I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenges for early career headteachers: establishing your core purpose.

I am in my seventeenth year as a state school secondary head teacher. Recently I was interviewed by an organisation exploring the biggest challenges for early career head teachers. I began the interview with the knotty question, “What do you mean by head teacher?” We settled on the traditional definition of the head teacher who runs the school with a significant level of autonomy, both challenged and supported by a traditional governing body in a critical friend role.
I identified eight major challenges for early career head teachers:

  1. Forging your relationship with the chair of governors (CoG);
  2. Managing the fact that the buck stops with you;
  3. Understanding the finances;
  4. Establishing your core purpose;
  5. Being patient;
  6. Establishing a position on teaching & learning;
  7. Understanding change management;
  8. Coping with the loneliness.

In this current series of short blog posts, I am addressing each of these challenges and providing some tips which might help early career head teachers to overcome them. This post explores, establishing your core purpose.
Establishing your core purpose

I had no idea where the school was heading when I began my first headship. All I could do was replicate some of the behaviours I had learnt from observing the several headteachers I had served under. I made some awful mistakes in that first term, nearly all in how I interacted with people. I was quite hapless, in so many ways. And it was all short-termism. I just dealt with the next issue confronting me.
As JFK said, Effort and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.
Fortunately, at the end of that first term, Sue Ellis, one of the deputy headteachers, attended a newly developed Investors in People leadership course. She returned insisting that we establish a core purpose for our school. I had completed my NPQH in 2000 and I remembered being told something about Pepsi’s core purpose being “Beat Coke”, but beyond that I was clueless about what a core purpose was and why we might need one. Sue said, pithily, that a core purpose should encapsulate the reason we get up in the morning and come to work.
After some false starts and endless consultations, we came up with the distinctly unpithy core purpose: “To inspire everyone in our school community with a love of learning and, by doing so, maximise their life chances.” About a year after we had splattered this core purpose around the school and over all our literature, Di Fitzgerald, head of Drama, pointed out that it was grammatically incorrect and should have read “…maximise his or her life chances”. Despite our illiterate ways, our core purpose really stuck, and three years later it resonated throughout the school, to the point where, according to one of our students, at the beginning of the “Romeo and Juliet” Lord and Lady Capulet wanted Juliet to marry Paris to maximise her life chances…
Huntington’s core purpose, established as soon as I began my headship there in 2007, is, “To inspire confident learners who will thrive in a changing world”. It has stood the test of time. It influences everything we do.
And every word counts. We all strive, not just to teach, but to inspire our learners; building confidence is essential for all of us to succeed; we are all learners, including the staff; rather than just succeed we would rather thrive which suggests that we are happy both in our career and in our relationships with other people; as technology develops we find ourselves in an ever changing world.
We did have students but replaced it with learners. Many schools have a line about everyone being a learner, but we really mean it. Learning something helps you understand as a teacher what it is like to be a learner and to struggle at learning something. Teacher learning is central to our school’s success and every single member of staff has to accept the professional obligation to try to get better at what they do if they work at Huntington.
We really worked on getting the wording of our core purpose absolutely right. It was pedantic stuff. The students chose the word thrive, where we had used the word succeed. I like the word thrive. Think about it – plants thrive when the conditions for growth are right. And I think the job of Headteacher is to get the conditions for growth right in a school; when the conditions for growth are right, students and staff will thrive.
So, why is a core purpose so important in your day-to-day running of the school? Well, the process of establishing that core purpose was crucial in helping me understand how to lead a school. When I had to make a tough decision, I returned to the core purpose and considered whether taking that tough decision was aligned with our core purpose; if it was, then that gave me the courage to make the decision, no matter how tough it might have been. And now, 17 years on, that still holds true.
Most importantly, however, defining your core purpose allows you to put learning at the heart of everything you do – surely the core business of every school.
Truly great schools will have a core purpose that is timeless and was established way before you begin your headship. That said, there are many schools that are purposeless. Literally. So, if you are appointed to lead a school which has no discernible reason for existing, here are my top five tips for early career head teachers for establishing your core purpose:

  1. Avoid developing your core purpose within the four walls of your office, the way Headteacher Stuart Simmonds developed his mission statement, “To seek to ensure that each pupil shall maximise their optimal potentiality”…[wpvideo mnP5aoQ5]
  2. Consult everyone who might have the remotest interest in your school doing well. It matters that everyone is involved in shaping your core purpose. That process takes weeks, and, whilst the creative process is messy, it is essential. When developing your core purpose, brief the governors on your intentions and then begin with your staff – every single one of them. Your colleagues need to contribute their understanding of why they work at their school if they are going to unite behind the new core purpose. If you get the process of developing a core purpose right, when the caretakers are putting out yet another 250 chairs for the morning’s assembly they’ll tell you they’re helping the school fulfill its core purpose.
  3. Make your core purpose pithy, memorable and easy to recite.
  4. Strive to articulate a core purpose that belongs precisely to your school. I know it is really hard to avoid developing something clichéd. As I demonstrated above, every word counts.
  5. Every chance you get to publicise your core purpose, publicise it! I know it’s prosaic, but good signage is worth every penny. And your core purpose should be one of the first things anyone sees when they access your website.
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