New Headship: Principles, people, priorities.

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At this stage in the year, I’m usually preoccupied with my school’s development plan. Now that I am moving on, my main focus is on handing things over to make sure everything is under control.  At the same time I’m starting to look ahead to taking up my new post at Highbury Grove in Islington. My strategic brain is in two places at once. I’m about to make the transition I’ve been contemplating ever since I arrived at KEGS – applying what I’ve learned from working in a selective high-attainment environment to a diverse full-range comprehensive school. I’ll be arriving at a school with an Outstanding rating and one of the greenest RaiseOnline reports you’ll ever see so this will be a two-way exchange. I’m looking forward to learning more about the secret of success in a new context.

In the process of making this transition, I’ve been thinking about the things that will be the most important to get right – and where to begin. What will translate from one school to another – and what will need to be built from the ground up? What is in ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ territory and to what extent is this a ‘jumping the sigmoid curve’ situation – notwithstanding the understandable eye-rolling at trotting out this cliché!  How far along the plantation to rainforest continuum is the school now and how far and how fast can I push it? That’s going to be a big test.

I’m not yet in a position to discuss the specifics but, here’s an overview of the general questions I’m asking:


Obviously enough, the first thing is to find out about the people who make up the school. Who are the enablers and drivers? Who are the people everyone relies on to deliver on quality in different areas of the school and who are the people that embody the school ethos and spirit?  Whatever I might think about anything, it’s going to be important to establish the starting point in terms of the attitudes and principles that permeate the school.  I’ve learned never to regard a large group of people as ‘the staff’ as if they hold homogenous views or act in unison; there will be varying degrees of consensus and disagreement on various issues and I’ll need to get in amongst people to work all of that out.  I’m also aware of the double-edge of a new Head coming in: I need to listen and find out what people in the school want to do to move things forward but, at the same time, people will expect me to show a bit of leadership and direction.

The issue of teaching quality will be a high priority.  As I’ve said in  my post ‘how do I know how good my teachers are?’  I’ll need to look at data and see everyone teach but it will be the more ephemeral reputational knowledge that will take time to gather and evaluate.   I’m looking forward to getting to know my new SLT, building a strong team spirit and establishing the dynamics for working effectively.  That’s exciting.

Learning Culture

Stripping everything back, the learning culture in every classroom is where the action is. Of course, there will be differences across the school. I want to see how students behave in lessons, how hard they work and how determined they are to learn. Again, of course there is really no homogenous ‘they’ as such. I want to get to grips with the details. Where is excellent behaviour, grafting and passion for learning in evidence and where is it less than ideal? Are there groups, patterns, peaks and troughs that I need to understand? How do the school systems work in practice? Do they depend on a few key people including the Head and the SLT or are systems more deeply embedded?

Moving to a school with every conceivable social background and attainment level on entry, I’m interested in the dynamics of the mix and the manner in which students’ different aspirations and motivations are expressed and reinforced. I want to find out where I need to address the issue of aspirations and endeavour at a whole-school ethos level as well as at the level of individual classrooms, students and sub-groups.  An Outstanding school is going to have done a lot of work in this area already…so I’ll need to remember that in seeking to push things further.

Coming from KEGS, a routine acid test will be this: Would I expect this of a KEGS student? If the answer is ‘yes’, is there any reason why I shouldn’t expect this of a Highbury Grove student? I want to see how that applies to classwork, behaviour, homework, uniform and the general expectations of self-management and responsibility for learning. I pride myself on having massively high expectations – I want to find out early on what the challenges will be in meeting them, bringing people with me – as they say.

The whole area of motivation is going to be really important. Do the existing sticks and carrots of the rewards and sanctions system work well or is it a question of fueling more intrinsic motivational processes based around relationships, role models and the learning process itself? Does the existing curriculum and the prevailing approach to pedagogy have a positive effect in this regard?

Professional Culture

I’m going to a school with very strong outcomes in value-added terms and an impressive track-record of improvement.  It’s not a case of turning things around; more a case of building on success.  But where has this all come from?  Does it have its roots in sound pedagogical know-how?  To what extent have Ofsted and data driven outcomes with  Y11 interventions played a part?  Does the school’s sense of moral purpose fuel the teachers’ drive to a significant agree, independent of the pay and appraisal structure? Or is that  also a motivating force? I want to get a clear picture of the nuances across the staff.

I’d see the development of a research-engaged CPD culture as an important long term goal in any school. I want Gold on the NTEN audit framework. Who wouldn’t? But what’s the starting position? Early on I want to evaluate the CPD set-up and gauge the extent of staff engagement with the raft of edu-books, blogs and papers.  Are questions asked about the evidence base for innovations and initiatives? Are people more Claxton than Christodoulou – or do they find value in both? Do Dweck, Hattie, Willingham and Wiliam inform the thinking? And what about Barton and Berger?  Or Bennett, Quigley and Kirby?  Or are people mainly driven by subject-specific ideas and networks? Of course, as I discussed in my most recent post, it could be that there’s plenty of scope to strengthen the basics for some people. Establishing the priorities for CPD and reviewing the internal accountability culture will be a top priority.


I always think that the curriculum tells you a lot about a school.  Values are embedded in the curriculum opportunities we provide – in and beyond the classroom.  But we need to think in terms quality, not just availability.  An early task will be to look at the curriculum and how it is enacted.   At a basic level, the number of hours allocated to subjects, the setting structures and the opportunities and constraints of the alternative pathways from Y7 to 13 require close examination.  But what does it all add up to as an overall educational experience?

I’m keen to explore the issue of cultural capital and how this is addressed implicitly and explicitly given the diverse nature of the intake. Obviously my enthusiasm for a National Baccalaureate is going to influence the direction of travel across KS4 and the Sixth Form and my recent thinking has been  influenced significantly by Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21st C.  I’ll be bringing all of that thinking with me.  I’ve also got ideas about language provision, computing, chronology, online tools, co-construction,  sport, the arts – and there’s only so much time in the week.   I may find that there is strong support amongst staff, parents and students for the existing curriculum plan – but there may be demand for change.  These things take ages to work through so we’ll need a good five-year plan after some initial explorations and consultation.

Ethos and Attitudes

These are the intangibles of school life that are hard to define or control but are also massively important.  I’m determined to take a strong line on equalities – taking on any issues around gender and ethnicity  and championing LGBT rights.  I can’t imagine that being a problem with staff but it will be interesting to see where the challenges lie among students.  As an atheist in a secular but multi-faith school, I’ll need to establish the territory around communal expressions of values and ethos.  At KEGS we all sing Jerusalem; it’s a powerful expression of tradition and belonging.  What’s the equivalent of that going to be? Also, I wonder how we will tackle the issue of socio-economic inequality and the way that might manifest itself in practice – access to trips and activities; aspirations, the stratification linked to setting arrangements?

I’ve always been a champion of the most able students in any scenario.  As I suggest in  Gifted and Talented Provision: A Total Philosophy, I react strongly against any suggestion that their needs might matter less because ‘they’ll be alright’.  After six years at KEGS, I’ve become accustomed to certain levels of challenge in the classroom and beyond it: academic challenge and levels of trust, responsibility and expectations of student leadership.  Is that going to be an area to tackle or will I be pleasantly surprised by how well the highest attaining students are catered for?

Parents and Partnerships

Moving from an academy back to an LA maintained school will be interesting. I wonder what difference that will make.  I like the idea of a small community-based authority like Islington and the potential that has to support the local schools.  But will I ever feel hemmed in, unable to run things the way I’d like?  How will I deal with that? Or, will it be pretty much a background issue whilst I get on working with the Governing Body in very much the same way as I do now? (My hunch is that it’s a non-issue. I hope so. )

Finally, I’m thinking about the 360 degree partnerships that I’ll need to develop.  Parents and Governors are always key people.  I’m a firm believer in the view that every perspective counts – even if different views can be contradictory. (Too strict? Too relaxed? Too much homework? Not enough homework? etc ) I’m looking forward to working with people who have a strong sense of moral purpose about the school and its place in the community, at same time as wanting the best for their own children.  I want to make sure we have the best imaginable KS2-KS3 process for engaging local KS2 teachers with our KS3 teachers to talk about standards.  I also want to work closely with my secondary colleagues and to get to know how the matrix of post-16 provision across the area works.  It’ll be a complex network of relationships that need to be nurtured over time.  Of course, the main focus will be on the school itself – so I’ll need to find the right balance between looking inwards and outwards.  You can’t do it all at once!

So — that’s what I’ve been thinking about.  It’s the most exciting professional challenge I can imagine. I can’t wait to get started. I’ll keep you posted.





  1. Tom, this is both very clever and brave… I assume that you are hoping that all the staff at Highbury Grove will read it, and maybe even reply? Good luck!


    • Hi. I’ve written it knowing anyone might read it; I’m getting my thoughts together and I think it helps to share them. I’ll share them directly when I meet everyone but if people read this in advance it can only help. If anyone replied, I’d be delighted.


  2. A really well thought out and considerate piece, in terms of your expectations of staff and students alike. Really interesting to see the rationale behind a successful leaders thought process. Thanks!


  3. A second headship is a particular challenge, Tom, and I’m sure you’re going to find it energising and fulfilling. One challenge is to make sure you DON’T mention your previous school – so much harder than you think it’s going to be! Another challenge is how you balance your own ideas/priorities/vision with what you inherit, and how you work with that legacy to make the job/the school your own.

    Really look forward to hearing more about the journey!


    • Thanks Jill. I can tell you now that I almost certainly will be mentioning my previous school, at least at first. I know there’s a thing people have about the ‘in my old school’ refrain – eye-rolling all round! But I’m certainly going to capitalise on the KEGS experience where I feel it’s relevant. If I feel that students at HGS – certainly those of the same attainment level – have less expected of them than KEGS students, fewer leadership opportunities or less homework, for example, I’ll be making that known and addressing it. But I won’t assume that or try to impose KEGS ideas that don’t translate.

      The other challenge is basically THE challenge as I see it – creating that fusion of my input and the legacy. Let’s see how it goes!


      • I know why you say that re KEGS but I’d just advise caution! Rather than inspiring people to meet the highest standards it can just cause resentment and a sense that the new head isn’t tuning in to the new context. All the great stuff from KEGS (and before that) will inform all you do at HGS, but if you find yourself saying, ‘At KEGS we…’ too often you might find it’s counter-productive!

        Just my opinion, of course, which you may well choose to ignore!


  4. “Are people more Claxton than Christodoulou – or do they find value in both? Do Dweck, Hattie, Willingham and Wiliam inform the thinking? And what about Barton and Berger? Or Bennett, Quigley and Kirby? ”

    Could you possibly do a blog post that sums up the key points of each of these thinkers (and others who’re influential), and a brief evaluation of their work? Or could you point me to one that already exists? I’ve been teaching for seven years and it’s only really in the last year that I’ve started reading literature/blogs/etc. on education, and I now realise what I’ve been missing, and have a frustrating amount of catching up to do!


    • I know the feeling – I don’t have a simple summary blog; that would be a big undertaking. Dip into Joe Kirby or Alex Quigley’s blog – and @LearningSpy. You’ll find all you need right there.


      • Thanks very much. I’m relatively new to blogs/Twitter/all that, and already read @LearningSpy’s blog, but not the others, so thanks for the suggestions. Good luck in your new post, by the way!


  5. I like your thinking. … your tenacity! It’s about time someone showed they are rooting for the kids and not just league tables and the ways of their predecessors. Bring it on! Because a shake up of the ‘old’ ways is what is needed for our students, one and all, to be a success and the staff who want to see that happening. Your not afraid and I’m glad to see that… I know I can continue to step forth into the light your light your vision, for students, for staff and for parents who want nothing but the best for our school…..our community … our ethos. In the almost 17 years I’ve worked at HGS, I’ve never felt more at peace until now, thank you for making a positive change to HGS as it has helped me make a positive change towards my students learning and my teaching of them….I feel alive again as a teacher and not made to feel inadequate. The students are the ones who see all and know all about their school. Ask them…..find out their truth……every child matters. …no?….. yes!! 😆

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