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Change in leadership – Why a new headteacher can affect your community more than you think

Formation of six paper aeroplanes in flight, from which a red seventh paper aeroplane has broken away, representing independence and leadership

In politics, as in education, a change in leadership is never undertaken lightly – but are secondaries doing enough to reassure parents and carers that a new face at the top won’t jeopardise what they like about their school?

Vic Goddard
by Vic Goddard
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It would be hard to miss that the country was lately led by a PM in virtually name only, whilst their successor was found.

It would also be hard to miss the data highlighted by Teacher Tapp and numerous media reports that we could be heading for a mass exodus of headteachers over the next few years.

What happens when the person at the top changes? There’s plenty of research on this in the business world, but in education, it’s hard to find much beyond anecdotes. This surprises me, since it’s become quite clear in recent years just how co-dependent communities and schools really are.

Everything changes

The Conservative Party leadership ‘battle’ has vividly demonstrated how the need to be ‘different’ from the previous leader is a key part of this change. Having never experienced a change in headteacher at any school I’ve worked at, I can’t speak to whether the same applies – so I asked some fellow educators what their reactions had been.

One common reaction I heard – from senior leaders, teachers and even non-teaching staff was ‘Will I and/or my job still be needed?’ That’s not too dissimilar to behaviour we’ve recently seen from our politicians – though announcing how much you support the new headteacher is, of course, unlikely to land you the plum job of deputy head or whatever the equivalent of Home Secretary might be!

Another, very real concern I heard was that of people fearing ‘not getting on with’ their new headteacher, often echoing the worries of parents and carers. I can still remember one of the leaders on my NPQH course saying that when a new head is appointed, they’ll want to change everything but the daffodils.

One of my go-to sources for insights into what the wider parent/carer community might be thinking is Mumsnet. If you’ve not yet allowed yourself the pleasure of taking 20 minutes to wander through its various threads then you’re missing out, though a note of caution – not all views will be positive, and some may well make you a bit sweary…

The Mumsnet take

According to Mumsnet users, schools should inform their community if the head is even thinking about leaving. The following quote isn’t that unusual: “I can’t help feel like they should have told us when we were being shown around that this was on the cards, so we could have taken this into consideration during our decision making. Should I be worried that the school may change a lot without the current head in place? What would you do?”

The worry itself didn’t surprise me, but the extent of it did. You can find similar concerns around changes in form tutor, English teachers, etc. This is something primary schools know plenty about, due to their annual changes in class teacher, but not something I’d often considered at secondary level. I’ve since come to realise how we can and should consider how we reassure parents/carers in the event of staff changes – particularly individuals they’ll have built up a relationship with, such as form tutors.

Most secondary schools have some form of parent/carer representation on their governing bodies or trust boards, and I can see how powerful their voices could be in reassuring others about any changes in staff, but especially the head. It’s fair to say that a notable issue around the recent change in PM was that the people doing the choosing weren’t representative of the country, and therefore not factoring in who might be the better candidate for people who look and live differently to them.

Our school communities can express similar sentiments when a headteacher changes. Parents/carers want to know that what they think is taken into account. I know how unfair I think it is that my PM gets to be chosen by people with very dissimilar priorities to mine – so while I’m not sure if they’ll thank me for it, our parent/carer governors will be front and centre when it’s time to appoint a new leader within our family of schools, since their reassurance is vital.

Vic Goddard is co-principal at Passmores Academy – as seen on Channel 4’s Educating Essex – and author of The Best Job in the World (Independent Thinking Press, £14.99)

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