 tips for successful headship. They seem to become increasingly philosophical as the list progresses, perhaps that’s inevitable.


A school is small enough for everyone to feel they have access to the head, and no head should be too grand to listen, even if you don’t want to hear it. Theresa May famously relied on a small coterie of advisors and shut the rest out. As a result, not only did she alienate supporters, she also misjudged things disastrously, misread the mood of the country and is now a lame duck PM. She can serve as an object lesson for all school leaders.

Remember what you’re there for

Never forget your values, what the school and all the staff are there for. The school exists only for, and because of, its students. So everything should be done for their benefit and for their education. This doesn’t mean that they’ll always like what you do: and you will sometimes feel unappreciated. But you need to maintain your principal motivation. Always keep your eye on your vocation, on the reasons why you went into teaching in the first place. It’s right and proper to run a school in a business-like way, efficiently and without waste: but it’s not a business, in pursuit of a profit, however small. The balance sheet with its positive bottom-line appears vital in those difficult budget meetings, but it’s only part of a function, a cog in the system that allows us to deliver on the school’s core purpose.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

Heads do need patience. It will take time to see your labours bear fruit. So be determined and steadfast, and see things through. There is a silver lining! The process invariably feels like wading through treacle – but, when you do pause to look back from time to time, you’ll find things have moved on much further than you realised.

Don’t just do something – sit there

This was quoted to me once as the Zen commandment – it’s vital for heads. Everyone’s in a hurry. If there’s a disaster or a disciplinary situation, your colleagues will be hopping up and down and demanding action. Dithering or prevarication won’t win you friends: but don’t be bounced into precipitate action, extreme responses or kneejerk reactions. They can do huge and lasting damage. Where it’s possible, and it almost always is, give it time. Insist on everyone sleeping on it. Even if it’s a sleepless night, things do look better in the morning and ways forward are easier to spot.

Be yourself

Authenticity is key to any leadership role. Be yourself, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing: in school, on the platform, at your kids’ bath-time, down the pub, at the football (watch your language!). People see through an act and hate any hint of falseness in a leader. If you’ve got a difficult conversation to have or an awful job to do, it’s okay to show your pain. But be sure to give the bad news yourself and certainly don’t leave it to HR. We’re paid to do the tough things when necessary. There’s a leader’s dictum that’s good to follow: say the bad things, but write the good. Harsh words spoken are more quickly healed than written ones: and you might be surprised how many decades later teachers or pupils still treasure that note of congratulation from the head.

Spread the magic

No-one wants an arrogant head. Humility is an essential personal quality – but don’t overdo it! If you’re the head (and you are), then look and sound like one. Heads have to tread carefully. You dignify an event by being there: you really do spread the magic just by turning up. But don’t steal people’s thunder: I cringe if, at the end of a school show, the head gets up and makes a speech and spoils – even cuts short – the spontaneous applause that the cast has earned. No false humility, though: if the head turns out to support the under-12 tiddlywinks team in a gruelling match, they notice and value it, and they tell their parents. The teacher in charge appreciates it too. Don’t demand a formal welcome. But don’t hide either. Use the assembly podium, and the bit of headship magic it provides, to honour and add lustre to the achievements of those who deserve it. Kids remember that for the rest of their lives. They also harbour resentment for not being recognised.

Take one for the team

Lao Tzu, founder of the Daoist school of philosophy, wrote: “Of a great leader, the people say ‘We did it ourselves’.” It is vital to build the teams around you. You must share knowledge, power, responsibility and accountability with your senior team, and give them the credit (without false modesty). Heads nowadays are rightly concerned to devolve power to, and increase the efficacy of, middle leaders. It’s all about power-sharing, trust and empowerment, even if those have become buzzwords.

And remember the detail. Nothing is more infuriating to staff than people at the top having great ideas, even splendid visions – but then seeing it all go wrong because the detail isn’t there. Naturally heads mustn’t get so bogged down in detail that they lose sight of the big picture: besides, colleagues hate being micro-managed, so this is all about balancing leadership with trust. Nonetheless, airy statements and grand visions alone won’t do it: the detail must be in there and must be right. And, if you do mess up, have the greatness of heart to admit it and apologise.

‘Of course I have a moment’

I know, I know. It’s a nightmare Friday, the emails are rolling in, year 9 are kicking off, there’s an angry parent outside and Bill from geography pops in to ask if you’ve got a couple of minutes. You have: you must have! He wouldn’t ask (probably) if he weren’t worried about something, possibly desperately so: so don’t tell him to make an appointment for next week. There are times when our colleagues really need us, and we owe it to them to give them those two minutes that turn into 20 while the inbox continues to fill up.

Always greet colleagues by name when you pass them. I’d never thought about that until one day, very busy, I failed to acknowledge a colleague in the corridor; I was preoccupied and just didn’t notice him. I received an anguished email from him late that (Friday) evening. “Have I upset you?” he asked, in an alarmingly anxious message. Yes, he should have been more resilient. But some teachers aren’t, and need to know we notice them.

Get out more. In both senses

No-one likes to see the head completely immersed in office work: don’t expect any sympathy for the number of emails you deal with every day and certainly don’t moan about it. Get out and about in school, spread a bit of confidence and maybe stand on that busy corner during lesson change-overs. You don’t have to big it up by calling it a “learning walk”, though you will learn a lot. It was management guru Tom Peters who coined the term MABWA: Management By Walking Around. Seeing the boss out and about doesn’t just keep people on their toes: more important, it gives you the opportunity to “catch people doing things right”. My theory of PALP takes MABWA one step further: Poncing About Looking Pleased.
It’s important to get out of school, too. You need to meet fellow heads at cluster groups and conferences. It’s not from formal sessions or agendas that you learn most: ideas appear, sometimes from nowhere, while you’re listening to a speaker and your mind runs on. Or you’re chatting over lunch with a couple of colleagues and something falls into place.

You’ll also make friends, find people facing the same problems and gradually develop that vital network of colleagues/fellow-sufferers you can phone when you don’t know where to turn and there’s no-one in school or at home that you can talk to. Building that support is perhaps the single most important survival strategy for a head.

Stick with Machiavelli

Machiavelli got a bad name after his death. People like Shakespeare used him as a symbol of everything malign and scheming. But the Machiavelli of The Prince is entirely pragmatic. Okay, so you might not take his advice to eliminate all your enemies, tempting as it might be. But, by contrast, one of his gems is to declare that wise leaders surround themselves with the brightest and best people they can find, not dullards who make them look clever.

Don’t feel threatened by really talented colleagues: you need them around you, working for you and with you. Then you’ll have a fantastic team. They won’t make you look stupid by comparison: on the contrary, the whole team – and the school – will shine.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford

Superb article that I have taken a lot from after just taking up my first headship. Thanks so much!
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