Featured in Prep School Magazine this term: What makes a good head?

Chris Parsons, Deputy Head (Academic) at Norwich Lower School and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Buckingham School of Education, ponders the question of what makes a good headteacher.

What makes a Head a good one? Is it primarily what they are, or what they do…?

This is not a new question in the domain of leadership theory, so can we simply look to the examples set by iconic Heads of the past? Could they help us navigate our current school landscape?

When we do gaze back at the past, we are struck by so many apparent contrasts with the present. With the incessant rise of accountability demands, compliance measures and ever-shifting marketing pressures, many Prep School Heads could be forgiven for rarely surfacing from the paperwork and peripheral aspects of a job which never seems to be fully complete.

Still, what does make a good Head in the present day? Is there anything which distinguishes them from an efficiently multitasking manager? Whether in the past or the present, the answer must surely lie in what differentiates any real leader from an appointed administrator: In simple terms, the good Head will provide for their school a clear direction of travel, and they will educe from their staff the discretionary effort required to go the extra mile when times demand it.

A vision is key then, of where a school aspires to go, and of what it aspires to be. Real leaders realise that they can’t simply bury their heads in a tidy pile of administrative box-ticking and assume that providence will steer their ship to the promised land. Good leaders also realise that they can’t compel any more than competent functioning from their colleagues, and competence in itself will never be enough to ensure that a Prep School thrives and delivers a schooling worthy of the trust placed in it.

For schools such as ours to truly succeed, it requires a staff body joined in common enterprise, with commitment levels which can only be freely given. How do existing successful heads go about achieving these tasks? The answer, as you might expect, involves no shiny clean silver bullet. Rather, it involves myriad ongoing and adaptable traits, skills and behaviours. In other words, it involves an inseparable bond between what Heads are and what they do.

“The best Heads have a sound moral compass and are able to apply this to all of their decision making,” says Charlie Minogue, the Headmaster of Moor Park School in Ludlow. He believes that good Heads have core values which they share clearly, and stick to consistently. “Ideally, staff should know what you would think in various circumstances so that they can make decisions in your absence and this is achieved through good communication and consistency of action.”

A similar message comes from Tania Botting, the Headmistress of Greenfield School in Woking, and the Vice Chairman of IAPS. She agrees that a Head’s vision must genuinely flow from the ethos and values of the school, and that, whilst a good Head will use a variety of leadership styles to match the situation, “…most importantly they need to be authentic and consistent.”

Clearly, people accepting positions of headship need to be a good fit for their school and governing body. However, amongst all the values and decisions needing to be made, Tania sees a very simple underlying principle which should unite all Heads: “Every decision I make is in the best interests of the children.”

Being authentic in expressing values, with a key focus on the child, also comes through strongly from Siobhan McGrath, the Principle of Southbank International School in Kensington. For her, Heads should be “…completely student centred – everything they do should be for students.”

It’s clear that in communicating through everything that they do a strong message about values, ethos and vision, a good head ably fulfils the need for a leader to provide direction. Through acting authentically though, they also take a key first step in engaging the discretionary effort and support of their colleagues. What else can help to accomplish this? A good head “builds excellent relationships with everyone they work with;” according to Siobhan. They are able to coach others successfully, they run schools centred around professional development, and of vital importance to her, they have compassion.

Tania Botting agrees that a Head needs to be a “people person” – approachable, sensitive, empathic and with a good sense of humour – and Charlie Minogue highlights the importance of listening skills.

These ‘soft skill’ attributes – when combined with authenticity – not only help with building everyday good-will and wellbeing amongst staff. It seems that they can also help in the conduct of ‘hard conversations’, both in ensuring that messages are properly communicated, and in enabling people to move-on and feel fairly treated when the outcome is non-negotiable.

Amongst the various other attributes identified by the above school leaders, one of the clearest to come through is that – despite the need for consistent and authentic action – the ability to constantly and flexibly adapt to a changing situation is essential.

As Tania Botting explains, “The reason that the role of Headship is so challenging is due to the complexity and frequency and lack of structure to the day – unexpected events happen on a daily basis, and while not all of these are necessarily negative events, they require quick thinking and adaptability.”

“You literally have to adjust your behaviours from one minute to the next,” says Siobhan McGrath. “You have to be able to juggle multiple tasks with different people requiring different things from you.  This is the case every day, all week, every week.  It never, ever lets up.”

So, we can’t ever separate what a good Head is from what they do. They can’t merely be a virtuous presence, but neither can they just act-out a book of best advice, and walking the line between the best intersection of the two clearly demands constant learning and adaptation.

Nevertheless, unless it all starts to look too much again, let’s hear Charlie Minogue refrain one clearly agreed-upon point: “The needs of the children come first.”


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