Leadership lessons from a school launch

Written by: Liam Donnison | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The lessons Karen Edwards applied to launching a brand new school will ring true for primary heads whatever their situation, says Liam Donnison

Not everyone will have the chance to lead a brand new school. Karen Edwards was in that lucky – and challenging – position at The Heights Primary in Caversham, Reading in 2014.

“I was presented with the opportunity to build and develop a school in a community that needed one,” she explained. “There were 50 four-year-olds in Caversham that weren’t getting their first, second or even third choice schools. It was a growing problem.”

The local authority proposed that the community put together an application for a free school – the only way that a new school can now be created.

Ms Edwards’ appointment in the summer of 2014 was an exciting new chapter in a long teaching and school leadership career: “I’d worked in both primary and secondary schools for 24 years up to that point. It became clear to me when I moved into primary that if you get it right at the Foundation Stage everything develops and blossoms from there. But if you don’t get it right at that stage it becomes really hard work.”

The lessons Ms Edwards learned from the experience are worth sharing with every primary headteacher, whether they’re taking over the headship of an established primary, looking for inspiration for the new school year, or are at the helm of the launch of a new school. Here’s what she learned from the experience.

Relationships and trust

You have to put effort into building relationships and trust. Ms Edwards points to leadership and management expert John C Maxwell’s maxim that “people buy into a leader before they buy into a vision”.

She explained: “From April 2014 I visited every one of the 13 pre-schools and nurseries that children could be coming from. I met all the children and their parents regularly and used links established with headteachers from previous and new school clusters who helped me.

“Because we didn’t have a site at first we needed to borrow their space to hold meetings and interviews but also wanted to hold a taster day for Reception and new year 1 pupils. I was grateful to schools in Henley and Caversham for helping there. Building up that trust was really key and remains key.”

Beliefs and expertise

Shared beliefs and expertise are crucial ingredients in your team. Ms Edwards continued: “From the start you need people around you with experience in education who share your vision and understand your challenges.

“When we recruited staff we warned them that it would be hard work but immensely rewarding and that if they could keep up with that then they would get an enormous amount out of it. The crucial thing was to recruit staff who shared our beliefs and who also would get involved in the development and growth of our team.

ICT was another key area for us. Some companies tried to convince us that we needed to kit ourselves out with the latest of everything at the same time. We knew that it would all be out of date within a year. The ICT technician that I had used at my previous school came on board and he saved us £70,000. Unless you understand these specialist areas you need to bring in people with this expertise.”


Always be flexible. There is always a solution to seemingly intractable problems, says Ms Edwards: “We are on a site of 0.4 acres. That was okay with 61 children. This September we have 220. We will have 270 if we are still on our temporary site in 2018 so until we move to a larger permanent site we must be creative about how we use the space.

“We built another block of modular classrooms on top of the existing ones and we found a classroom to fit in a small outside space which we used as a lunch hall and assembly space. We’ve had to ask our parents to be flexible too and not park in the immediate area of the school when they’re dropping off and picking up. We wanted to be sensitive to local residents.”


Parents want communication, as Ms Edwards explained: “Our parents have put a huge amount of faith in us and we are in a privileged position educating their children. We’ve taken a very proactive approach to educating our parents about what primary school life can be like.

“Parents want to be able to help, support and to know what is going on in their child’s life. A lot of working parents can’t pop into school and feel a real part of it because of their working patterns and because many of them have to travel two miles out of their catchment to get to us.

“It’s not easy for them but communication really helps. We’ve set up a portal that they can use to see photos and updates about their child. It makes them feel a whole lot more empowered. We’ve also encouraged our teachers to send out a briefing note at the start of each week to parents detailing what they will be doing with the children that week. The feedback has been really positive.”


Ms Edwards continued: “You need to be creative when it comes to funding. We’ve brought in a speech and language therapist to support our children with SEN in the past who has been exceptional and made a massive difference to the children. We made the decision to employ her for one day a fortnight but we couldn’t cover this cost out of our budget so we decided to raise the additional funds needed. We held a ‘I’m a headteacher get me out of here’ event which raised £4,700. That will cover the cost of the SALT for a year. It was great fun and it did the trick for us. I think it was a good example of thinking outside the box and doing something different in tough times.”

  • Liam Donnison is managing director of Best Practice Network, a national provider of professional qualifications for the education sector. Visit www.bestpracticenet.co.uk

Further information

Karen Edwards shared her perspectives as part of Best Practice Network’s programme of head-led school improvement webinars. Registration for the September 14 webinar, focusing on high performance learning in schools, is open via http://bit.ly/2vUqxGm. Further details on the 2017/18 webinar programme are available by contacting schoolimprovement@bestpracticenet.co.uk

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