Bringing school and community expectations into line with national priorities and targets is just one of the many challenges facing new heads. Richard Bird, former headteacher and now legal consultant to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), charts the road to success.

‘Bearing full responsibility for a company’s success or failure but being unable to control most of what will determine it. Having more authority than anyone else in the organisation but being unable to wield it without unhappy consequences. Sounds like a tough job? It is – ask any CEO. Surprised by the description? So are CEOs who are new to the job.’  

Porter, Lorsch and Nohria: ‘Seven Surprises for New CEOs’

It’s true: nothing prepares a person for a top job. Despite the efforts and successes of NCSL, this remains true for headship and is probably inherent in the job. There is something about ultimate responsibility that takes you by surprise.

Life for a new head is full of new relationships and decisions taken in a state of partial knowledge and uncertainty. New heads find themselves exhausted and not a little bewildered (though they cannot show it) but also, generally, exhilarated – and with any luck it will be the exhilaration that lasts.

Of course it is true that new heads today, to a greater extent than ever before, go into post with a rope around their necks. This inevitably follows from the dramatically changed level of importance that education has in national life. Now that education really matters, the task of school leaders has changed from doing what seems to be best for their school and their community at their own pace, to bringing the school and community expectations into line with national priorities and targets at once. With importance goes accountability.

It is not that heads lack support: they are surrounded by ‘critical friends’ of every description, from enthusiastic governors and Ofsted inspectors to school improvement partners, who offer direction, advice and interference; all of them enjoying the privilege of power without responsibility. However, if the school fails, or seems to be failing, it is the head, and not the critical friends, who will lose their job.

Stream of demands

The first great challenge is to handle the relationships. The head is the only person in the school with whom everybody, from the chair of governors and the cleaner to the sixth former and the old guard at their card school in the staffroom, believe they have a direct relationship.

This universal desire for a piece of the head means a stream of demands, messages and contacts from everyone inside the school – and outside. Forget about coming in to school a day or two early to catch up with admin. Even in the middle of the summer holidays the bursar will probably take the opportunity ‘to have a word.’

In an exercise which involved ‘drawing the role’, one participant drew headship as a multi-armed octopus trying to sort an infinite cascade of parcels falling from a hole in the roof above him. Another drew a coral island with a similarly infinite succession of tsunamis queuing up to overwhelm it. One of the first tasks is to establish sensitively a way of channelling relationships so as to make the multiplicity of psychic demands manageable while still making them productive.

If the people are overwhelming, the range of tasks can seem to be even more so. A settled head can let people get on with their jobs knowing that he has established the standards they have to reach and the parameters within which they can work. A new head has to discover and define everything, even if only to confirm their predecessor’s practice. So once more, a new head needs to be utterly decisive in prioritising what must be done and what must wait, regardless of the priorities that others are pressing.

In the midst of all this there may be apparent disappointments to deal with. Whether they prove to be justified or not, they have to be overcome. For example, most new heads have the dream, which is encouraged by some aspects of NPQH, that they will be different. Just as new teachers believe that they will be the first teacher ever to rule by kindness and inspiration alone; so new heads believe that they will articulate a vision and supported by a uniformly dynamic and responsive leadership team. It does happen; but often ‘it ain’t necessarily so’.

Chancy visions

Visions, for example, are more chancy things than the literature suggests. As Sir John Harvey-Jones said back in the 1980s:

‘Most of us could write an all-purpose mission or value statement in any bar on a Tuesday night which could apply to any company in the world.’

This is horribly true. Take ‘at the heart of the community’, which many schools proudly claim. It might make them pause if they knew that the same strap line, in Welsh and English, is as proudly displayed on the wall of the Boston, a dockside pub in Holyhead. An all-purpose vision will not inspire. Standing up and articulating a vision for the school at one’s first staff meeting has the potential to encourage ridicule rather than commitment.

More problematically, presenting a vision to staff may not be the right tool for the job. In a recent edition of the Harvard Business Review, Christensen, Marx and Stevenson present a carefully argued view that ‘vision’ is only appropriate where there is a broad consensus within an organisation, both as to the aims of the organisation and the means to achieve that end. In addition, unless the aims include change, vision is not a tool for change.

Other tools are appropriate for different combinations of consensus or lack of it: including the use of sheer power if there is no consensus either on aims or methods. Heads who succeed in those difficult circumstances do so because they do realise that power is the appropriate tool; and ensure that they really do have the support to use it, particularly from resolute governors.

Watch and learn

Then there is the leadership team. A good leadership team is a treasure to a head. Where the outgoing head has given the team responsibility and they are used to driving things forward, the new head may just be able to watch and learn to start with. However, it may be that disappointment over the reception of the vision may be compounded by disappointment with the inherited leadership team.

In places, though, it is quite unrealistic expectations of leadership teams which lead to a great deal of unhappiness all round. Long-term servants of schools are losing their jobs, sometimes undeservedly, because they have disappointed a new head. Yet the lack of immediate energy and enthusiasm, and even capacity, may be more apparent than real.

After all, the team have good reason not to over-commit themselves to the new head’s vision. They have much at stake: not least their own futures. Until they feel they have read the signals properly, they will naturally hold back. This does not necessarily mean they are unwilling to sign up; or incapable of growing to meet the head’s aspirations.

Positive expectations

The situation with the staff as a whole is the same as with the leadership team. If they do not immediately rally to the head’s vision, it is often because they have other preoccupations; not because they are hostile, complacent or cynical.

These preoccupations are summed up by Weindling and Earley, in their study of heads in their first year, as ‘Can they walk on water?’ They found that staff usually look forward to the arrival of a new head. One aspect of this is that they hope that the new head will redress wrongs. Those who have had unfair influence or privileges will have their comeuppance, for example!

Similarly, staff welcomed consultation but they did not want to sit through a series of meetings if nothing came of them. They respected the head’s right to take decisions and saw it as her duty to make them. A new head is well advised to set up working parties only when she is ready to act on the conclusions.

But the main thing staff required from a new head was support with discipline. It is still not unusual for a new head to find a file of misbehaving pupils outside his door before the end of his first morning in post. Kindliness, or a wish to find out something about the pupils, is usually interpreted as weakness and there is often a ‘discipline crisis’ before the end of the first term.

In reality, heads generally take over schools which have at least adequate discipline and establishing themselves as heavy-handed disciplinarians is not their first priority. However, if this need from staff is ignored, then forget the vision.

Leadership style

Of course, new heads meet very different situations. Some heads have to clear up a mess. A surprising number find some financial problem left for them; even more find a staffing problem that has not been tackled by their predecessor.

How these problems are tackled will be seen by the staff as indications of the head’s style and will be referred back to in future years. They will be watching to see how decisions will be made: whether there is an open approach; who will be consulted about what, if anyone; whether long-term problems will be tackled; whether the head is confident in their own judgement or whether they dither.

The best course for a new head still seems to be to take account of the findings of Weindling and Earley. Value what is there (nothing antagonises people faster than a suggestion that school’s past has no value or that the new head’s ‘old school’ had it all right). Get a sense of direction; find out what people are good for rather than judging them against what might be ideal; and get quick wins: even if it’s just a new carpet for the staffroom.

Then there is the necessity to find allies and confidants. It matters to find out who you can trust in the local authority and to weigh up the support that can be expected from governors. A head may also be lucky enough to get support and loyalty from other local heads despite the pressure of competition. And however well prepared a new head may be, it will also be important to set up an expectation of his/her own professional development, whether through making time for reading; attending courses; or joining in an online community through NCSL.

The good news is that most heads, like most schools, are successful. There are magic moments in a first year when you realise it is you taking the decisions and no one else; when a first appointment turns out to be inspired; or when suddenly a moment comes and you know you have been accepted. Taking over is difficult; but for all that, for those who become heads, ‘It is much better than being a deputy.’


Chistensen, CM, Marx, M, Stevenson, HH, (2006) ‘The Tools of Cooperation and Change’, Harvard Business Review October 2006.
Harvey-Jones, J (1994), All Together Now, London, Heinemann.
Porter, ME, Lorsch, JW, Nohria, N (2004). ‘Seven Surprises for New CEOs’, Harvard Business Review, October 2004.
Weindling, D and Earley, P (1987) Secondary Headship: The First Years, Windsor: NFER Nelson.