Headship: The first 100 days

Written by: Daniel-John Constable | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In July, headteacher Daniel-John Constable came to the end of his first year of headship. He reflects on the experience and discusses the lessons he learned and the challenges he faced during his first 100 days in the hot seat

As I come to the end of my first year of headship and prepare to enter year number two, I have been given a three-dimensional view of a job that no training, coaching or book could ever prepare you for.

The situations that you encounter as a headteacher define you. Sometimes they haunt you, but they ultimately build your armour to ensure that the next challenge feels a little easier to handle. So, what did I learn from my first 100 days of headship?

Prioritise your people

When I stepped into my new role, getting to know the teaching team and support staff was my first priority.

I wanted to build strong working relationships so I made sure I met with every member of staff. These conversations helped me to find out who they were and what motivated them. I strived to maintain this personal connection, checking in on how teacher A’s son got on in his English GCSEs or how teaching assistant B’s father was progressing with his cancer treatment.

I knew who they were and what they were facing and I cared. I also used the opportunity to set out my agenda and explained how I would work and what they should expect, and staff responded positively to this personable approach.

Openness builds trust

It is almost a year since I began my journey on Ambition School Leadership’s Future Leaders programme.

It feels a lifetime ago, but I can still vividly remember the role-plays at our cohort 2016 residential, and the apprehension and excitement that we felt as we prepared ourselves to face Future Leader’s most infamous characters. Since then I have come face-to-face with many of those tricky customers in real life.

When I stepped into headship, I wanted to be as front-facing and accessible as possible. I made sure that I was out on duty every morning. Parents could see me from the eight different gate access points and I had a radio to ensure that staff could contact me if necessary.

Slowly, parents began to come over to talk – initially very simple pleasantries and passing the time of day but gradually they actively sought me out to discuss an issue. This access developed trust. Parents understood that they could find me, they could talk to me and that ultimately, I would do something about it. I still do this and the senior leadership team also has a presence across the site each morning.

Be motivated by your successes

Despite being an outstanding school in 2016, our results dipped in reading. One of the first tasks I faced as headteacher was to significantly improve attainment in this area. The regional schools’ commissioner was very clear: your results need to improve in reading or face another Ofsted inspection.

The school had recently engaged in a new approach called “Destination Reader” and this was starting to develop momentum across the key stages. However, on closer inspection and through monitoring with my senior team, we began to unpick the pitfalls of the programme.

We saw that children across the school were only talking generically about “inference” and the fundamentals of reading were being lost. Our School Improvement Partner (an independent Ofsted inspector, employed by the academy trust) agreed with our analysis.

As a former secondary English teacher, I felt that this was an area that I could have a positive impact on. I used my learning from reading Doug Lemov’s book, Reading Reconsidered, as my evidence base to change the status quo.

I developed a new reading strategy which focused on immersion in texts that would challenge and scaffold understanding. We purchased high-quality texts and placed a heavy emphasis on reading at home. The results increased by 30 per cent and this is our proudest achievement of the year. Our reading in key stage 2 is now 85 per cent – those children have done so well!

A real step up

Moving from deputy headship to headship is a big step. As a deputy, you begin to think “I could do this” and you start to see yourself in the role. The reality is very different. As a deputy you still have that layer above you. Being able to hand something over or talk through an issue is something that you take for granted until you move up.

The workload is also very different. Crisis intervention and “fire-fighting” become the norm – I can be just about ready to sit down to type up my head’s briefing notes for governors when the radio buzzes to alert me to an incident and my deputies need support. With 1,400 children on roll from nursery to year 6, fire-fighting seems inevitable, but this is something I would like to see change in our school’s culture next year.
I am only just starting to cope with the push and pull of the day-to-day. I rarely leave work before 7pm but I know that it will begin to get easier as I become more experienced.

Not all Ofsted news is bad news

Last week we received a call from Ofsted. I naturally felt sick and slightly disorientated to begin with but calmed down when I understood that it was a “thematic survey” of Reception – HMI comes in to look at a year group to find examples of good practice for one of Ofsted’s “good practice” guides. The deputy of EYFS was phenomenal and handled the visit very well. We don’t know if our school will feature in the main article, but we will be listed in a publication so I feel very proud of the team for that!

Recruitment

Unsurprisingly, recruitment and retention has been a big challenge this year. I inherited a staff body made up of six long-term supply teachers and many teachers who were trained overseas. Seven of my most experienced, long-serving staff members resigned in May.

While it is a blow to lose teachers, and I’ll admit that I did panic, there are benefits to this movement. I have been able to recruit excellent teaching staff who share my vision for moving the school forward.

A high number of superb NQTs came to us after I made the conscious decision to seek out the best. I went to meet trainee teachers at the Institute of Education and Brunel PGCE courses. I sold who I was and what we offered. I also took advice on our advertisements, which I learnt were initially “too corporate”. I honestly found recruitment exciting. We are now fully staffed this September with no supply staff needed this coming term.

Conclusion

The first 100 days of headship have been a blast. Even though some days I’ve walked out of the gates, sat on the Tube and searched online for careers outside of the profession, most days I’ve left exhilarated by the stimulating conversations that I’ve had with my team.

At the end of the last school year, I felt like I was beginning to take control of the workload and shoulder the weight of expectation placed upon me. My family and friends often say that the job is “mental” and, given what I’ve experienced so far, I guess they are right. But right now, I wouldn’t want to do anything else. Bring on the new year!

  • Daniel-John Constable is headteacher at Barclay Primary School in east London and a graduate from the 2016 Future Leaders programme run by charity Ambition School Leadership.

Ambition School Leadership

Ambition School Leadership is a charity that runs middle and senior leadership development programmes in England to help school leaders create more impact in schools that serve disadvantaged children and their communities. Visit www.ambitionschoolleadership.org.uk


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