Being a headteacher is “fantastic and rewarding” says secondary headteacher Kim Sparling, who dismisses the notion that the top leadership role in schools is losing its appeal for many in her profession
Doesn’t the media like ‘bad news’ stories? I have been struck by the frequent reports on headteachers being ‘forced’ into early retirement because of the overwhelming weight of bureaucracy. What message does this send out to younger staff in the profession?
As I think I have one of the best jobs in the world, I feel it is my responsibility to redress the balance a little and ‘shout’ about why it is such a fantastic and rewarding role.
What other position affords such real opportunities to make a difference? Nothing can prepare you for the sheer variety of tasks, responsibilities and privileges – each day is different and challenging. During the course of a week I might be raising expectations of behaviour with students, developing staff, evaluating standards of teaching and learning, influencing national decisions, meeting parents of a disaffected student, celebrating the winning of an award, congratulating students on some excellent work or undertaking curriculum innovation.
Welcoming potential newcomers
With such a long and ever-growing job description, it is not easy to define the most important part of the job of headteacher. Nevertheless, I always maintain that one of the most significant roles is recruiting staff. If I manage to recruit and retain the very best staff many of the other features of an outstanding school happen almost by accident.
It is for this reason that I am personally involved at every stage. I discuss the vacancy with colleagues, decide when and where it is best to advertise and draw up an eye-catching advert. I oversee the preparation of the information pack which is sent to potential staff, arrange references to be called and lead the discussion with colleagues about the format of the interview day and the shortlisting of applicants.
As a successful school, we are able to attract a great deal of interest in our posts so recruitment is a very time-consuming business. I make it a point of principle that I welcome all candidates for all posts (teaching and support) with a cup of coffee at the start of the day to send a strong message that staff are extremely important to the success of the school.
Throughout the day I will be fully involved, for example by observing lessons and being on the formal interview panel. Staff at my school have noted with concern that when they have attended interviews at other schools the headteacher in many cases couldn’t be bothered to meet them and they had a poorly planned day which gave them a negative impression of the school. A great deal of time is put into organising an effective and useful day for the candidates and the school. I always stress that the ‘experience’ is a two-way process; while the school is undoubtedly assessing them, I tell all candidates to look closely at us to see if they think they will fit into our school.
I always give candidates free rein to wander anywhere in the school, encouraging them to visit students’ toilets during their ‘free’ time and talk to students about their views. Although everyone involved feels mentally exhausted at the end of the day it is virtually always a positive experience, even staff who are not successfully in getting the post tell us that they had a useful day. I always offer feedback to the unsuccessful applicants.
Developing staff is one of the great privileges of being a headteacher. It doesn’t matter what stage a person is in their career, it is very rewarding to help them to grow and advance. Sometimes staff have very clear ideas about how they want to develop, so they seek specific advice about what they need to do next. More usually staff have vague and often disparate ideas which they wish to bounce off someone.
Other staff lack confidence or ambition. These staff need to be encouraged to seek out further challenges and experiences. At times it requires tact to advise staff that they may not yet be ready for the course of action they wish to take; sometimes you need to encourage staff to conquer their own demons so that they are able to develop successfully.
Sometimes very frank discussions have to take place if a member of staff does not have a clear view of his/her own strengths and areas for development. I am fortunate to have worked with many young staff with great potential. It is a joy to recognise their talents and provide them with additional experiences to allow them to develop in their careers.
Headteachers are expected, together with other members of the leadership team, to be the resident inspectors, constantly monitoring and evaluating the school. I really enjoy lesson observations – strictly speaking lesson, assembly and tutorial observations. As a school we have high expectations of the quality of teaching and learning – the only way to know if we are delivering high standards of lessons is by regularly observing them.
Our leadership team has been trained in lesson observation by Ofsted. This was to ensure that we are correctly able to judge a lesson ‘outstanding’, ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory’ and also to be sure that as a team we are consistent in our judgements. I do not tell staff in advance when a lesson observation will take place because I want to see the ‘bread and butter lessons’, but I also don’t want staff losing sleep over a forthcoming observation.
It is always a worthwhile experience to meet with the teacher to have a professional dialogue about their lesson. Most staff welcome the chance to reflect on their performance and it is a fantastic opportunity to congratulate staff on the successes of their lessons as well to discuss areas for improvement.
The information gained from these observations provides statistical data for our SEF but, more importantly, it improves the leadership team’s understanding of current issues in the school and informs our decisions about training needs and school development priorities.
Teachers also invite the leadership team to visit specific lessons if they want us to see them working with a particular class or addressing a specific topic. While this kind of observation has a different purpose, it is a very valuable activity.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of my role is to see students about good work/effort/improvement. This can take various forms. I was recently invited to a Year 10 art class, where the teacher was understandably delighted with the high standards of work being produced by her students. It was rewarding to see this work and discuss it with students – that member of staff was clearly inspiring her students to do their very best.
Attitude to work
At other times, staff send students to see me with their work; which is a useful opportunity for me to question students about their attitudes towards work in that subject. Parents and teachers tell me that students are thrilled to be chosen by their teacher to show me their work.
Teachers are not always good at ‘blowing their own trumpet’. On occasions, when I’m invited to see students’ good work, I can often suggest a way to take the work to a wider audience, whether it is a display in a public area of the school or inviting younger students to see the work.
As headteacher you have a responsibility to help get some of the more disaffected students back on track. This may happen in a variety of ways, but often it results from a negative experience when a student has got into trouble.
After a student has received a fixed-term exclusion I always hold a ‘readmission meeting’ with the student and parents before the student comes back into school. I see this as an opportunity to discuss what went wrong in a calm and reflective way, to acknowledge any issues which the student and/or parents may have and to ensure that apologies have been made. I also get the student to sign a ‘contract of good behaviour’ to facilitate their readmission to school. I often challenge the student to put the record straight by doing something ‘good’ by the end of term.
On other occasions I will take a visible interest in the readmitted student in the following weeks by asking them how they are getting on and following up behaviour and progress with the tutor and subject teachers. Sometimes students will finally disclose problems out of school, which the school can help to remedy with external agencies. Older students can often be helped by treating them as young adults, asking how the school can support them and giving them a range of choices from which they can make decisions. This is often a successful strategy for everyone.
The home-school partnership
Parents play a crucial role in the success of all of our students, so getting parents ‘on board’ is vital if the home-school partnership is going to be productive. As headteachers we must be proactive in developing this relationship with parents. In the summer term I invite Year 6 parents to an induction evening so that they feel comfortable to support their child’s transition to secondary school. This is complemented by information packs and invitations to informal get-togethers early in September.
Parents receive a monthly school newsletter and two opportunities per year to meet teachers to discuss progress. Additional information evenings on topics such as homework and options are designed to make it easier for parents to support their child’s education.
Sometimes it is necessary for us to rebuild a parent’s trust in the school if something has gone wrong. This may involve apologising on behalf of the school for what has happened or resolving a problem with a particular teacher.
Some parents who attend readmissions meetings arrive ready to challenge the school’s decision on the matter. I see it is a personal challenge to get those same parents leaving school on the same day thanking me for my work! Ultimately, parents need to feel that if they can’t resolve a problem elsewhere they can come to the headteacher; I would not want this to happen as a first port of call of course, but it is important that parents do feel satisfied with the school.
Enriching students’ lives
Assemblies – you probably love them or hate them. A key to their success lies in choosing a topic which has appeal to the age group concerned and involving the students (and other staff) in the assembly. You can measure your own success if students are still talking about your assembly at lunchtime. During a previous old-style Ofsted inspection, the staff who had volunteered to do assemblies dropped out when they knew it was an inspection week. I was more than willing to step in and mid-way through the Iraq war discussed the topic of conscientious objectors with students. Ofsted approved and concluded that students were being given good opportunities for spiritual reflection.
I enjoy raising controversial topics. It must be our duty to take students out of their comfort zone and into the wider world. Assemblies for me are a real chance to make a difference, unfettered by the constraints of the National Curriculum or exam board specifications!
As headteachers we really can enrich the lives of large numbers of students. Naturally, we have a responsibility to ensure that the timetabled school curriculum is stimulating and meets legal requirements but the whole-school experience is so much greater than this. Our energy and enthusiasm for the wider life of the school is crucial. This might be demonstrated by support for the Duke of Edinburgh Award or World Challenge Expeditions. It might be illustrated by encouraging students with specific fundraising activities for charities or by the initiation of new cross-curricular projects such as the arts event, the development of ‘off-timetable’ weeks for KS3 students or a new evening event such as a recital or production.
It is these additional activities which students remember most fondly and which have many positive long-lasting effects on staff-student relationships in the classroom. My passion for this aspect of school life is so strong that all teachers are asked about what they can offer us as extra-curricular activities at interview. The candidates who give poor answers do not get the job as they are unlikely to fit in here.
It is my belief that all students are good at something – it just may take time to find out what that ‘something’ is.
When I attended my interview at my current school I remember talking informally to students during lunchtime to find out their thoughts/ideas. One big gap in provision was drama – they wanted have drama lessons and to perform plays. Both now take place and students who don’t necessarily shine in other areas are keen to be the stars of the school production.
It is always a delight to congratulate the truculent student who has performed in the school play, the disaffected Year 11 who has given a stunning display in the dance evening or a ‘shy’ student who has sung solo in the Christmas festival. Hard chairs aside, we have an important role to play in witnessing and celebrating these successes, which boost the self-esteem and self-confidence of students.
So often people bemoan the fact that their work efforts are not recognised. This isn’t true in education – there is a range of awards which schools can choose to apply for. The satisfaction of awards is that they create a ‘feel-good’ sensation across the school, recognising a success which has usually been achieved by the combined efforts of students, teachers, support staff, parents and governors.
I am particularly fond of the Artsmark Award because it doesn’t presuppose that there is a preferred subject structure. However, it does outline minimum standards which are required for each level of award, Artsmark, Artsmark Silver and Artsmark Gold. It can be argued that the collection of the relevant evidence is time consuming but it is a positive experience to stop and audit achievement in a given area. The moderator’s visit is an opportunity for students to have their voice heard and the resultant award is a morale-boosting experience which can be shared by the whole school.
Making a difference
Most heads hope that they will make a difference. If successful, you can have a positive impact on the lives of thousands of students. You need to be confident and to have a coherent, realistic and achievable vision of how your school can be improved. You need to be prepared to fight battles for what you believe to be right and be sufficiently resilient to take tough decisions, which may not be universally popular. You also have to be committed to high standards and – of course – to be a good role model.
The thrill of the job is the knowledge that you do make a difference. My ‘best’ day of the school year remains the open evening when I know that my presentation to prospective parents will influence their decision on where, out of a large number of schools in the city, they will choose to sent their children.
Even the ‘best job’ has bits you don’t enjoy. For me, it has to be external meetings – but then no one ever claimed that headship was paradise!