High Viz Heads

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Is your headteacher an ‘innie’ or an ‘outie’?

Visibility is a big issue in any school and headteachers are often conspicuous by their absence at key points in the day when being seen really matters. Everyone notices this, especially parents. If a headteacher is rarely seen in the playground first thing in the morning or is office-bound at hometime then these are valuable missed opportunities to build trust, inspire confidence and communicate.

In her book Assessment for Learning without Limits, Professor Dame Alison Peacock (CEO, Chartered College of Teaching) makes reference to 10 key leadership practices that build trust.

She points to research by Paul Browning, an Australian principal, and his findings about the behaviours highly trusted leaders exhibit.

He found that the greater the degree of trust in the headteacher, the larger the levels of trust among the teachers.

He also found that trust was not related with tenure, debunking the myth that trust is built over time.

10 Key Leadership Practices That Build Trust

  1. Admit your mistakes – a key strength of leadership is being vulnerable. Headteachers are going to get things wrong and making mistakes is inevitable; its called being human. Deal with them with humility and you gain respect.
  2. Offer trust – ditch the micro-management and let teachers get on with their jobs and grow as professionals. You’re there if staff need you.
  3. Actively listen – if you speak more than you listen then think again. Staff need a head with empathetic listening skills who can feel their pain and actually identify issues and help.
  4. Provide affirmation – value your staff by telling them what a great job they are doing, big and small. Thank yous go a very long way and feeling appreciated is hugely motivating.
  5. Be constructive in decision-making – highly trusted leaders made informed and consultative decisions. Big decisions are not made alone but take into account the views of all stakeholders.
  6. Be visible – headteachers have to be omnipresent and regularly seen in and around school by the whole school population.
  7. Keep a consistent demeanour – being predictable inspires stability and acting in a calm, level-headed and reasonable way builds respect.
  8. Coach and mentor staff – headteachers have to invest in their staff in order to empower them. Giving constructive feedback is an essential element of professional growth.
  9. Offer care and concern – effective working relationships are key and showing a genuine care towards others fuels a positive and vibrant school culture.
  10. Keep confidences – if you can’t keep a confidence then trust is exploded to pieces. When staff share private and sensitive information with their headteacher they expect it to remain confidential.

Stand Out     

All ten leadership practices are equally important and each demand analysis in their own right but for many teachers, parents and children having a visible headteacher is central to the life of the school because this links to accessibility: an accessible head builds enormous trust across the school.

Paul Browning’s ebook, Compelling Leadership, is a must read for all school leaders and aspiring leaders. It’s free to download too.

In relation to visibility he says,

“Many staff interviewed during the study reported how much they valued seeing the Principal around the school grounds, speaking with parents, students and individual staff, modelling and reinforcing behaviours and expectations. They also commented on how much they valued the leader’s presence in the staff room, at school assemblies, chapel services, functions and performances. Staff trusted their Principal because he/she was part of the school; they could see that he/she was committed to the fundamental purpose of the school and its values.”


Contributing to the report by The Future Leaders Trust (now Ambition School Leadership), ‘Heads Up: Meeting the Challenges of Headteacher Recruitment’, ex-Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw, says,

“…heads need to be up and about, and visible around their school. That visibility should carry with it a certain presence – as a head you are not only a teacher but a leader, and respect for good leadership must be part of school culture.”

A headteacher will always be busy and admin will keep them at their busiest but this means being confined to an office. Headteachers need to be physically seen especially in the playground at the start and end of the day. A head is the crucible of identity for a school. This is the time to offer support, chat and be present with parents and children. Practically that won’t always be possible but showing yourself shouldn’t be just something to do at the beginning of a term for a couple of days.

Visibility is a full-time contact sport that gives you the chance to continually ‘sell’ the school, its values and its organisational culture. It’s not something you can delegate either. That’s not to say that other senior leaders and teachers shouldn’t be ‘out there’, of course they should but a headteacher sets an example and sends a powerful message to the school community by being seen and communicating. This isn’t just good PR but essential to creating healthy relationships and school well-being. Headless schools and playgrounds are not good places although the worsening shortage of headteachers might make this commonplace anyway.

Heading Off

Lots of headteachers can unwittingly cut themselves off from the school community and become invisible which makes trust building hard to achieve. Physically striding into the dense thicket of the school and ‘being’ around the school, visiting classes and interacting with all the rich events that take place, builds trust. This in turn improves openness, cooperation and facilitates achievement.

School leaders that aren’t sure how to set their ‘out of office’ risk sending out the wrong message to parents, children and staff. If you get out then you will stand out for all the right reasons.

As Paul Browning says, “When it all boils down, good leadership is about two things: vision and trust”.

Visibility is being front of house and reaching out to everyone with a light touch and not relying on emails and newsletters. ‘Being seen’ plays a hugely symbolic function.

Alex Ferguson knows a thing or two about leadership and in his book Leading, he says,

“Leaders are usually unaware, or at least underestimate, the motivating power of their presence…my physical presence was a more important motivational tool than I had realised.”

Your presence is everything.

4 thoughts on “High Viz Heads

  1. I went to do some team coaching in a secondary school and was so impressed by seeing the whole SLT out meeting and greeting their students first thing in the morning. Not wearing high viz , challenging aggressively about uniform / make up (as seen in many schools) but smiling, supporting and welcoming each child positively. A wonderful start to the day, especially for those children coming from challenging home circumstances. And availability for parents / carers to express and concerns – unusual in a secondary school in y experience .

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