Your first steps in your first headship

Written by: Helen Frostick | Published:
Photo: iStock

Taking up your first headship can be a daunting experience. Headteacher and National Leader of Education Helen Frostick looks at some of the short-term goals you should focus on to help you hit the ground running

When they are new in post, where do headteachers focus their initial attention? It is a daunting task to lead a school forward, but within the long-term vision the short-term view is essential.

As part of the National Leader of Education work comes the opportunity to mentor new heads just setting out on the journey of headship, as well as headteachers of schools in challenging circumstances, or schools judged as "requiring improvement". This work is extremely rewarding and developmental for both parties and has afforded me the opportunity to come up with some "where to start?" pointers that may be useful to other headteachers.

The learning environment

The learning environment is a good place to start. Lifting expectations and visually showing what is required is a powerful message to give.

Choose an area of the school to make your mark as head – a welcome back display, artistic and sharply presented with mounting and borders, for example. This is your standard and this is the standard that you expect the staff to follow.

Give your attention to details – even whether the plants are dead after the long summer break, or whether the heat of the summer (we hope) has melted paint work. Get the small things right and the big things will follow.

Have you inherited an office with Fleur De Lille wallpaper as I did? Get friends in to help and roller over it with some strong magnolia; the staff will notice that you are making an immediate mark and that you are prepared to roll your sleeves up. I would advise against using the school budget to hire painters and decorators at this stage lest you look selfish!

Good people

Bring in good people to advise you. You will have got to know many outstanding professionals over the course of your career and in most local authorities you will be assigned a mentor.

Peer-learning will be a key asset as you take your first steps in headship. The vast majority of headteachers, even outside of your immediate mentoring programme, will be only too willing to help.

We all remember how daunting it can feel on day one. You may have led half a day's training with the whole staff on your first INSET day but then the staff all disappear off in to classrooms. What do you do? It can feel lonely and isolating. Pick up the phone and talk to someone you know.

At the beginning of headship, you may feel that you haven't got time to attend the many meetings you will be called to. Going to meetings is an excellent way of building up your network of allies and confidantes. You will find that, with the need for relationships at school to be professional, you will rely more on building close friendships with other colleague heads.

The staff are not your "friends" – later down the line you may need to challenge poor performance and it is essential to keep a professional relationship with the staff.

School development planning

Money spent on school development planning at the very beginning of headship will be money well spent. The local authority can always offer a review service, whereby they can be commissioned to carry out a mock Ofsted over a day.

This can set down the key areas to focus on. You will have your own ideas as to what the strengths and weaknesses of the school are as well but an outside view is always useful.

Be honest with your senior team. At this point they will have a much better view on the strengths and weaknesses of the school than you do. Ask them for their input and acknowledge that they know the school so much better than you do at this point in time.

From the outset try to make all staff feel that their views and ideas as to where the school should go next are valued. They are far more likely to buy in to the vision if its formulation has been a shared journey.


It is really important to bring the parents on board and build on positive relationships. You will want to show that you are in charge but that you do listen to concerns and worries.

Be in the playground at the beginning and end of the school day. Not only will you be noticed and appreciated for prioritising building a sense of community, but you will also stop the unnecessary need for appointments as the parents can ask you any questions immediately.

In the event that you do meet with a parent over a concern, always follow the meeting with a short acknowledgement of the meeting and what was decided. This can really help to make the parents feel that concerns and worries are listened to.

Another effective measure is to choose a "low level" area of school life that you don't have a particularly strong opinion on – for example, the homework system – and give parents more of a choice. Would parents prefer homework to be sent home over the weekend or during the week? Would they prefer holiday homework at half-term but not during the longer breaks? This type of questionnaire will be a strong initial message that you want to work with the staff and parents to develop strong and effective systems for the benefit of the children.


From the word go you will sink under the weight of paperwork, even in a "paper free" era of email correspondence. Much of it you won't know what to do with or where to put.

Start up a concertina file for the first couple of weeks, alphabetically arranged. It will become apparent that if the administrative staff aren't sure where to send on mail, it will go through you. Make sure that the coordinators are the caretakers of their own mail and that the admin staff are clear about who is responsible for which areas of the curriculum.

As referred to previously, you will be called to many meetings. It helps to take a folder and put in 31 plastic pockets for each day of the month. As your agendas for meetings, courses and conferences are issued put them into the relevant pocket for each day of the month. Your "Meetings File" will help to ensure that you don't forget important engagements.

If you can, try to assign half a day's PA dedicated time for you on top of the admin staff time. This will be incredibly useful to you. Under the heading of organisation, filing is time-consuming but extremely important. Your PA can file all of the personnel paperwork, keep your files in order and take away from you many low-level tasks, thus enabling you to focus your time on more important matters such as raising standards.

The role is demanding but rewarding and with a few measures in place from the outset, hopefully your transition in to the headteacher role will be a smooth one. 

  • Helen Frostick is headteacher of St Mary Magdalen's Catholic Primary School in London and a National Leader of Education.

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