Diary of a Headteacher: Admissions – Holding our heads high

Written by: Diary of a Headteacher | Published:
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Admissions is another area of school life where some schools are tempted to cross ethical lines…

At this time of year many families around the country are deeply entrenched in the decision-making process about secondary school choices. For some, there is very little choice and the transition is an obvious one.

However, part of the rationale behind the academies movement was to introduce a higher element of competition. It was thought that market forces and parental choice would become a factor in driving up standards. Fierce competition for places would inevitably lead to higher standards, right?

Factor in wave after wave of real-terms funding cuts and the importance of reaching a full pupil admission number each year significantly increases. As a result, schools place huge importance on “recruitment season” – the period between September and October 31 during which it is essential to impress the local cohort of year 6 pupils.

Unfortunately, like many accountability measures, this can drive some school leaders towards questionable and even unethical behaviours. In my previous headship I would wince at the outrageous assertions of certain local schools who seemed more interested in denigrating their competition than celebrating their own successes.

I have always been fascinated about what schools do during their open events and I have attended many over the years at a variety of schools. Initially, as an inexperienced headteacher I wanted to learn from successful leaders, so I went along to pick-up tips on public speaking, listening to the content of the head’s speech and seeing how each school presented itself to prospective families. This helped my understanding of what parents and young people are looking for tremendously. It also taught me how to avoid the pitfalls of such events and how to navigate through the local educational politics caused by competition and rivalry.

These experiences taught me lessons in integrity – an aspect of leadership I am passionate about – but the importance of which I only really understood on a surface level when I started out. In a local landscape of fierce competition for student numbers, I realised that most parents are intelligent enough to see through rhetoric and marketing. What they are looking for is honesty, integrity and to be able to trust a school with the next five years of their child’s education. I realised that parents want three things: for their child to be happy, safe and receive a great education.

All of this starts with the headteacher and accordingly, one of the most important parts of my role are the speeches I deliver to prospective families at our open events. Getting the balance right is essential. Families need to walk out with a clear idea about the school’s vision for education, an understanding of the school values and the academic performance of the school. I have found that parents aren’t particularly interested in statistics, many won’t have a clue about Progress 8 and therefore presenting information about the school’s performance in a simple format is important. I have also learned that death by PowerPoint should be avoided at all costs. I will have five slides maximum, for a talk that will last 20 minutes.

I approach this with a simple premise: be yourself. I am confident that if I remain faithful to the core principles that guide me as a person, a school leader, a father, a husband, a brother and a son then I can’t go far wrong. If I present myself as someone who is always determined to keep learning, someone who is not scared of making make mistakes, someone who understands their own limitations, then I believe that is someone who people can buy into. If I present my school as a place where everyone can flourish and where we value people as individuals then surely this is a place where you would want your child to go.

Whatever the outcome of our recruitment drive this year, I know we will have gone about our business in the right way and we can hold our heads high. If we hit our pupil admission number and if we are oversubscribed again then we will of course be very pleased, but most pleasing for me is knowing that families will have selected us for the right reasons and that ultimately helps us to build our school culture based on the things that are most important to us.

  • SecEd’s Diary of a Headteacher is written by two different headteachers. The author of this entry is a headteacher, in his fifth year of headship, at a secondary school in the Midlands.


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