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Managing change in schools: tips from a headteacher

Dealing with change in the school system is a constant and complex task for leaders. Headteacher Richard Steward outlines ways school leaders can effectively manage and cope with change in schools

Author details

Dr. Richard Steward has been the headteacher of The Woodroffe School for over 10 years, and leads the Jurassic Coast Teaching School Alliance.

Headteachers and senior leaders in schools are masters of coping with change. Every year they deal with hundreds of new pupils, dozens of new staff, new staffing structures, changes in youth culture, complex special needs legislation, new technology, and increasingly diverse parental demands.

In recent years however, the pace of change has sky-rocketed, leaving many experienced senior staff heading for the door with no sign that things are likely to get any easier in the near future. 

Change i​s constan​t

If anyone in school gets the time to pause and reflect on exactly how much turbulence there is in the system, the results can be overwhelming. There are:

  • changes to the curriculum at all four key stages
  • new tests in primary schools
  • new GCSE specifications
  • new A-Levels (and new ‘de-coupled’ AS Levels)
  • more complex accountability measures
  • another revised Ofsted framework
  • new constraints on the budget and complex financial regulations
  • revisions to employment law
  • changes to the pension scheme
  • complex systemic changes including academies, academy chains, studio schools, UTCs and multi-academy trusts.

Develop copin​g strategies

There is absolutely no shame in stealing someone else’s good idea if it is of benefit to the school and its pupils.

Change can be exciting and stimulating, and one of the key mechanisms for coping with change is simply to recognise the fact that schools are all about change.

The job of the school leader is to focus on developing strategies to ensure that the increasing pace is both managed and embraced, or as Michael Fullan, in Leading in a Culture of Change puts it, ‘how to cultivate and sustain learning under conditions of complex, rapid change.’ (Fullan, 2001).

How does this translate into everyday practice in schools? Fullan focused on five themes: moral purpose, understanding change, developing relationships, knowledge building and coherence making.

These are all worthy abstract goals but most senior leaders spend their days in a chaotic whirl of activity where reflective aspirations are abandoned simply for what to do next. In this kind of working environment, the simplest coping strategies are likely to be the most effective.


One of the most effective ways of dealing with change is to ensure that the right people are in the right jobs.

The obvious first step is to delegate. Many headteachers have reached the top of the profession thanks to a powerful drive to succeed but also a degree of perfectionism, which leads to a desire to control.

The consequence of this is often the inability to let go, and the first step towards effective leadership is for heads to recognise that they are surrounded by highly skilled, professional people who are keen to support them and, above all, likely to do just as good a job.

One of the terrifying things about a first headship is the fear that a head has to know everything but that’s simply not the case. What he or she does need to know is who is doing what, and have confidence that things are getting done.

It is also important for senior leaders to recognise the things they are not good at and organise leadership structures accordingly. One of the most effective ways of dealing with change is to ensure that the right people are in the right jobs.

What can seem overwhelming to one person is challenging and stimulating to another. Leadership teams can be completely reinvigorated by thoughtful restructuring.

Don’t panic!

The tendency to panic is also something to be avoided. Change happens quickly but a response is not always required immediately. There is usually time to think, or simply to let things settle, and things which seemed absurdly complex or demanding when first encountered can turn out to be more straightforward upon reflection.

It is also worth remembering that someone somewhere will have already worked out a solution to the problem and there is absolutely no shame in stealing someone else’s good idea if it is of benefit to the school and its pupils. 

The ever present threat of a visit from Ofsted can also become a barrier to the successful management of change. Many of the changes in schools are driven by Ofsted but there is a balance to be struck.

Many of the changes in schools are driven by Ofsted but there is a balance to be struck.

Schools which become obsessed with Ofsted tend to focus only on the things which  are catalogued in the inspection framework, but what turns a good school into an outstanding one is not over-zealous attention to the framework but a deep-rooted focus on teaching and learning. Get that right and everything begins to fall into place.

Leaders who focus on learning find coping with change much more straightforward.  Keeping up with developments in pedagogy is surely the most fascinating and stimulating aspect of the job, and the one that should dominate the approach to school leadership.

By concentrating on the core purpose, other issues become satellites to the main event, their significance diminishes and they become easier to cope with. The recognition that they may be subservient to the central aim of improving teaching and learning allows them to be tackled with an appropriate sense of perspective.

School to school collaboration

Finally, the current trend towards collaboration provides schools leaders with one of the most useful mechanisms for coping with change.

In recent years, schools have begun to work together increasingly effectively; the ‘island states’ are disappearing and school leaders are finding that solutions to problems often lie not with the government or the Local Authority but through collaboration with the school down the road. 

Teaching Schools offer an excellent example of the ways school leaders have begun to work together to drive up standards not just in one school but in schools locally and regionally, and similar levels of cooperation are emerging in academy chains, federations and other forms of collective endeavour. 

By working in groups school may be able to manage their budgets more efficiently but the key benefit is the creation of a culture of trust and support, a culture which perhaps offers a gleam of hope for school leaders struggling to cope with the demands of what can, at times, seem like an impossible job.

Last Updated: 
22 Apr 2015