Aiming for the top job

Written by: HTU | Published:

In September, Emma Williams will embark on her first headship. Here, she describes her leadership journey – the challenges she has faced and the skills she has learnt along the way – and offers encouragement and advice to other would-be headteachers

If you had told me this time a year ago, or even six months ago, that I would be starting my first headship in September, I would have told you that there was absolutely no way that I would be ready for a step that big. 

Perhaps assistant or deputy head was in my grasp. But headship? Definitely not. Then again, here I am, getting ready for my first headship role and an entirely new stage in my career. 

How am I feeling? It’s difficult to say, because I have gone through a whole rollercoaster of emotions. But I can finally say that I’ve reached acceptance. Now begins the real preparation. 

I’m currently the early years foundation stage and children’s centre lead at Granard Primary School in Putney, about to take up my new headship post at Balham Nursery School and Children’s Centre. Originally from Australia, I have spent the last 10 years of my career teaching in early years settings in inner London primary schools, the majority of which have been in areas of high deprivation.

Teaching has always come naturally to me, and I have always been passionate about early learning and everything the early years represents. It is when learning is truly in its purest form, and for us as educators, it’s a privilege to be involved at this stage of a child’s development.

I took on the leadership of early years at Granard Primary back in 2010, when I helped support the school’s shift from “satisfactory” to “good” by raising standards within the early years and subsequently key stage 1. It was an amazing achievement for us, and we all feel incredibly proud. 

It was then my organisational skills came into play. Early years needs an organised structure and rigorous systems and cycles of tracking and assessment, performance management and planning put in place, and this is where the last few years of my work has subsequently been focused. And this being my first leadership role, I began to see the impact that leaders can truly have on our school and the children and I knew it was time for that next step.

My headteacher then pointed me in the direction of Future Leaders, a leadership development programme preparing senior leaders for headship of challenging schools. My interest was immediately ignited. Since joining it’s been not just a whirlwind, but more like a hurricane of experience, emotion, and learning.

The training really puts you through your paces. For example, a big challenge for me has always been having those difficult conversations with colleagues, and traditionally I would always try to avoid them. But having actors come in and put you in those really difficult situations forced me to face this head-on. 

Your close colleagues watch and feedback, “next time why don’t you try this” and “I thought you could have done this better” – it can be really tough to hear. But at the same time, it is feedback from those who know you and want you to do well, so you can’t help but take it on board.

This then gave me the increased confidence to look for opportunities and get more practice in these situations in my school. When difficult feedback had to be given for teaching post interviews, I put my hand up to volunteer. I have learnt that in your role as a leader, you need to prepare yourself to be uncomfortable. It sounds awful, but actually it is true that you perform at your best when pushed slightly out of your comfort zone. Do it, even if it makes you cringe and feel sick. It’ll be worth it in the end.

Looking back, I realise how much I have learnt over the last few years, and how my profile as a leader has really developed throughout the school. Since joining our senior leadership team, I have helped to raise the profile of early years learning, establishing a culture where reading, writing and phonics are taught well with both challenge and enjoyment.

I also devised a rigorous systematic approach to planning, tracking and the setting of targets, which has allowed us to monitor and review data, ensuring consistency in baseline data information and measuring progress. 

I was also appointed to support the leadership and management of the children’s centre, giving me the opportunity to demonstrate what strategic leadership looks like and assist the manager in developing a systematic approach.

Then one day, the TES update popped into my inbox. After seeing the Balham headship vacancy, my immediate thought was that it will be way too far out of my league. Why bother clicking on it? But out of nothing more than pure curiosity, I did. And the more I went through the job description and person specification, the more I started thinking – maybe I could do this? When I showed it to my head, she was amazing and had so much confidence in me. “If you apply for this Emma,” she said, “you’re going to get it.”

So with this boost in confidence and knowing I had the support around me, I went to have a look at the school. Needless to say, I loved it, and applied for the role. I felt like I was a reasonably strong applicant, but when asked back for an interview and finding out I was the only one still in the running, I couldn’t believe it. They rung me up within the hour of the interview to tell me I’d got the job. I felt sick! 

But what scares me even more now is thinking what would – or what wouldn’t – have happened if I hadn’t clicked on that link. I think it’s a lesson that we can all learn from, even if it’s just to have that little bit more confidence in yourself.

Because throughout my journey, this has been my biggest challenge: myself. It’s been the struggle of having the confidence in my own ability and trusting my decisions and actions. In many situations, I have had to change a potentially negative mind-set of “I can’t”, “I won’t” to “just give it a try,  what’s the worst that can happen?” 

I quickly realised that I could do the things I had set myself and more. Other people usually had more confidence in me than I did in myself. And as an early years specialist, it can be tricky to be seen as a leader out of this bubble, but I gave it a good try and I used my personable approach to put myself out there. It worked. 

Moving on to a new post was a very difficult decision, as my time at Granard has been incredibly fulfilling and rewarding. But it goes back to my belief that as well as working to get better at the things you’re good at, also never switch off that “growth mindset” – there is so much else to learn out there. So get started! Read everything and listen carefully.

So although I could offer endless advice to those wanting to take that next step to headship, I’d have to pinpoint the importance of being open to being brave and really working hard at finding opportunities to challenge yourself in those areas you find tricky. Don’t avoid it. Jump right in. Always tackle the hardest jobs first. 

But at the same time, don’t forget to be you. Be honest about who you are and what your strengths and areas for development are. I mean really honest with yourself. Future Leaders tested me in these areas, and having your areas of development laid out bare in front of you can be difficult. But at the same time, it is also been incredibly rewarding. So admit when you are wrong or when you’re not sure. People will love you for who you are and it is much easier than pretending you are someone else.

I wasn’t ready for headship. I’m still not ready for headship. But one thing I’ve learnt is that no-one ever is. So the only thing you can do is jump straight in feet first and give it all you’ve got. 

So as I am sitting here thinking forwards to my next role, it fills me with both excitement and trepidation. I know it is going to be both challenging and rewarding and there are so many things to learn, but I know I will have the support and encouragement of those around me. It is all I’ve ever wanted and I’ve got everyone to thank for it.

• From September, Emma Williams, pictured opposite, will be headteacher of Balham Nursery School and Children’s Centre in London.

Future Leaders

Future Leaders is a fully funded leadership development programme for aspiring headteachers of challenging schools across England. For more information visit

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