Lessons in leadership from opening a new school

Issue: Volume 101, Number 4

Posted: 6 April 2022
Reference #: 1HATZZ

Dr Lesley Murrihy is a chief advisor for Te Poutāhū, the Ministry of Education’s Curriculum Centre, with an extensive career in education spanning 40 years. She shares key learnings as the foundation principal for Amesbury School in Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington.

 Amesbury School opened in 2012 and now caters for about 300 students.

 Amesbury School opened in 2012 and now caters for about 300 students.

There was surprisingly little information available about starting a new school in May 2011, when I took up the position to get Amesbury School ready for opening in 2012. And this was a very different school and community from the one I was currently leading.

It was the first new school to be built in Wellington for 25–30 years, so it was to be a new experience all around. However, I did possess this deep confidence that I would be able to work it out as I went along. This did not mean that I did not frequently experience imposter syndrome, wondering what on earth I was doing.

But we made it through, and I am now able to unpack some experiences and share a few leadership learnings that I feel might be useful generally for leaders, not just for those who have been given the privilege of opening a new school.

The background

Amesbury School was conceived in response to rapid growth in the suburb of Churton Park, Wellington. The existing Churton Park School had been built in the 1970s for 300 or so students and was now bursting at the seams with over 500 students.

A ministerially-appointed Establishment Board of Trustees (EBOT) was chosen from nominations by Churton Park community groups and the birthing of Amesbury School began.

This was expected to be a school that would explore what education can look like in the 21st Century. The Board embraced this objective, and, along with the vision and values developed through community consultation, developed two further principles: the first one related to celebrating our bicultural heritage as New Zealanders and the multicultural nature of Churton Park and the second one, to a focus on environmental sustainability.

We began with a significant problem as probably all new schools do: “How do you get a whole community of people to join you on an uncertain journey, when what you are offering is very different from what they are used to, and they are perfectly happy with what they currently have?”

Research into school effectiveness is very clear, the relationship between home and school is essential for quality education. In fact, many writers argue that this relationship is one of the most powerful forces in education. However, our challenge was not initially one of opening up a space for parents to become more involved in their child’s learning, we were asking them to give up what they saw as a “certain” education to join us on an “unknown and, potentially, uncertain” journey.

 Amesbury School opened in 2012 and now caters for about 300 students. The school is in a northern suburb of Wellington, Churton Park.

Amesbury School opened in 2012 and now caters for about 300 students. The school is in a northern suburb of Wellington, Churton Park.

Assume good intent

One timeless learning is that all conflict is most effectively addressed when we assume the good intent of the other. When faced with unfair negative feedback or criticism, we would allow ourselves a moment to complain, whinge and be defensive and then we would move on and try to see the issue from the perspectives of the parent/complainant. We would begin to see that there was an issue to be addressed and we could create a plan.

We realised that it was immaterial whether good intent was intended or not, but that if we acted as though there was good intent, then the outcome would always be better. We were more likely to enter the conversation or begin writing the email with a positive attitude and our hearts in the right place, and often the conflict would simply resolve itself.

Sometimes people just wanted to be heard and didn’t want anything more done about it. Sometimes, we would realise that we had allowed the initial moment of defensiveness to carry on for too long and we would have to cut it off and very deliberately move into the understanding phase.

Winning over the community

Recruitment of students is a hugely important function of the foundation leadership of a new school. There will be no school if there is no community.

So how do you get a whole community of people to join you on an uncertain journey? The first answer is to present a new vision for education and, in doing so, provide a reason for making the change. A second answer I have decided is … you woo them.

Wooing a school community requires commitment, faithfulness and unconditional regard. As in all good novels, the road to true love is never smooth, and faithfulness gets sorely tested. This is certainly true of our journey. I read somewhere that embracing change means daring to be different and accepting that people may strike at your idea like it’s a piñata. How true this is.

When you embark on a road that is different, you can be sure that many people will strike at your ideas and this has the power to unsettle everyone on the journey. It can make you doubt yourself as the leader, and it will certainly cause a strain to relationships.

My mentor and coach, Colin Prentice, gave me some very sage advice after collecting some very positive feedback from the community in our first year of operation: “Don’t ever sit on your laurels. It only takes a moment of time for the tide to turn. You always need to be winning your community.”

In our experience, winning the school community began with capturing their minds, and beginning to capture their hearts. It then required our being faithful over time. During this time, there was a greater responsibility on us to maintain and strengthen the relationships.

Through this faithfulness, community members became more deeply engaged and the relationships became more robust. However, as I have already said, this is a never-ending story, and we realise that we will always need to continue to be faithful, to keep working at engaging our community, strengthening relationships and developing trust.

Amesbury School was developed as a 21st Century learning environment for all ākonga.

Amesbury School was developed as a 21st Century learning environment for all ākonga.

Cafē sessions

In a series of café sessions, we presented information that was significant in engaging the hearts and minds of our community. These were opportunities to send some significant messages about what would be important at Amesbury School.

We thought carefully about these messages, and we were very deliberate in our planning. We focused on creating a rich, positive experience, rather than just “doing” a meeting.

We were to be a “family” school, so we planned our sessions for early evening and children were invited and catered for. Activities were provided for the children so that parents could then focus on the more formal part of the sessions.

We chose a café setting so that it would have a warmer atmosphere and encourage participation. People arrived and we provided good coffee, tasty food and a convivial atmosphere.

At the first information session, I showed the RSA Animates Changing Educational Paradigms YouTube clip with Sir Ken Robinson speaking. This provided the big picture rationale for developing Amesbury School as a 21st Century learning environment. It resonated and people got it. Many commented that through that brief presentation, they had made quite big cognitive shifts in their thinking. Through a very simple but effective presentation that connected the dots for them, their minds had been “captured” – at least initially.

A second information session was much more interactive. We asked parents to talk together and record their thoughts on the kind of school culture they wanted and what was important to them about such issues as behaviour management. We also demonstrated that student voice and agency would be important at Amesbury School. At these meetings, students had the opportunity to provide feedback on things like uniforms and school furniture. We carried out surveys and students tested the comfort of particular pieces of furniture, and we honoured their voices.

We deliberately planned for there to be strong alignment between what we believed about teaching and learning and the format and content of our initial information sessions. This was a hugely impactful strategy, and I think our focus on ensuring alignment from day one, stands the school in good stead even today – 10 or so years later.

Disclosing who you are as a leader

My increasing preference as a leader is to lead more from the wings rather than from centre stage. As much as I preferred to put the educational philosophy and vision for the new school at the forefront and position myself in the shadows behind it, intuitively I realised that people had their eyes on me as a person. They were not, first and foremost, entrusting their children to a philosophy or ideas, but they were entrusting their precious children to a person.

I have discovered over time that John C Maxwell’s adage that, “People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care” is true and so I intentionally got in close, realising that, in the absence of anything else for the community at this time, it was about me. If they found me genuine and believable, they were more likely to find the school believable.

The workload of setting up a new school from scratch was huge and we were often drowning in detail, for example, making decisions about minute things like the height of hand basins or toilets or deciding on the placement of power outlets.

It would have been easy to get stuck at the office, swamped in the detail of school buildings, but with the encouragement and support of the establishment board, I made meeting and being available to the community in formal and informal ways, a priority. I very deliberately tried to be as open and transparent in every meeting as possible, letting those present see who I am – my passion for education and for family, my sense of social justice and care for people.

Ākonga played an active role in the design of the school, including uniforms and furniture.

Ākonga played an active role in the design of the school, including uniforms and furniture.

Continually responsive

The first year or so was particularly difficult for our parents. Not only were they being challenged by family, friends and other educationalists about their decision to move their children to that “hippy” school, they were having to defend the school against continual misinformation.

We spent the first year continually reassuring parents that their decision to move to Amesbury School was the right one. Needless to say, this was very tiring for us, but completely understandable and an absolutely essential aspect of our role as new school staff.

Throughout the year, we were engaged in a deliberate process of “being faithful” to our school community. It was important for them to see that what we had said would be important to the school, was important. We had to ensure good academic results, the happiness and wellbeing of ākonga, while developing learning programmes that reflected the learning approaches we had espoused.

We had to develop every system, every structure, every process and every relationship. It was a big ask and we found ourselves in a process of being continually responsive to parental concerns.

Another example of responsiveness related to curriculum. Our first ever inquiry topic lent itself to doing maths, reading and writing very authentically. It quickly became clear to us that the skill-based learning in the core curriculum areas was so well disguised within the inquiry that when children went home and were asked by their parents whether they did reading today, the children said no. Asked whether they did maths today, they said no.

As you can imagine, some members of our school community became quite concerned.

We did several things in response to this concern – we put teacher planning online so that parents could see that students were receiving instruction in reading, writing and maths even if it was within an inquiry focus. We made sure we used the terms reading, writing and maths in our communications with home including putting photos on the school blog of children doing skill-based sessions.

With students, we made sure that we used the language of reading, writing and maths. For example, when they were putting together a shopping list for camp food and they had to work out quantities, we made sure teachers named it mathematics.

This relieved some anxiety and concern, and for parents, the story of learning at Amesbury School grew bigger as they became more deeply aware that our school wasn’t just about “new-fangled, progressive ideas”, but it also valued traditional subjects, and which we thought we had communicated clearly about.

However, we learned that communicating about learning was a process of continual responsiveness to parental concerns and that we needed to communicate in ways that linked with what parents understood.

We discovered that for it to be faithfulness, responsiveness needs to be more than a PR exercise or a perception management thing (though it may also be that) but needs to include genuine openness and willingness to inquire into our educational practices and approaches – an inquiry that will often continue long after the concerns have been addressed.

Leadership is a complex, difficult, frustrating journey, but it is also exciting, fulfilling, gives meaning to life and is needed right now. 

Winning a community

In summary, you need to:

  • capture the mind
  • begin to engage the heart
  • be faithful over time
  • capture the heart
  • keep being faithful.


Leadership in 2022

Dr Lesley Murrihy explains what she sees as the key components of a good leader.

Dr Lesley Murrihy

Dr Lesley Murrihy

Leaders model living authentic lives

Leaders have a strong commitment to living authentic lives and they model that life for others. They continually use reflection and feedback to ensure that what they say they do and what they actually do become the same thing. They know that living an authentic life is an ongoing process, so they develop learning relationships with others who will hold them accountable for the change.

Leaders take responsibility

Leaders act because they take responsibility. Leaders step up, take responsibility for changing the future. No matter where blame rests, they take actions that lead to change.

Leaders understand that the world is connected and holistic

Leaders know that though the world is diverse and made up of many different parts, it is connected and holistic and they do not hide from the complexity this creates. They understand that simplifying and reducing the world to its component parts and ignoring its complexity leads to fragmentation, dehumanisation and marginalisation which, in turn, leads to inequity.

Leaders are strategic

Ecosystems acknowledge the connectedness of all things. Leaders understand that man-made ecosystems such as schools or other organisations do not develop naturally, nor do they self-correct in the same way that ecosystems in nature do. They know that deliberate leadership actions and strategies will need to be taken to design the ecosystem, maintain balance, connectedness, coherence and equilibrium and to ensure ongoing growth and development. Leaders take deliberate actions to ensure a healthy ecosystem over time.

Leaders know that the growth and development of people is their most important focus

Leaders know that when they focus on people first, particularly on their growth and development, this creates a win-win. They do it because they know that people who are continually growing and developing will live better, more fulfilled lives and the world will be a better place because of it.

Leaders understand that leadership is a lifelong journey not a destination

Leaders understand that leadership is not a destination – it is not a place that can be arrived at; but is an ongoing process of remaining open to the learning that can be found in each and every human experience, whether it is of failure or success. Leadership is not an end point which is revealed by consistent adherence to a particular way of being but is revealed through increasing openness to learn from all experience and in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going over time. Leaders do not measure their success by how much they feel like leaders or how often they get things right, but rather by their continual growth and development and their faithfulness to their purpose. Even experienced leaders experience imposter syndrome because they know how far short of the mark they frequently fall.

The full article can be read in Lesley’s online blog, 2022(external link)and it is also the year of the leader(external link).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 11:55 am, 6 April 2022

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