First headship challenges and steps to success

New to headship and with an Ofsted rating to improve, Jagdeep Birdi describes the steps he took to move the school forward

Author details

Lisa Griffin is content lead at Optimus Education, focusing on leadership and governance. 

School information

School: Colville Primary School
Headteacher: Jagdeep Birdi
Location: London
Number of pupils on roll: 375

Headteacher Jagdeep Birdi took up his first headship four years ago at Colville Primary School in west London. Prior to his start in 2011, the school had been given a ‘satisfactory’ rating by Ofsted. Two years later the school had improved to ‘good’.

‘Colville was languishing when I started but there was hope and I felt that' says Jagdeep. 'The children clearly had more potential than was being achieved and with 15 years teaching and two deputy headships behind me I felt confident that I had the experience I needed to improve the school.’

So how did Jagdeep deal with his first headship and achieve such progress? His approach is outlined below.

Identify what your school needs

There is no one size fits all

‘Every headship is completely different; every school and situation is different – there is no one size fits all model. Coming into an established school doing well is very different to coming into one like this which was in a fragile state’ says Jagdeep.

The first thing Jagdeep noticed was the attitude of the parents. ‘Parents were fractious and not confident that the school would do the best by their child and Ofsted had told them that was the case. The parents were nervous of the staff at school and didn’t trust them.’

As the new headteacher arriving at a school which had a strained relationship with parents, Jagdeep knew it was important to start building relations. ‘You need to get to know and understand the parents and they need to do the same with you.

‘Work out what everyone needs; the parents, pupils, staff and the school. I found that parents especially would tell me what they wanted but this isn’t always the same as what they need so you have to be able to stand your ground in making changes or decisions.'

Ride the storm

‘It’s the first thing you do as a new head; there will always be one. Whether you do or don’t make changes there will be a reaction. I chose to make a change to how we came into school in the morning after two days of being here.

‘Everyone lined up in the playground when I started and, because we have quite a small, tight staircase, it was taking 15 minutes to get the last class up the stairs to the classroom. School starts at 9am and I noticed there were parents arriving with children at 9.10am under the impression that they weren’t late.

‘On my second day I recorded the name of every child who turned up after 9am and parents asked me what I was doing. I told them they were late and they didn’t think they were. After 24 hours I received a petition from a parent wanting me to leave. Allegedly, every parent agreed with the petition which I quickly found to be untrue and I’m still here now.’

Jagdeep had spoken to fellow headteachers before starting at Colville who had all advised him things may not be plain sailing.

‘Every head I’ve spoken to advised me there would be a storm to ride so I was prepared. The change I made was the beginning of changing the culture at the school and even, to an extent, shaking things up to let parents know that improvements needed to be made.’

Build up trust

It’s important to celebrate every success

Jagdeep emphasises the importance of this. ‘You need to build up success which in turn builds up trust from parents. It won’t happen quickly, it happens over time with results and consistency.

‘It’s important to celebrate every success and share it with parents and the whole school. We have a weekly newsletter on our website which celebrates what is going well; good exam results, a gold Artsmark award or winning sports events.

‘We celebrate our achievements and tell parents how the school is progressing to ensure the narrative is one of a constant, positive cycle of communication. We make sure parents don’t think these achievements are usual; each one is a milestone in the progress of the school and should be recognised.’

Develop your SLT

‘When I need support the first place I go is to my SLT. The members of my SLT have developed from within our school, starting as teachers and progressing, except for one who was externally hired.

‘To develop as a leader in a school, you firstly need to be a good teacher and be able to successfully lead your subject group team. You need to be emotionally intelligent, have great understanding and possess excellent people skills.

‘The SLT have undertaken middle leader training, peer to peer learning and lesson observation. I’d feel very confident in sending my SLT out to train other aspiring middle and senior leaders in making the transition and it is something we are planning to do. It will both enable my SLT to continually develop and also share their knowledge and experience with other schools in a process of continued learning.’

When I need support the first place I go is to my SLT

Embed the school in the local community

Situated in a multi-cultural environment is an exciting place to be for the pupils and Jagdeep wanted to reflect this by involving them in the community. ‘It was very important for me when I came here to really tie the school into the local community and we now have very strong relationships in place with local charities, nurseries and schools.

‘We have a partnership with an independent school that sends their staff to us to help improve reading among the children. We support and raise money for charities such as the Salvation Army and have our own charity in Ghana, set up by a staff member, who we provide learning resources for.

‘We focus on nurturing well-rounded pupils and think about what a child will look like and be like when they leave school. We make sure the pupils are fully involved in an active social life as well as being academic. They take part in a range of activities such as fundraising, sports and learning about the local community which they are part of.’

Top tips for a new head

  • Have a clear vision – lots of pieces make up a whole and as the school leader you need to understand them all.
  • Know your market – work out what the pupils, parents, staff and whole school need, not what they simply tell you they want.
  • Don’t be afraid to make a change – people will react differently and you may need to stand your ground.
  • Remember every school is different – your approach to headship and the school will always be different.

Further reading

Have a look at our Successful Middle Leadership training course for advice on how different leadership styles and coaching techniques can be applied in a range of situations.


Last Updated: 
26 Mar 2015