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How to be a great primary school leader

February 23, 2021, 16:41 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Dan Edwards believes that being transparent is to be an authentic leader...
How to be a great primary school leader

The journey to leadership is never easy. Many years working towards a position, only to find that when you actually arrive, there are so many other elements to the role that you never really expected or, indeed, were warned about.

Primary leadership, of course, is all encompassing, from developing school improvement plans, financial accountability, HR matters, to sorting out playground squabbles between that group of Year 5 boys and helping fit the toner in the staffroom photocopier.

No two days are ever the same, but, I’m sure like me, this is what makes our roles both challenging and hugely rewarding in the same breath. The diversity of tasks we fulfil on a daily basis, allows the job to be anything but repetitive and, in fact, anything like we imagined it would be.

My journey to leadership didn’t follow the usual path. I came into teaching late and, having trained as a secondary Drama and English teacher in 2005, through the now rebranded Graduate Teacher Programme, I was focused purely on a career in secondary education. Naively, the only real experience of the primary sector at this stage in my career would be steeped in blurred and fuzzy memories of my infant and junior school of the early 1980s.

Recollections of ‘Come and Praise’ song books, ill-fitting plimsolls, maypole dancing and developing an understanding of British history through a weekly television programme called ‘How We Used To Live’. Sadly and, again, quite wrongly and somewhat worryingly, at the very start of my teaching journey, this was what I believed primary education still was. I was a secondary teacher and that was where I would remain.

School leadership

However, having spent many years snuggled cosily in the corner of a typical drama studio of a large secondary school, whiling away the hours teaching the whys and wherefores of Stanislavski, the finer theatrical points of Bertolt Brecht and, occasionally, gathering A-level students together to flail around the drama studio, hysterically screaming and shouting as we delved into the maniacal world of Antonin Artuad, after five years of teaching a gamut of expressive qualifications, I soon realised that I was, indeed, very bored.

So cutting a rather long, and convoluted, story short, after spending five further years cutting my teeth in the primary classroom and progressing through senior leadership, I was given the opportunity to lead a school. My school, the school, today, that I am proud to call home and, furthermore, honoured and somewhat baffled and amazed, to hold the title of principal.

For three years now, I have continued to work with an amazing staff team, wonderful pupils and a fantastic community of parents and carers, friends and family to ensure we maintain our journey of school improvement; moving forward together, every day, in order to make the school the best it can be.

Leadership styles

However, feeling comfortable in my current position has taken me a long time. As a new head teacher, I was always looking for the correct way to do things, searching for the mystical handbook or manual of amazing leadership, rummaging in dusty boxes and cupboards for the elusive, steadfast persona of headteacher while trying to make sure I presented myself as the archetypal school leader every minute of the day.

When moving into any new leadership position, we immediately try to find our default. A characterisation that allows us to protect ourselves from vulnerability. Just like the old maxims that were passed on to us in our early teaching careers, such as not smiling until Christmas, the majority of these tropes of career advancement are normally centred around keeping your staff at arm’s length, reducing any real presentation of emotion and, importantly, never showing any kind of weakness in order to maintain your employees utmost confidence in your unwavering and unfaltering ability to lead on all levels at every moment of the day, week and term.

Of course, these fallacies of leadership, regardless of their origin, are continually passed down time and time again and, unfortunately, serve to do no more than reduce leadership recruitment by the thousands. If not passed down, picked up by bizarre educational osmosis as we find ourselves, somehow, believing that these qualities are the essential characteristics that will keep us protected in our role as leaders. Masquerading our imposter syndrome by adding a superficial layer of leadership and in turn, removing the personal in order to become the persona.

How to be a good leader

That said, with the high-stakes accountability and the need to show rapid improvement, in sometimes the most difficult circumstances, the ability to work behind a persona can appear to be the first action of the embattled leader and rather preferable to say the least.

Sadly, looking at the projection for headteacher retention, the unwavering reality of school leaders leaving their posts is something that we are all becoming too familiar with and, given the current circumstances, coupled with the ever changing roles within our schools, there is an ever growing amount of empathy for those that do decide to move away from the profession.

Moving forward, however, it is important that we focus on a conversation of leading in the now and making sure, as leaders, we reflect on the current challenges within our role in order to be the best we can be for the pupils, parents, carers and staff members that require us to be there, day in day out, ensuring the highest quality education we can offer. In essence, navigating the challenges together in order for us to remain standing up.

The key to all of this is honesty; be yourself, a mentor once told me. The ability to lead with authenticity and genuine humanity. This may sound glib but it’s possibly the best piece of advice I was ever given. Acknowledging ourselves as individuals, sharing our fallibility, presenting always as human and ensuring we connect on a personal level to our staff and wider stakeholders, enabling us to lower our shoulders and, furthermore, reduce the much wasted energy we spend by trying to be someone else.

Of course, for some of us, this is easier said than done. However, this isn’t about blurring the lines of professionalism, nor shifting accountability from the roles we hold, but merely a consideration to explore leadership through a different lens.


3 steps to transparent leadership

  • Know that you don’t know
    Feeling the need to answer every question on demand may look like that you are highly efficient but, failing to give the correct answer or the wrong advice, will only serve as a negative. Have the confidence to say I don’t know…yet!
  • No journey is the same
    Never compare yourself with others. There will always be younger leaders, more effective leaders, leaders who are trailblazers of education, leaders who are adorned with accolades and the educational equivalent of the Midas touch. Remember, it’s all about the journey, we get there in the end.
  • Go to where the information is
    When making changes to school culture, strategic or operational, consult. There will always be someone in your school who has been there longer than you. Who will have witnessed what has gone before, what worked and what didn’t. Don’t be afraid to go to where the information is.

Dan Edwards is principal of Woodstock Primary Academy, Leicester. Find out more at leadinginthenow.org.