The Challenges Faced By an Associate Head in a Primary School
During my career in education, I have been fortunate to work in some wonderful schools alongside talented teachers and leaders. Although the pupils in these schools often presented with gaps in both their academic and social abilities, they had a desire to learn and enjoy their time at school. There was never a dull moment, that was for sure. Moving from subject leadership to two deputy head posts and then onto headship brought me a vast amount of experience. I certainly made mistakes. None were disastrous and all were learnt from.
During my second headship, I was asked by the local authority to become what was termed at that time an ‘associate headteacher‘ to a school that had recently been placed in Special Measures. The local authority had considered closing the school due to it failing its inspection, coupled with the fact that the building needed a great deal of money spending on it to make it fit for purpose. It had received bomb damage during the Second World War and never really recovered! The classrooms, although large enough, had not been refurbished for far too long, the playgrounds were all tarmac (not a piece of greenery to be found) and sloped! The dining room was a separate building and dated back to the 1800th century; it leaked and, although cleaned thoroughly every day, it always looked grubby.
The most senior of leadership had been ineffective for some time, but there were some very talented middle leaders who were also exceptionally good teachers. Kindred spirits indeed.
Being approached for such a position was flattering. The school of which I was the substantive headteacher had recently been judged good by Ofsted, had a stable staff and a strong leadership team. The ingredients were right for me to seriously consider the offer. Following a further conversation with representatives from the local authority, I accepted in principle. Approval from governors followed and a start and end date agreed.
I was now into a whole new territory of work. Time was always going to be the enemy and gaining the trust of the staff and the wider school community my priority. I reflected on two pieces of advice I had been given when I started my first headship. Firstly, ensure every child and member of staff sees you each day, and secondly to pace myself. The first was perhaps easier to achieve than the second. Simple advice but it had stood me in good stead thus far. I was, therefore, determined to continue to follow it.
I was also mindful of the research carried out by Professors David Woods and Chris Husbands and Dr Chris Brown which looked at key leadership characteristics identified by Ofsted as crucial when improving schools:
- Leaders have consistent, high expectations and are very ambitious for the success of their pupils.
- They constantly demonstrate that disadvantage need not be a barrier to achievement.
- They focus relentlessly on improving teaching and learning with very effective professional development of all staff.
- They are expert at assessment and the tracking of pupil progress with appropriate support and intervention based upon a detailed knowledge of individual pupils.
- They are highly inclusive, having complete regard for the progress and personal development of every pupil.
- They develop individual students through promoting rich opportunities for learning both within and out of the classroom.
- They cultivate a range of partnerships particularly with parents, business and the community to support pupil learning and progress.
- They are robust and rigorous in terms of self-evaluation and data analysis with clear strategies for improvement.
I also realised that it is not wise or indeed effective, to simply ‘lift’ one way of working (no matter how successful) and ‘drop’ it into another school and expect the same outcomes. It won’t work! There may be elements of certain practices that can be copied but the staff must have full ownership of them. Change has to be done alongside staff and not to staff. I also recognised that tough decisions may need to be taken.
With all of this in mind, I took up the post but had not been given a clear remit by the L.A. as to the work I was to lead. This position did not change. Initially this led to time being lost and uncertainty prevailing amongst the leadership team. The wider school community were also unsure as to the role I was taking and I remember one child asking me if I was staying for longer than the end of the week!!
A series of open and very honest conversations with the leadership team followed, which resulted in clarity as to our roles and responsibilities and precise whole school priorities in both the short and medium terms. These were quickly communicated across the whole school community.
The governing body continued to be strengthened with several highly experienced and respected governors being drafted in. They agreed the key areas for priority and most crucially gave the leadership space to simply get on with the job within the agreed timescale. They were the embodiment of critical friends.
When in special measures, the only focus is to get out of special measures. To a great extent the local and national agenda becomes secondary to raising in-house standards quickly and sustainably. Needless to say, improving the quality of teaching and learning so that is becomes consistently good was the leadership’s daily task and would be the single focus of every H.M. I. monitoring visit.
It didn’t take too much effort to establish a climate of trust and collaboration across the staff as they were all very open to discussion and ways to develop. Teaching began to improve. Outcomes began to rise. The leadership strengthened as we could now talk with confidence about our impact and knew the actions we identified were the right ones. This was confirmed by our H.M.I.
I became the substantive headteacher and eighteen months later we were removed from Special Measures and became a good school.
I learnt a great deal from this experience – none more important than:
- Keeping a clear focus on teaching and learning.
- Ensuring communication to all stakeholders is inclusive.
- Keeping the change process as simple as possible.
- Not getting side-tracked by local or national agenda or indeed the latest ‘fad’.
If you have further questions about headship or leadership at any level, join me on twitter @FocusKad or get in touch with the Focus Education office on 01457 821 818. To book a place on our popular Headteacher Inspection Training Course (HIT), please click here.
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Keith has served as associate headteacher in schools with vulnerable and challenging circumstances, headteacher in three schools, before becoming a Local Authority officer. He has established headteacher mentoring schemes and lead national improvement programmes across the Learning Authority.