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  • Writer's pictureTom Hopkins-Burke

Five Lessons We Learned from the Head's Office

Lessons from the Head's Office by Brian Walton, published by Sage Education

In partnership with SAGE Education: the latest thinking, fresh ideas and must-have resources to support you at every stage of your education career.


School leadership is a challenging and rewarding job that requires determination, flexibility and a careful understanding of the people you work with.

Current headteacher Brian Walton spoke to our host Hannah Wilson about how to face the challenges of leadership head on and succeed without sacrificing your principles or your wellbeing.

What lessons did we learn about what it's like to be a headteacher? Here's what we found out from Brian's experience from the Head's office...

Headteacher and author Brian Walton


1. What is leadersh*t?


"As leaders we have the ambition to create the future, and then you find yourself dragged into a vortex of rubbish" Brian Walton

Brian cannot claim sole credit for the turn of phrase "leadersh*t" - it came about in discussion with colleagues as a term to describe all the mundane and vexatious rubbish that stops headteachers from doing the things they plan to do - like a parent complaining about the colour of the gravy (true story).

Leadersh*t can include...

  • Any system that creates more work than is necessary

  • Low-level or malicious complaints

  • Negativity about systems that work but aren't liked

  • Governors who can't tell the difference between their strategic role and your operational duties

  • Broad initiatives that don't take school context into consideration

  • Views about your leadership from people who do not have the accountability of leading your school

  • Anything that starts with "Ofsted wants..."

In short, leadersh*t is all the stuff that gets in the way of the urgent and important business of a headteacher.


2. What do headteachers really think about Ofsted?

The Ofsted logo

"I've been a headteacher for 20 years. I don't give a toss about Ofsted really" Brian Walton

Brian knows that every school leader wants their school to do well. Even when you think it is going well, you are trying to second guess what "Ofsted wants..."

School leaders stop becoming autonomous and stop leading with confidence because they are trying to meet Ofsted's criteria for intent, implementation and impact - and they are simply not brave enough to move away from it.

Brian is in the "Ofsted must change" camp - he claims it has created an education system that is too safe and cautious because school leaders are too terrified to get things "wrong" in the eyes of the inspectorate.


3. How do headteachers deal with "un-social media"?

A man's face going through a mirror turning into a monster/demon

"School leaders have become the most accountable public servants out there. We are easily accessible" Brian Walton

Brian's wife is a press officer who previously worked for the Home Office - and so she has provided Brian with some sensible, measured guidance on how to respond to social media comments that are less than savoury. In the past, Brian might get upset by these, but now he recognises and admits that he will never win a social media war.

Face-to-face meetings and telephone calls help to neutralise anger, especially when there is a mob mentality around a particular issue. School leaders tend to numb themselves to the worst aspects of their role, and Brian is conscious of this.


4. Should headteachers still be teaching lessons?

A headteacher perched at a desk where a student is working

"Some headteachers have no choice but to teach... they may even have to lead three or four subjects. My hat is off to them" Brian Walton

For headteachers in a small school, not teaching at all is a luxury available to few. Ultimately, teaching and leading are two very different things - Brian taught for eight years and has led for twenty. His teachers are better at judging their teaching than he is, and although Brian has been involved in education for nearly thirty years and can share plenty of insights, he knows he doesn't have to do all the planning and marking every single day.

Teaching isn't just something you can dabble in. It's a proper craft and art. So for Brian, headteachers should challenge in different ways based on trusting teachers - after all, they should know more about teaching than you.


5. What (if anything) should a new headteacher change?

A man stood in front of a crowd

"If you're going to a school in special measures or in a crisis, change is going to be straightforward" Brian Walton

Brian warns new headteachers against focusing on too many areas of change at once - too many cans of worms can lead to an almighty mess! His question is: why are you going to change something?

Once a headteacher has settled on the rationale behind change, one other key area to think about is the financial costs of change. One of the most daunting responsibilities for a new headteacher is the control over the school budget - something that can catch people out. Schools are a business - and a well-run business will benefit children and the community. A poorly-run business, on the other hand, can go downhill very quickly, leading to poorer provision for students.


Listen back to more lessons from the Head's office: catch up with the whole episode below!

The Sage Education logo.

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