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New school year, new priorities?

In Scotland we are only some two or three weeks away from our return to a new school session. Thoughts of many Headteachers, and teachers, will already be turning to the new school year ahead. So what should our priorities be? Here's some ideas to start with.

As ever, our priority as leaders should be the people we work with, because it is they who are going to deliver the improved outcomes we all seek for our learners. There will probably be a mixture of returning staff and new staff and all will be filled with varying levels of excitement and trepidation about the year ahead. There will probably be a mix of experience levels, NQTs and more experienced colleagues. Indeed as a headteacher you may be the new person and taking up a new post. School leaders need to keep people as a priority throughout the school year. People will have ups and downs over the course of the school year and leaders need to be aware of this and deal with all staff in an emotionally intelligent and empathetic way. We need to see the individuals in all our staff and deal with them in an equitable way, just as we would with our learners. Hopefully everyone returns refreshed, ready to deliver and meet the challenges that lie ahead, and the school leader should have the maintenance of these attitudes throughout the year as a priority.

Your next priority should be to stay true to your development plan. If this has been constructed properly and informed by your self-evaluation processes, it provides you with a roadmap of school development for the year ahead, and protects you from diversions that might come your way. Every school year is built on change and development and the only way to manage and deal with this, so that all retain their focus and their sanity, is by having a plan which is understood by all. Without it you are at the mercy of other agendas and the whims and swings that these can bring. A well thought-out plan enables you to prioritise and focus on the steps that are going to make a difference and keep moving the school forward. It may also help prevent you from being seduced by the latest fads and trends that emerge, and protect you from the snake-oil salesmen with their simple but expensive 'solutions'. So once you have one, stick to it and be prepared to defend it.

The focus of your plan, and of all your actions, needs to be on impact for learners. Everything should be measured in these terms. Your actions should be aimed at producing positive impacts for your learners and you should be able to measure them by this. Sir John Harvey Jones talks of 'keeping the main thing the main thing' in everything we do. Improving the learning experiences and deepening learning and understanding for our learners needs to remain the main thing. Our key job this year will be to ensure this remains the case throughout the year. We need to keep asking the question 'for what purpose?' That purpose should always be to produce positive impacts for learners.

Continuing to focus on learning and teaching has to be a priority for leaders and teachers. All should be committed to improving and developing their practice. Not because we are not good at what we do but, as Dylan Wiliam observes, 'because we can be even better.' If we can all be better, then so can the experiences for all our learners. Teachers should commit to developing the range of pedagogies they employ to facilitate learning, as well as to improving their understanding of learning and their impact on this. As leaders, we need to equally commit to improving our own practice in leading learning so that we are better able to support all our staff to improve. If you are the same teacher, or same leader, as you were five years ago, what have you been doing in the interim? Don't think you may have stood still, the only direction you can have gone is backwards.

We should aim to maintain and develop the school culture and ethos so that it is embraced and understood by all and is one which is built on values, trust and collaborative support for each other. Culture and ethos in learning establishments is becoming more and more recognised as having a large effect size on student performance and attainment. Fullan says 'The primary tool for improvement in any organisation is...cultures that build in learning every day' (The Principal 2014). Get it right and other planned developments have more chance of succeeding and having positive impacts, get it wrong and they are more likely to wither on the vine. It is so important that we start positively about the year ahead, whilst acknowledging the challenges we face in the current climate, and school leaders need to work hard to maintain that positivity as the year develops, the challenges mount and energy levels drop. 

Connected to ethos should be your determination to maintain and improve standards. It is a key responsibility of school leaders to have high expectations for all learners, and that also means for all staff. We shouldn't apologise for that but demonstrate by our actions and our words our commitment to having and setting high standards and expectations. These should not be at the expense of anyone but should be seen as a non-negotiable requirement of yourself and all those you lead, a key element of your culture. You want all learners, as well of all those you lead, to reach their potential and the leader should look to help and support all of them to achieve this. 

Determine to disperse leadership and give all the opportunity to grow and develop leadership skills and capacities. Effective leaders have a responsibility to develop leadership capacities in all and especially those who may be looking to move into more formal leadership roles in the future. So you need to provide staff with opportunities to develop those capacities as part of your mission for the new session. You should also aim to be active participant in system leadership and recognise your role and responsibility to contribute to the development of a self-regulatory and self-improving system. This is particularly important at times when the support that is available from the centre and outside is diminishing. We have a responsibility to all learners within the system, and at all levels, not just the ones in our own schools.

Support and engage actively with continuous professional development. Fullan, Hattie, Timperley and many others have demonstrated the importance of school leaders supporting, and being active participants, in professional development activities within their schools. Embrace career long professional learning which is focused on developing individuals in order to improve schools as a whole, and which lead to positive outcomes for learners. Focus on meaningful professional development that is aimed at a relentless desire to get better and improve by everyone and the recognition that quick fixes and 'silver bullets' either don't work or don't exist.

The last few possible priorities are to do with you and your attitudes and behaviours as a school leader. We all know that school leaders are crucial to school development and improvement. They can make it or break it. We also understand that headship is a difficult, challenging and complex activity. But we also recognise that it is a fabulous and deeply rewarding profession that allows us all to make a difference for so many. The performance of your staff and yourself is so much determined by your attitudes and behaviours so enjoy yourself. Recognise the fabulous job you have and enjoy the ride. Resolve not to take things too personally and enjoy all those highs you can get each day from both learners and staff as they grow and develop. Remember to smile more. This makes you feel better and also all those round about you. You will have lots of reasons to smile throughout the year, so embrace them and enjoy the moment. Keep a sense of perspective  by recognising that, no matter how important and challenging the work we do is, it is still just a job. We are all more than our professional identity and it is important we keep balance in what we do and sort out the work/life balance conundrum. This is important for our health and wellbeing and is also very important for those we lead. They will often model their behaviours on yours and we need to recognise we can only do what we can do and somethings may not get done. Prioritise and use all the above and your values to help you arrive at those priorities. Look at everything you do and ask yourself questions about whether there are better ways to work and if these ways are delivering what they are supposed to do in a sustainable way. We should aim for sustainability in all that we do. Reflect and critically engage in everything you do. Don't be afraid of making mistakes and acknowledge them when you do. Understand you don't have to have all the answers. Lead and don't wait for others to tell you what you should be doing. Read and engage with research to inform your practice and school development. Collaborate with colleagues and other schools. Finally, give yourself and those you lead time to not only develop and grow but also the important 'down' time to recharge batteries before you go again.

I am sure the year ahead will be as busy and exciting as ever. Approach it with confidence. Deal with what you can deal with and stop worrying about the things you have no control over. Try and stay mindful and in the present. Learn from the past and previous experiences and don't worry about what might or might not happen in the future. You can only deal with what is happening now, though you can plan and consider for the future,as this is part of the leader's role. Look after yourself, your staff and all your learners and enjoy the year.

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