A new school year offers a number of opportunities for headteachers. David White gives tips on how to take advantage, and keep things manageable

Yes, I know, the summer holidays just flash by! Your expectancy of long lie-ins and free time to complete all those little tasks around the house and garden, all planned in fine detail for the weeks stretching out ahead, comes and goes. Even as the end of term concert still echoes in the hall rafters and your final assembly has the more sensitive pupils shedding a tear in anticipation of leaving the sanctuary of Key Stage 2, you are all too aware of the ‘back to school’ advertising in the supermarket, the newsagent’s and the shopping mall.

At every turn there is that cheeky-chappy grin of some lad in shorts, grey shirt, school tie and cap, peering out of the poster trying to get someone to buy the, ‘essential’ geometry set, fountain pen and dictionary. Alongside him is the pigtailed, gingham dressed scowl of his superior sister, who doesn’t approve! Well frankly, neither do I! All are stereotyped presentations of the popular rhetoric of our 21st-century education system: the myth held against the profession of our long holidays and short working days! Isn’t it wonderful?

Such misleading advertising sets my grey cells jarring, and sadly it reminds me of the inevitable fact that I too will be ‘back to school’ myself almost before I even start the holiday. Perhaps, this year, all those domestic priorities would be postponed for yet another extended break!

So here we are; the first day. Do you remember that first day feeling? Shiny shoes that squeaked and rubbed. Scratchy collars and big clothes to grow into. Sitting at your desk, contemplating your new resolutions, you were steadfast in your resolve that this was going to be a good year. No, you weren’t going to get into trouble, and yes, you were going to get all those long divisions right! The teacher handed out your new exercise books and in your very, very best handwriting you put your name and subject on the front. You carefully opened the pristine cover, firmly pressed the fold between it and the virgin, snow white, first page. A new start. A fresh beginning. The anticipation was climactic and… well, my recollection is that it was all downhill from then on! Yes, the first page may have survived, but as time passed, there was a slow but steady accretion of errors and red pen adorning the now not-so-new, dog-eared, manuscript.

There is an analogy for headship in there somewhere. I know that after nearly 11 years in the job, the shoes may not squeak or rub and with the increased circumference of my middle-aged six-pack, I have more than grown into my clothes, yet I still feel the excitement of that new start. It got me thinking about what I usually do at the start of a new school year. What is my ‘back to school’ routine? Has the routine changed since I was at school, and what are my top tips for the new year?

I think ideas that might be helpful for leaders in school today are different from ones that may have been helpful even in comparatively recent times. The legislative changes and increased leadership demands have all extended the tips list. No list can be definitive but I am sure we could produce a list that would be a very helpful resource for training (and should be provided as part of the NPQH perhaps). For the moment, here are some thoughts for your kind consideration at the start of this new school year.

Management time
How many of you have actually set aside your management time? Honestly now! Yes, you have appointed new staff, arranged induction, checked timetables and accounted for NQT non-contact time and PPA time for all teaching staff, yet you conveniently have ignored your own professional support time! I know you do it with all good fiscal considerations to the fore, but you are neglecting your professional space to charge your batteries, to keep on top of your professional development or simply to have some professional thinking space.

Tip No. 1 – Time-table in your time/your space/your professional support. Like the charity aid workers who are well fed and thus able to support the communities in which they work, treat your management time as an essential element of your year’s work in the same way.

Plan ahead
Someone once said, ‘Plan ahead. Don’t get caught with your plans down.’ It’s as true now as it was then. ‘I know! It’s so simple’, I hear you say. Well, if that is the case, why does everything go to pigs and whistles as soon as the phone starts ringing at 07.50? I think the key is to plan, but to allow for flexibility. So often I found my most productive work was between my arrival, (often too early) and that first phone call, followed by a small window after the children had left for the day and a point just before I and my colleagues were encouraged to depart (mostly too late), so the premises officer could lock up! When I analyse the rest of the day, while it wasn’t wholly unproductive, much of the time was spent in a gadarene servicing of other people’s demands and needs. In my attempt to please others and demonstrate my adaptability, I allowed myself to be distracted and my priorities were shelved.

Tip No. 2 – Yes, be flexible, be adaptable, be responsive, but try to keep focused. Build a senior leadership team that understands the principles of distributive leadership. Use the team to share the workload that distracts you from the plans you have made.

Journaling is just another name for what, in our web 2.0 society, is called ‘blogging’ but perhaps not as public or on the record! Now I am not of the age where blogging comes that naturally! I much prefer the note pad and newly sharpened pencil. Perhaps that’s Freudian for the pleasures of the new term/new book routine from when I was at school! However, I suggest you try and keep a daily account. Use your journal to record what is key for you in any day. The ups and downs, some quotes, jokes, problems, pleasures, frustrations, anxieties, successes can be put into your notes. All of what is of import to you should be recorded; no inclusion os right or wrong.

There are two benefits in doing this. Firstly, when the negatives are recorded, somehow they acquire a less important profile and you are able let them go – at least for a short time. This helps you operate more effectively at that point where the negativity could have created increased stress levels. Secondly, you can later go back to review the day in a moment of calm. You can celebrate the high points and the successes and plan your measured responses to the problem points.

Tip No. 3 – Take time and space to write about your professional day. Use it in whatever way you wish, as it will help you organise your thoughts and influence your priorities for the next period of activity, perhaps even into the years to come. Try to do this every day; you will soon see the benefits.

Black Bag Day
No matter how the year progresses, things will get out of hand from time to time. You will feel stressed, irritable and not know which way to turn. This is common to many walks of life, but as a headteacher, stress is often compounded by all the expectations placed upon you by others.
A really good way of dealing with such a moment is to take time out. Close your office door, tell reception that you are not to be disturbed, and unfold a large black plastic bag retrieved from the premises officer’s cupboard! Sit down and look around the room. Have you got a pile of magazines, promotional material or leaflets sitting gathering dust in the corner? Yes? Put them in the bag! Start a spirited spring clean. Go on, fill the bag. You will feel so much better.

I got this idea from the late husband of a former colleague. He was an artist and he had written this tip on a small piece of paper, which he had decorated and illuminated. It was placed in the centre of a large, empty display board on the wall of my new office on the first day of my substantive headship.

Tip No. 4 – There is no problem in this world that cannot be solved with the help of a large black plastic bag!

There is a subset of this tip, which will assist in reducing the build-up of filing. When sorting your post, don’t bother opening anything that is delivered in a clear plastic bag, just bin it! (With the exception of this magazine and your NAHT monthly mailing!)

I refer here to an article recently from The Guardian Weekend, where journalist and writer Oliver Burkeman introduced a book by American author William George Jordan entitled The Majesty of Calmness (online at Project Gutenberg). Mr Jordan’s approach is a bit rebellious in its support of a ‘slow-food movement’. To me it the book is all the more surprising when you learn that Mr Jordan wrote his book in 1900!

We Brits often think of the USA as a fast-food society – but a type of society many people think we are enthusiastically mirroring in the UK by our attempts to be successful in all things to all people. Jordan espouses a ‘slow food movement’ and suggests, tongue in cheek, that the words ‘Quick Lunches’ should be inscribed on thousands of headstones in our cemeteries. Most radical of all is his view that failure is a good thing: ‘From failure we learn’. He also advises that ‘we should get comfortable with the inevitability of failure because success depends on it’. Now where does that fit in with the Ofsted and school improvement culture, which hangs over heads like the sword of Damocles, ready to destroy a career because failure (in whatever guise it takes its shape) is not an option!

Tip No. 5 – Slow down and accept (within reason) the inevitability of an essential element for success, ie failure! Consider failure in a new light and learn from it.

To celebrate the new term, I would like you to promise yourself a fresh start. It is, after all, a new year. Think of ways that you can keep control of the accelerating pace that insidiously creeps up on your role as headteacher! Find ways to create space for yourself. A power nap after lunch could just help re-focus your modus operandi.

David White is a former headteacher of a junior school