The principles of primary school leadership – and seven top tips

Written by: Emma Turner | Published:
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The primary phase is unique and as such leading a primary school requires a specific leadership approach. Emma Turner considers some principles of great primary leadership and seven practical tips for leadership success

There are so many leadership books to be found out there, including many focused specifically on leadership in education and schools. But few, if any, talk specifically about the leadership approaches and qualities needed to be a great primary headteacher.

What’s the primary purpose?

Children’s first encounter with formal schooling is often primary school. We get to take them by the hand on their first shiny-shoed days and welcome them on board to the first stage in their formal education journey.

We then journey with each child from the edge of toddlerhood to the cusp of adolescence, a huge developmental trajectory during which we are responsible for their welfare, safety, educational outcomes, and ensuring they leave enriched as a direct result of their experience with us.

As teachers and leaders, we get to introduce them to individual subject worlds, to have the opportunity for them to fall in love with writing or science, music or mathematics.

We help them to navigate tousles on the playground, see them experience joy, nervousness, excitement, and pride. And we have been entrusted to do all of this by their parents and carers. It is a huge weight of responsibility but also the greatest privilege.

It is a privilege to create a school, a community, a place to learn and belong for our youngest children. And this is what makes the very best of primary leaders, those who are driven to make the schools that serve our youngest learners places that are specifically designed with younger children in mind.

Understanding the purpose of primary education, not all education, but specifically education for children aged four to 11, is therefore integral to exceptional primary leadership.

Once we are sure of this primary purpose then we can craft a school, a curriculum, and all the associated policies, practices and approaches which align with that purpose.

Networks and relationship-building

But having the confidence to do what is right for our youngest learners can be a tricky ask when many national professional development materials and quality assurance approaches are generic and designed to be applicable to all phases.

Primary is unique and therefore a great primary leader will recognise that guidance and research needs to be age and stage-appropriate in its interpretation and subsequent enactment.

As such, it is important to build and access robust primary professional networks in which primary-specific challenges or needs are explored, discussed and where professional primary expertise is shared, championed, and developed.

Alongside this needs to be the recognition that the child is the only constant in the educational journey and so forging excellent links with preschool feeders and secondary schools is an essential part of situating the work of primary.

For great primary schools and leaders also recognise the role of parents and carers as a child’s most enduring educators. Forging meaningful, open, warm, and welcoming relationships from the outset with parents is so important, as a family’s attitude towards school and education can shape that of their child’s.

Our schools need to be welcoming, supportive settings which actively forge a sense of belonging and shared endeavour between home and school.

Building relationships with families and communities is never time wasted. For those children who may live in chaotic or turbulent households, this sense of warmth and belonging is even more important to establish.

Childhood matters

For primary-age children, school is not just a place to learn about the contents of the national curriculum, but it is the place where they will spend the majority of their waking hours, especially if they access wraparound care.

A primary leader therefore needs to strive for robust and secure academic standards but to also ringfence the unique state of childhood and develop a school where there is playfulness, levity and a sense of joy and possibility.

For some children, school is their childhood. It may be the only place where they are listened to and where they can play. Leaders therefore need to endeavour to create primary classrooms, curriculums and environments which are built on the twin pillars of academic achievement and a culture rooted in child development and age/stage-appropriate approaches.

Developing your team

Developing and investing in staff is also a key part of new approaches. Investing consultation, staff discussions, shared vision and a sense of collective endeavour is essential.

Investing in high-quality training informed by primary expertise and evidence is an additional on-going consideration of the primary leader. If we fail to invest in on-going access to training and development then we potentially have a double loss – the loss of not accessing the training itself but also the networking opportunities and sharing of practice across the phase that training brings.

Fresh eyes and new perspectives and understanding the work of other schools and colleagues in other settings is excellent CPD for staff in all roles. Building opportunities for formal professional learning and opportunities to build a picture of work across the sector is a key aspect of leadership within primary.

All primary leaders are therefore the champion of the purpose of primary education, building the systems, cultures, curriculums, and staff which will support our youngest learners through their unique initial journey into formal education.

I shall leave you with my seven steps to great leadership to start you on your way.

  • Focus on behaviour and culture first. Nothing can flourish until these two areas are secure.
  • Know your staff. Understand their skills, aspirations, and strengths. Meet regularly with all staff one-to-one to get feedback on what is working across the school.
  • Know your children, families, and communities. Know who, what and where is important to the communities you serve. Invest in getting to know as many individual children and families as you can.
  • Don’t jump to being a new broom. Do not make changes for change’s sake in the early days. And avoid initiative overload.
  • Focus on efficiency and effectiveness and do the things that are right for your school at that moment. A good idea might not be a good idea for your school right now. Focus on fit. Do what is right for your context.
  • Be guided by evidence but do not ignore your gut. Gather as much information and evidence from research and guidance to help inform decision-making but if something feels wrong, it probably is.
  • Get a mentor and/or a coach. Aspects of the job such as safeguarding and dealing with a large budget or a challenging HR issue can be difficult to manage alone. Supportive networks of other leaders and a professional coach or mentor are invaluable in retaining your own reserves and developing you as a professional.
  • Emma Turner has served in primary education for 25 years across multiple schools within teaching, leading and headship. She has worked as national strategy consultant and as trust research and CPD lead and is due to begin a new role as deputy director of education for a West Midlands MAT. She has written four books on education; she co-hosts the John Catt Podcast “Mind the Gap” with Tom Sherrington, and she is a Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching. Find her @Emma_Turner75

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