How do you organise a smooth handover? Having just left headship after 11 years, Suzanne O’Connell discusses why she did it and offers advice to others doing the same

Being a headteacher is much more than just a job. It can too easily become your life. So the decision to leave a school and move on is an extraordinarily difficult one to make.

I have thoroughly enjoyed being a headteacher. It has always been the greatest privilege to work with so many lovely young people, excellent staff and (mostly) caring parents. Every day has been different. I’ve arrived at school in the morning and suddenly found it’s time to go home at night. I’ve felt the joy of an assembly well done, the appreciation of parents and the generosity and enthusiasm of children.

For 11 years I’ve held this role and always worked to the best of my ability. I have some strongly-held views. I believe that it is absolutely essential to believe in and trust your staff. I have never felt comfortable with the concept of monitoring. Monitoring to me starts from the wrong viewpoint. It assumes that people are not trustworthy and need to be checked. I believe that, on the whole, staff are trustworthy – especially those working with children. And especially my staff!

I believe that what is most important is the quality of the members of staff in front of the class. They have far more direct impact on the standards achieved, and my greatest contribution is in their appointment. I believe that education is about inspiring, creating conditions and allowing children to blossom with encouragement and the right ‘steering’. I don’t agree with booster classes that target children in the interests of the school’s Sats results. I don’t believe that my time should be taken checking everything that is supposed to happen in the school.

Into special measures
With these views, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that we went into special measures. I had not prioritised our Sats results enough. To be honest, I didn’t really feel they were that important. To me, they are quite distinct from the quality of education we offer. I’ve never believed in targeting resources at particular groups of children in order to improve results. This seems immoral to me and is completely against my philosophy.

I consider myself to have been extremely naïve. I thought the Every Child Matters agenda would be a high priority for Ofsted, but they were only interested in the outcomes against which standards are hitched. All the other provision we offered was hardly considered – the nurture groups, the individual support and the special needs provision. All Ofsted seemed interested in was the explanation of why our CVA data was poor – an argument for which I was ill-equipped. Interestingly, while in special measures we lost or stopped many aspects of our provision. We abandoned our summer fair, closed our kids’ club, stopped teaching cookery, cancelled the Christmas concert, refused to host the summer play scheme. In fact, during special measures less and less time was available to spend on the child and more and more time was directed at proving that we were adding value to the curriculum.

I am delighted to say that we did come out of special measures. The staff were superb and we worked very hard together to make sure that we could demonstrate to Ofsted that we were doing a good job – the best we could in the circumstance given us. But I’d had enough. The whole process was utterly humiliating. I had been accused of having no vision. This, more than anything, infuriated me. I had plenty of vision. I visualised a vibrant and creative school where all children could experience an exciting curriculum that challenged them on a number of levels – not just the academic. I visualised a school serving its community and nurturing both adults and students. I visualised a school that recognised children as an entirety – part of their culture and not disembodied objects to be worked on for results. The difficulty with my vision was that it wasn’t Ofsted’s vision.

I decided, therefore that although I still loved the school, my job, my staff, the children and parents, it was time for a change. The school needed to move on with a new headteacher who hadn’t been through the experience I had and I needed to be able to work without the spectre of failure lurking in the shadows. After all, Ofsted would come back at some point. I think I will always be that little bit naïve; believing the best of people, having dreams and not valuing sufficiently the particular criteria that seems to have become a mantra for education in this decade. 

Handing over
After 11 years of headship I had managed to amass an enormous amount of paper: letters, course reminders, meeting dates, ring binders – reams of paper.  Perhaps over the years I should have been more ruthless about what I kept and what I discarded. But, a hoarder by nature, I have always deferred the decision to bin – although I usually get there in the end.

And so I did, once I handed in my notice. I had, in fact, begun to clear out my office shortly after going into special measures. I had always half-expected to be summoned to the LA and asked to resign, and so had already begun to look critically at the office clutter with an eye to what should go with me and what should stay. But since being removed from special measures, there was a little more time to sift through and clear out with a touch more decorum.

The main piece of advice I would give any headteacher who is handing over is to do it little by little. It took me at least two months to remove from my files items referring back to 1997 and all manner of odd communications I had chosen to keep for different reasons. There is only so much shredding that can be done at any one time, and I am eternally grateful to the office staff who managed with great dexterity to erase so many personal items accumulated over so many years with confidentially.

From the start I focused my tidying on trying to retain what I felt would be important for the new headteacher.  I kept a separate file in which I stored items such as:

  • basic data – pupil numbers, demographic information, targets
  • information about CPD opportunities
  • Inset day plans
  • new school year dates
  • information about headteachers’ meetings
  • the last sets of minutes from important meetings, eg staff meetings, governors’ meetings, PTA and SLT meetings
  • some items related to crucial personnel issues and child protection issues
  • codes and passwords for DCSF communications.

There isn’t time when you first arrive to wallow through all the information available, so hopefully this article will be a useful starter’s handbook.

Although providing more than adequate notice, there were still difficulties with recruiting my replacement. In common with many schools, the governing body found that there was little response to their adverts. As a result, a temporary appointment was secured towards the end of term and the new headteacher and I had very little time in which to manage the transition. This made it even more essential that our meetings had a rough agenda and issues for discussion were clearly prioritised. This was very difficult as there was so much to cover; we can only retain so much information at any one time.

The first priority with the rapid onset of the summer holiday was for the new headteacher to meet the caretaker to discuss the handover of keys, building work that was taking place and when school might be open. When do you officially move in or out? It is a difficult transition. As a new head, you cannot wait to take possession of your new office, but at the same time you are sensitive to the needs and feelings of the outgoing head. Officially I finished on 31 August, but in practice the real handover needed to be much earlier than this.

Once the new headteacher had met with the staff and had begun to e-mail individuals, I started to feel less in control of events and to understand that plans for September were no longer down to me. It was almost a dream-like experience. I became an observer rather than a prime-mover. Standing back and not interfering became quite a task in itself. 

The list of items for our meetings did not seem to reduce. There was so much that I wanted to convey – information about the staff, the key priorities for the school, where everything was located, apologies for what could have been done better. I became conscious that there was perhaps too little opportunity left for the new headteacher to lead the agenda. When it did eventually get to the point where I was drawing breath, I felt the new head was perhaps too saturated with new information to continue. In the end, my main advice was:

  • Take one day at a time to begin with. It is a massive undertaking that requires all your reserves, so don’t be afraid to ask for advice.
  • It is easier to change things at the beginning than once you have started. Everybody expects a certain amount of change with a new head – and in fact will welcome it – be sure to use that opportunity.
  • You can’t change everything at once, so have a clear plan and tick things off gradually.  Be equally be prepared to change; flexibility is essential.

It is in everyone’s interests to make a new headship work. It is a very difficult transition, but one which can bring a fresh outlook to a school and the enthusiasm of someone new with new ideas and perspective. It was with very mixed feelings that I left my school. I felt a the mother-in-law wary of the new wife, hoping that her son will be well-looked after and properly fed, but hoping he never forgets her cooking. 

Hopes for the future of English education
I know that so many headteachers are unhappy with the current direction of education in England. At heads’ meetings in support groups or on the sidelines of the sports field, heads will share anxieties about the effect of league tables, target-setting and the drive to raise standards. This anxiety is nothing new. The same concerns have been raised over and over again and yet we are now faced with The National Challenge – another attempt to raise standards that will hit the most vulnerable schools and their communities and shame them even more. In the majority of cases, the staff working in our most challenging schools are doing an excellent job in adverse conditions.

It’s harder to add value when you have difficulties recruiting and retaining staff, when families are in a state of crisis and homework is the least of the priorities. On some days it is an achievement simply to have a teacher in front of every class.

My wish list for education in England includes:

  • the abolition of league tables – published or not, I cannot see how we can ever trust this sort of data or those who claim to be able to prove anything by it
  • the acknowledgement of the importance of professional judgement – we know what’s right for our schools and our community
  • the development of a climate of trust in our teachers
  • a system which truly believes the needs of the student come first and not the school targets
  • an acknowledgment of the fact that we cannot control learning – it is still in the hands of the student.

We have all been standing, watching the emperor pass by. We have all been guilty of admiring the design of his clothes and commending the cut of his jacket. But all of us know that what we see is an illusion – one that tells us every year how our children are doing better, how standards have risen and how more qualified and better equipped children are becoming for life. I know there are some people who will disagree. Our Ofsted inspector, no doubt, believed in what she was doing and that she was going to improve the chances of our children by labelling us as a   failing school in the hopes that we would improve. But I know she was wrong, and how good it feels to be able to shout out the truth.

Suzanne O’Connell is a former headteacher