Wishford Schools

Wishford Schools

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In perfect harmony: The benefits to first time Heads of being part of a group of schools

Earlier this year I shared some thoughts for aspiring Heads. My main point was that candidates need to think carefully about whether they are ready, and about what sort of Head they want to be, before firing off applications. Applying for a Headship is a time consuming business. If it isn’t, you’re doing it wrong! The best applicants have clearly taken the time to think about themselves, about the school and about the opportunity, and tailored their application to the specific circumstances of the role being offered. (And they’ve also kept their application concise – spare a thought for the person who has to read them all. Yes, it’s fascinating that you helped build a school in Africa during your gap year 20 years ago, but does it really warrant a whole paragraph in your covering letter?)

Wishford Schools is a group of seven independent UK schools, and over the past six years we’ve appointed seven Heads. We’re about to appoint another – you can find the details here. Five of the seven appointments we’ve made were first time heads, which got me thinking that I might have missed something important from my previous article. If you are a first time Head, where’s the best place to start? It won’t surprise you to know that, in my view, first time heads are best served by finding a job within a group of schools.

Why so? Who better to make the case than one of our Heads:

“Nothing really prepares you for Headship. As a Deputy Head, you think you know what it is going to be like - but you don’t! Without the support and camaraderie of the other Heads and the Wishford team, I think my first headship experience would have been a great deal tougher.”

The best groups are set up as fantastic support networks. Within Wishford, our Heads receive support in three ways:

Encouragement: Our educational team (a group of highly experienced former Heads) mentor, guide, challenge and support the Heads. They work with our Heads to shape each school’s strategy and development plan, they advise on how plans can be turned into reality, and come back at regular intervals to keep an eye on how things are going and support the implementation. They also share best practise across the group and act as sounding boards and trouble-shooters.

Assistance: Our central team takes a lot of the administrative burden of running the school away from the Head, leaving them free to concentrate on what really matters – the children. Compliance, HR, finance, property, IT, etc. can all take up masses of a Head’s time. Our central team takes away much of this, and by standardising lots of the behind-the-scenes processes and paperwork, everyone saves time and money by not recreating the wheel.

Collaboration: Finally, perhaps most importantly, is the feeling that you aren’t alone. Our heads get together regularly to share ideas and issues, to learn from each other and to spend time in other schools. Often, the discussions over coffee (and bragging rights from the table tennis matches) are as important as the formal agenda. One of our heads comments,

“Having the knowledge that I can simply pick up the phone and call a number of other experienced heads who will give me completely unbiased and helpful advice is both incredibly reassuring and immensely valuable.”

So if you are applying for a first Headship, make sure you look at the school’s governance structure and how you are going to be supported. Who are you working for and what is your relationship going to be like? Does the school have the skills, experience and capability to support you through those first few years while you learn the job?

I’ll leave the final word to another of our Heads:

“For first timers, headship can be a lonely role and the responsibility can sometimes feel overwhelming. It is a big step up. In a group, both emotions are fundamentally dissipated by the multiple routes to support and the camaraderie offered from your fellow Heads. You gain real strength and conviction from the network around you.”