If only I knew this then… David Whitehead

Posted: November 8, 2016 Filed under: ,

David Whitehead, Executive Headteacher with the Unitas Collaboration of schools describes a highly interesting take on the importance of anniversaries and the value of making space finding space for critical thinking time.


One of the great gifts of Leadership is the opportunity to pass on learning and awareness from our experiences to others who may be just starting down a road we forged some time previously. This is the theme behind the ‘If only I knew this then’ series of articles.

Anniversaries – everything seems to be an anniversary these days. Unforgettable, memorable anniversaries such as the ones that mark momentous military interventions, others that revel in royal weddings or remind us that once we really did have a national team that won the World Cup. Then there are the anniversaries that we sometimes forget or just struggle to remember the exact date, such as my wedding anniversary. I always buy a present… eventually.

Every year there seem to be an increasing amount of anniversaries to mark – 2016 is no exception. There are three notable football anniversaries this year alone. 50 years ago England won the World Cup; for those of us born post this occasion, this is still an utterly inconceivable event, especially following the recent abomination against Iceland. 2016 is also the thirtieth anniversary of the infamous ‘Hand of God’ incident in Mexico, which unceremoniously knocked England out of the

Greatest football event of all time
Greatest football event of all time

World Cup, but perhaps is most notable for marking a time when Diego Maradonna was actually physically able to leave the ground. The final and most momentous of all football anniversaries this year would have to be the twentieth anniversary of the greatest football event of all time – no not the debut of 18 year old Ian Harte at Leeds United – the release of Three Lions By Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds, of course.

So, what has this rather clumsy introduction told us other than I’m an ‘emerging’ writer? 2016 also provides a very personal and life changing anniversary. It is 9 years since I became a Headteacher. Not a significant anniversary I know, but an anniversary nonetheless. Every one of the nine years have been very different and have brought very different challenges with them. But what one piece of advice would I now give to my nine year younger self setting off on this journey of professional enlightenment?

Perhaps the most challenging factor of any new headship is to be proactive rather than reactive.

When you are new to the job there are a lot of people that you want to impress; your pupils, your staff, the parents, the chair of Governors, the School Improvement Partner and if you are really unlucky, the Ofsted inspector. It is honourable to want to impress all of these people and do the very best in your job. Unfortunately the net result tends to be that you end up fighting fires rather than planning how to prevent them starting in the first place.

In order to impress all of the above you will want to be seen to react swiftly and effectively to every situation that arises. You want people to say, ‘Oh he’s good, he sorts things out really quickly’ or ‘He always has time for everybody’. Unfortunately this will result in an increasing number of your responses not being the most effective or suitable for the situation that you are faced with. The reason – you’ve simply not given yourself enough time to think things through.

The most frequent question you will be asked is ‘Have you got a minute?’ Unfortunately these requests rarely last just a minute. Other than investing in a giant clock to hold these requesters to time, what else can you do? These requests are also often preceded with the words, ‘I know you are very busy but…’ In your head you are responding with ‘Well, why the heck are you asking me then?’ but your actual voice is saying, ‘Of course I can help you’.

Thinking time is essential. The responses of, ‘Let me put a date in the diary to meet with you’ or ‘I’ll need time to have a think about that’ or ‘I’ll get back to you later’ should become the most frequently visited searches in your personal lexicon Wikipedia. People will generally appreciate a well thought through and considered response, even if it is not the answer that they were hoping for. They will appreciate this because they will recognise that you have given a valuable fraction of your working time to their request – even if it has taken a day to get back to them.

For my top tip for anyone new to Headship and indeed leadership in general, I would have to draw upon the following insightful, powerful quote: ‘I need a little time, to think it over, I need a little space, just on my own.’ Incredibly wise words indeed from Paul Heaton (of The Beautiful South) that would not be out of place on any nationally approved leadership course.*

2016, a year of anniversaries, some highly significant and memorable, others not. ‘Is your 9 years as a Headteacher worthy of being a momentous anniversary?’ I hear you ask. OK, I’ll get back to you later….

*It’s highly unlikely that Paul Heaton will ever replace Professor John West Burnham.


Questions for thought

  1. Is there an important anniversary or milestone coming up for you or others in your school and how would you want to mark and celebrate it?
  2. Do you have good arrangements in place to identify anniversaries or other dates that are important to others including external stakeholders?
  3. How do you involve others to ensure that any ‘marking’ event is appropriate for the event and the people involved?
  4. How and where do you make quality time and space for critical thinking? What are you risking if you don’t make this happen regularly?
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