Diary of a headteacher: Should a headteacher be ruthless?

Written by: Diary of a headteacher | Published:
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When asked at interview about how ‘ruthless’ he could be, our headteacher diarist was taken aback and forced to reflect before offering his response…

In the complex and challenging world of headship you experience the full range of emotions, sometimes on a daily basis.

You can be experiencing a superb day at school – maybe you have observed an inspirational lesson or have had the joy of presenting a student with an award for an exceptional achievement. You could be walking around the school on cloud nine, but as many experienced headteachers will warn you, don’t get complacent up there because disaster can be lurking around the next corner.

There are some extremely unpalatable aspects of the job and I have found that a huge amount of resolve is required to lead difficult processes, especially in challenging financial times. I certainly didn’t go into headship thinking that everything was going to be easy; I served a couple of terms as acting headteacher before my substantive appointment and this was an eye-opening experience that exposed me to many aspects of the role that deputy headship hadn’t.

However, there is nothing that fully prepares you for the demands of headship and I have learnt that you need to have the stomach for it and be prepared to do the difficult things with the same level of determination and intensity that you apply to the things you enjoy doing.

I remember vividly being asked at my interview for my current role: “Are you ruthless enough to be a headteacher?” I was taken aback by the question. I asked: “Why would you want me to be ruthless?”

The panel member responded: “Can you be ruthless and get rid of people in the school that aren’t good enough?” I took a few seconds to consider my answer, as I felt this was a pivotal point of the interview process, for two reasons. First, do I want to work for a group of governors who want me to hunt down and cull a load of the teachers they don’t like and, second, am I actually a ruthless person or do I want to become a ruthless headteacher?

I responded with my interpretation of the word ruthless: someone who acts without compassion or empathy and that I did not want to be someone who lacked those two critical traits. Would I do something about improving the standard of teaching across the school where it wasn’t good enough?

Yes. Would I act quickly where there were mistakes being made or where we needed to rapidly address performance concerns? Absolutely. Would I throw people under the bus the first time I noticed something going wrong? Absolutely not.

I explained that my very first mentor in my NQT year explained the concept of the parent test question – “would I accept these standards for my child?” Years later, 13 to be precise, here I was in my first interview for a headship, reciting his wise words and probably not explaining myself very articulately at all.

But then, from nowhere, I coined a phrase that I hadn’t heard before, but it just came out – ethical ruthlessness. I said that I would be ruthless in an ethical way, that acted in the best interest of the school and the students, but ensured the staff are treated fairly. I had stumbled across something that has been one of the cornerstones of my approach to leadership ever since.

If a headteacher needs to be ruthless (i.e. act decisively and quickly to secure the best possible education for the students in the school), then they should make these decisions from a strong ethical basis and ensure they are fair, consistent and humane in the way in which they deal with staff. If this means that a member of staff moves on from the school, then so be it, if it is the right thing to do.

However, all people must be treated with respect, and for teachers, professional respect is incredibly important. Therefore everyone must be given the opportunity to improve and develop if, for whatever reasons, something is going wrong with their teaching.

Dealing with challenging situations like staff performance concerns is just a small aspect of the job but it can be one of most mentally draining parts of being a headteacher. One thing I’ve learned though is that it is absolutely crucial to ensure I keep that parent test question at the centre of my thinking so that I maintain the highest standards of teaching across the school, but balance this carefully with treating people well throughout the organisation.

  • SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his third year of headship at a comprehensive school in the Midlands.


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