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Cheryl Smith

Cheryl SmithFormer Head teacher at Western Primary School, Harrogate

Cheryl Smith, former head teacher at Western Primary School in Harrogate, doesn’t remember a particular moment when she felt she wanted to become a head teacher but the idea grew as she watched others in the role.

“My first head was so inspiring,” she says. “There was a really buzzy atmosphere and I thought then, I wish we could create this atmosphere for all children. In contrast, my next job was at what felt like a Victorian school with teachers who were mostly about to retire. The new head there was really struggling to inject some modernity. I learnt a lot watching and seeing what worked - and didn’t.

“Eventually after a few jobs, you start to think ‘I could do this’ and then ‘I want to do this’.”

“You think you have to be expert in everything - but there are specialist advisers”

Cheryl says the biggest fear before you take up a role is not knowing what it entails: “You think you have to be an expert in everything - budgets, HR, health and safety. But schools employ experts in all these fields. Your role as head is to understand and run the big picture and know when you need this specialist help.

“I had an HR issue and we had extremely good advisers.  They guided me by the hand as to what to do and really knew their stuff. I learnt a lot from this - but by the time I see anything similar, the law and practice will all have changed anyway.”

She admits that like many new heads she did worry about finance and budgets: “I spent time sitting with our bursar to learn - of course now there is far more training available. But you realise you don’t need the detail - that’s why there is a bursar. The critical bit is understanding and using the information and that bit is easy when you know what you want from the figures.”

She adds: “Never be afraid to say ‘I don’t know the answer’. You can always find it.”

Tips for future head teachers

Cheryl’s tips for anyone thinking of becoming a head teacher are...
Be as organised as possible. It’s easy to feel swamped with documents as a head teacher. Develop good systems - whether it’s computer or paper - to file and manage. I do ‘to do’ lists on my iPad.  And keep post-it notes handy.  People mention and ask things all day and you need a way to remember!
Volunteer to be a teacher rep on the governing body and ask if you can be part of the governors’ finance meeting - even if as an observer
Spend time with your bursar - they often do training for governors, see if you can join it as part of your professional development
Put yourself forward or ask to sit in on interview panels to understand how recruitment works