Rapid remedial action is needed: Try a three-pronged approach of raising expectations, earning the trust of staff and prioritising student achievement

Raise expectations

Failing schools can be desperately sad places where weary teachers and rattled students engage in damage limitation to get through the day. A school in this state can’t be coaxed to health; it needs a sharp shock of warmth and positivity to restore its vitality.

The role of the headteacher is to flood the corridors with confidence and to radiate high expectations on to the whole school community. The head of a failing school should use assemblies, open evenings, newsletters and community meetings to talk up the future of the school. It’s imperative that children are proud of their school: it should be the best in the world as far as they’re concerned.

These expectations must be reinforced by action, and a new head at a failing school should make two or three highly visible changes to signify the new approach. There’s no better time to do this than at the beginning of your tenure: this is when your political capital is at its peak. Smile, be positive and look people in the eye when you tell them how great the school is going to become.

Earn the trust of staff

On taking over Burlington Danes Academy in west London, I planned meticulously for every day, with key conversations prepared in my head and on paper. So there are times when a headteacher should follow a script, but earning the trust of staff isn’t one of them.

In the first address to staff, a new headteacher should cast notes aside and speak from the heart. You must convince teachers that they can rely on you and that their jobs will get easier and more fulfilling if they do. Convince them that you can
be trusted. You can’t read from a script or quote from a management book. It has
to be real.

At Burlington Danes I told the staff that I knew what an outstanding school looked like, that I knew how to turn Burlington Danes into one, and that I wanted them to be a part of the journey. Once you’ve got staff on side there’s not much that can get in your way. Teaching is, after all, a team sport.

Prioritise student achievement

A headteacher who is serious about turning round a school will soon need to back up his or her message with genuine gains in student achievement. Talk about pupil learning, not pupil behaviour. Make the classroom central to everything that you do and liberate teachers from the bureaucracy and distractions that creep in over time.

Tell teachers to focus on three things: planning, teaching and marking. Keep classroom doors open and make sure that you and your senior colleagues drop in to every lesson, every day. Headteachers make hundreds of decisions each day and each one should be informed by the needs of the students.

Talk about pupil learning, not pupil behaviour

Look out for cosy privileges that benefit staff but hamper students’ learning, like a short working day or early closure on Fridays. Prioritising the needs of students will also help when making tough decisions about the capability of teachers. If you have clear evidence that students aren’t making progress with particular teachers, then you have a professional duty to act.

Finally, display test scores and performance data in the corridors. Students will flock to these learning walls and the
key currency of student progress will immediately surge in value.

Once these foundations have been laid, headteachers need the resilience to stay focused on student achievement. There will be plenty of distractions. Some parents will challenge the heightened expectations towards uniform and discipline; some students will test the new standards of homework and punctuality, and some staff will resist the renewed focus on planning and marking. The new headteacher should hold firm, remain visible and continue to act out the values to which he or she has committed.

Headstrong: 11 Lessons of School Leadership, by Dame Sally Coates (John Catt Educational Ltd, £14.99. johncattbookshop.com)