Priority areas for your first weeks as headteacher

Written by: Helen Frostick | Published:
Mentoring support: Helen Frostick (right), headteacher of St Mary Magdalen’s Primary School in London

Are you embarking on your first term as a headteacher? National Leader of Education, Helen Frostick urges you to seek the support of an effective mentor and lists some of the areas you should focus on in the first weeks of your tenure...

To take on the role of mentor for a new headteacher is immensely important. It can make all the difference at the starting point of the career for the new head.

Few deputy heads or assistant heads will have faced the unexpected and often unwritten job description and responsibilities of what it actually entails to be a headteacher. Many senior teachers will have been involved in much of the curriculum side of the role, including strategic matters – but the global role will be unchartered territory.

This article sets out a number of starting points for mentors to focus on with their mentees as a useful aide memoire to shape meetings and give them a valuable focus. Time is precious on both sides. It is important to give good value for money both for the school releasing their head as mentor and for the new head, who will be very busy in their new post.

Relationships – open, honest, real

It is crucial to get the relationship right from the outset. This partnership should be based on mutual respect and understanding that everything discussed will be confidential. The mentor needs to be sensitive to the fact that the new head may well feel as if they should always be positive and may be reluctant to divulge that they are actually finding things difficult. Setting the right tone from the outset will be important.

I remember as a new head my chair of governors saying to me: “Be honest with your staff. Tell them that you will be learning from them at the beginning as they know far more about the school than you do.”

This was very useful advice because it is human nature to want to appear to be on top of everything at the beginning, whereas staff will really appreciate such honesty.

Getting the best out of governors

One of the most important partnerships for all headteachers is with their governing body. To build a relationship with the governors will be something that will develop over time, but there are quick wins to be had from the very first meeting.

For example, the governors will be impressed by a new head who summarises for them any changes on the educational agenda. Governors, as volunteers, need to be briefed in a time-effective way and a simple PowerPoint of the main changes will be very useful to them. This year, there are new updated statutory safeguarding guidance documents, not least Keeping Children Safe in Education (2018). This will be an excellent topic to focus on in the first governors’ meeting under the headteacher’s report section.

Many new headteachers will find themselves micro-managed by the governors at the beginning of their headship, particularly if they have taken over a school in a challenging situation (where the governors may have had to be operational as well as strategic).

This needs to be controlled and the governors sensitively steered back to having meetings once a month in order that the headteacher has the time and space to invest in all of the necessary start-up processes and procedures as they take up their role.

Engaging and working with parents

Beyond the obvious starting points with parents, such as writing a letter of introduction with a photograph on the first day, it is a good idea to pick a non-controversial topic to canvass opinion on within the first month. For example, as a new head I canvassed my parents as to whether they would prefer homework over the weekend or during the week. The staff helped with this as they came up with an issue where they were happy to accept whatever outcome the parents decided upon.

Having said that I also made a huge error when I started my headship. I decided to change the uniform from grey to red without consulting the parents and I had to show strong leadership when the parents revolted. Changing uniform is a bold step and, although it was worth it in the end, I immediately lost the support of many parents who would have liked to have been asked for their views.

Website management

The school website is so important for many reasons: for compliance, such as with the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as a window to the school for marketing purposes, for Ofsted, Pupil Premium and for current parents accessing information, to name but a few.

For the new headteacher, a first sign that they are running a tight ship will be measured in many ways, but one of them will be if the website is kept up-to-date. School news needs to be updated. Dates for the year ahead published and newsletters kept up-to-date. Are the photographs on the website of current children in the school or is it out-of-date?

Safeguarding headlines

For new headteachers it is important to ensure that their staff and governors have all read Keeping Children Safe in Education: Part 1. The safeguarding governors and the Designated Safeguarding Team also need to read Part 2. The school will need to complete a Safeguarding Audit and if there is not one in place then that is a good starting point. An external advisor will be an invaluable resource at the start of the headship as Safeguarding Reviews are robust and thorough, giving a list of urgent measures to put into place as well as less urgent measures to ensure compliance.

Attendance strategies

The government target of at least 96 per cent attendance is challenging to achieve. However, there are procedures that can be adopted to maximise attendance. Positive incentives work well. Celebrating the class that has the highest attendance on a weekly basis in assembly leads to a whole-class ethos of striving for 100 per cent attendance. It also takes away the pressure on the children who have unavoidable days missed due to illness. This approach tends to cover the days where children can come into school but parental attitude prevents it. The children themselves are the best resource to persuade their parents that they should be in school.

Formalising requests for absence in term-time also helps. On one side of the paperwork a clear rationale for maximum attendance clearly explains that days missed can affect a child’s social experience in school as well as prevent them from reaching their full potential due to key learning steps missed.


A good strategy to keep ahead of meetings is to organise a file with plastic punched pockets labelled 1 to 31 for the days of the month. Every time a meeting date comes in with a corresponding agenda or a course date with the relevant paperwork it can be slotted in to the relevant date. That will ensure that paperwork is kept safely as in-trays and in-boxes can get very out of hand.

It is a good idea to block out a day every fortnight to work at home. The staff need to deputise – which is good professional development – while it gives the head time to focus and concentrate on certain paperwork, or even to have thinking time. It is in these down moments that the most inspiring ideas will come.

Performance management and appraisal

Accountability for all staff is a crucial message in the earliest days. Reviewing job descriptions is a good first meeting between the head and each member of staff, even if it takes the first two weeks to achieve. Every member of staff will value the one-to-one time and it offers the opportunity to pave the way for performance management. The highlights and challenges of the previous academic year can be discussed.

Another good starting point is to type up the staffing structure so that at a glance everyone can see who the senior team and the middle managers are. In addition, which teachers are in which key stage and what their class teaching roles and areas of responsibility are. The provision map of teaching assistant support can also be included.

Self-evaluation strategy

A cycle of self-evaluation and school improvement strategies is important to establish at the beginning of the year. September is a good month to analyse the ratified results from national tests with a view to comparing them with local authority and national data.

Once completed the Section of the self-evaluation form (SEF) on data can be updated. In the first Headteacher’s Report in the autumn term a summary can be included or the section of the SEF itself for the governing body.

Performance management takes place in October. The targets from the school development plan need to be weaved into the targets for the staff. The professional interviews from the first two weeks can also be used as professional development targets are likely to have been discussed as part of those initial meetings.


There are many more areas to focus on in mentoring meetings, such as strategic planning, finance and getting the best out of the budget, Pupil Premium strategy, pupil and stakeholder voice.

However, this article covers what is ideal to focus in at the start of the academic year in order to begin a partnership of trusted, critical friend and trusted professional under a protective umbrella of soft mentoring. There is much to gain on both sides if the relationship begins well for both parties.

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