Starting your first headship

Written by: Colin McLean | Published:
Image: iStock

Establishing yourself as a new headteacher is a daunting task. Colin McLean asks primary head Steph Gaskell to share her personal perspectives on how to handle this challenge effectively

Headship is a high pressure job at any time and is especially so for those who are new to the role.

Although Telford headteacher Steph Gaskell is four years into her first permanent headship role, at St Lawrence CE Primary in Preston upon the Weald Moor near Telford, she still regards herself as new to headship with lots to learn.

But she also has plenty of useful perspectives to share on the challenges – and opportunities – of those first few years of a first-time headship.

Here are Steph’s perspectives on new headship and the approaches that she says have helped her to become established in the role.

Be clear about what you want to achieve

“You need to be clear from the outset about what it is your school needs. It won’t be the same as the school you have come from. You’ve got to be firm but at the same time ready to roll with the flow. It’s a balance between knowing what the negotiables and non-negotiables are.

For me, high-quality teaching is one of the non-negotiables. If a member of staff is having problems with an aspect of their teaching then the negotiation comes in and you work with them to establish what support and CPD they might need to help them.”

Be even-handed

“I think consistency is really important. If you’re even-handed with everyone then your colleagues will soon get on your wavelength. They will see that you are fair and consistent and they will trust you. I make sure that everything I suggest comes back to the impact on the children – if you can put every decision within the context of its impact on children’s learning and welfare then your colleagues will respect that.”

Learn from others

“I was lucky to work with outstanding headteachers in my previous schools. I picked up things from them that made me a better teacher and have hopefully helped me as a leader. Be a constant learner. Ask others for their views and read about leadership as much as you can.”

Don’t be an initiative hoarder

“For me the school vision always comes down to what feels right for the children. If we consider taking on a new initiative it always has to fulfil this vision, and it must be based on sound, good practice that won’t become a flash in the pan. Our in-box is flooded with new initiatives every day. If we take one on we do no more than one a year and make sure that it is something that will have an impact on the children’s attainment.”

Put children at the centre of everything

“I like being in the classroom with the children and seeing what they are doing. You can, as a headteacher, shut yourself away and not see the children at all if you’re not careful. But your job is about the children. Talking to them every day helps you in your thinking about what more you can do to support their learning. You can give the children a more formal voice as well. We have a great school council here that really helps us on what we do.”

Don’t forget reflection time

“Teachers have planning, preparation and assessment time, and headteachers need to have headteacher time – half-a-day a week where they can retreat from the day-to-day of the role and reflect on and think about the school and what they can change and improve. I am religious about having this time. It is also a good idea to use some of this time to talk to teachers in detail and link up with colleagues from other schools.”

Professional development is crucial

“I took NPQH as I prepared to go for headship. I would really recommend it to everyone who is thinking about headship. It gives you a really good grounding into what is coming. It gave me scenarios that I had not thought about and helped me develop my people-management skills as well as areas such as budgeting and planning to get your school where you want it to be. It made me think about the bigger picture and it was also a chance to meet with colleagues from other schools in the same situation as me. It’s really important to hear about what they’re doing because it gives you ideas and makes you think differently.”

  • Colin McLean is chief executive of Best Practice Network, a national provider of training and professional development. More advice on development for leaders and their teams is available in a Best Practice Network guide, available as a free download at

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