Confessions of a primary headteacher: Keeping it simple, the secret to school leadership

By Brian Walton 

School leadership is about keeping it simple: confessions of a primary headteacher. Primary school leader and blogger @OldPrimaryHead1 on why keeping it simple is the greatest asset to any head and the perils of overcomplicating things for your teachers. With a focus on Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 schools. 

“You are in a maze of twisty passages, all alike.” Computer game Zork 1

School leadership often reminds me of the text based adventure games I used to play in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Games like Zork and The Hobbit had real character and charm but they often left you with a sense that it was only through trial and error (and luck) that you ever really managed to accomplish anything. If only headship was as simple as typing, ‘complete performance management’, ‘discipline child’ or ‘make budget balance’, like in those games. 

As a school leader, I have made some pretty impressive mistakes over the years. These are usually when I try to be too clever and overcomplicate things. 

In my time, I have: created data systems that make no sense, written a report about a report, created a policy on policies, written vision statements that no one remembers (or cares for), carved out rules that were almost impossible to follow, and given out directives that - when applied - took an eternity to complete. On all these occasions I forgot one simple rule: 

I forgot to keep it simple.

Primary school leadership - the art of keeping it simple

This is not to be confused with, ‘it is simple’. School leadership rarely is, but when you strip it back to purpose then we can begin to gain our perspective again, to ‘lead a happy school where all the children are learning!’

Whoop! Easy right? If only…Of course, it won’t be long before some bright spark asks, ‘learning what?’ or, ‘how do you know they are happy?’ 

This is not the blog to discuss my thoughts on the curriculum or personal development within the school. Though to answer the first one and keeping it simple, ‘children do need to be able to read, write and do arithmetic’. You will not be in leadership long if you ignore this. 

Unhappy children make for a very unhappy school. When you apply simple logic to more complex issues we begin to understand what it is we do again. Keeping things simple in leadership is about ensuring you are doing the absolute core things expected of you. Some of these are about safeguarding children through tests.

This is the ‘rational head’ bit. Keeping your focus on the core things you need to do, through allowing teachers the freedom to teach and children the liberty to learn. When we become too prescriptive about the 'how', I often find that school leaders complicate the process. That is when it often goes wrong.

Primary school leadership - when are initiatives 'too much'?

The, ‘everyone must write in green pen’ or ‘5 levels of coloured marking’ initiatives. We end up interfering and making teachers juggle X whilst having to do Y. School leaders (especially most head teachers) need to remember they do not have to teach every day. They need to create an environment where the skilled craft of teaching can thrive. This is a place that keeps its core purpose absolutely central to the process and system.

Though the rational leader does not necessarily teach they have to understand teaching and learning. They have to know how it works in their school. I believe that the school leader must understand the data, the strengths and the gaps within their organisation as well as anyone else.

At its simplest level, a good school leader should be able to highlight the key elements of their school without referring to files, programmes or support. Therefore, heads should make it simple and keep it focussed upon core elements.

Reforming primary staff meetings - cut through the ‘stuff’

I often read tweets and blogs about Staff Meetings and INSETs. Many teachers share a frustration that these are often a waste of their time. I feel for this perspective. To overcome this, often leaders make meetings more and more 'doing' focused: inputting data, conducting a work scrutiny, planning a new topic.

This overwhelms staff and does not relieve any of their frustrations. The staff meeting should be the time to reflect and do the important things collectively, sharing experiences and knowledge.

If you find that the majority of your staff meetings just deliver more training and more new initiatives (learning the lingo or memorising the 18 new levels of “not levels!”) then imagine what it must feel like to be a member of staff sitting through it thinking ‘I have 30 books to mark, and tomorrow’s lesson to plan’.

As leaders we often create complications by making teaching more convoluted than it should be. This stops teachers having the time to do the things that matter most. Staff meetings should be reflective. They should be about getting some time to consider your teaching and review what it is you are doing rather than what it is you are ‘going’ to do. It is common sense.

A leaders' perspective is not the same as the teachers

I think too many of us like the sound of our own voices. The staff meeting is not a chance to show everyone why we are the great Ted Talk no one has heard (usually for good reason).

I have walked around, as a school leader, more times than I feel comfortable exclaiming to the "masses" my genius educational ideas. But I forget that I am often watching from my ivory tower and my perspective is not the same as the teachers.

This is a vital lesson to learn for the head teacher. I have my 99 problems but being the class teacher is not one. 

In The Hobbit text adventure, there was one section I could never get past: ‘some pale bulbous eyes watch you…’

If you do nothing or wait they eventually jump on you and kill you. The simple escape was to either ‘run away’ or ‘put on the ring’ and become invisible. You can’t do either of them in school leadership. But when faced with challenges, you can keep it simple.

On the author

Brian Walton is a primary headteacher and secondary school governer. He tweets at (and is better known as) @OldPrimaryHead1 and blogs from his website


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