Gráinne, What Should I Do? #2


Leading Your International School today shares our second weekly Q & A  for international school leaders and teachers. Questions are answered by Gráinne O’ Reilly – founder of 13 schools around the world. Today we share Kiran’s question. 

Kiran: First things first. What should be my key priorities at the start of the Founding School Year?

Gráinne: Thank you for your question – it comes at a great time, bearing in mind that so many schools will be opening within the next few weeks with Founding Principals (brand new schools) or in established schools who have new Principals taking up their roles.

For a Founding Principal – and indeed, I would argue, for every new Principal, the primary focus must be on people.

There are four groups that are absolutely vital to the success, the integrity, the reputation and the smooth running of a school: The pupils, the staff, the families and community and of course, the Board/Company/Ownership.

In all things (always) children come first. Ensuring a safe, secure, age – appropriate, stimulating and inspiring environment for the pupils needs to be not only first on your list when you open a school, but first on your list always. Are you confident in your Child Protection and Safeguarding training for all staff? Does your Policy (and practices) ensure that all children will be protected and secure at all times? Do all adults on site have a practical understanding of this vital area of knowledge and expertise and how do you know that you can be confident in that? It does not matter how brilliant your curriculum is and how beautiful your school looks if you cannot guarantee that the pupils will be safe, respected, supported, heard, recognised and nurtured.

Your next group is your staff – both local and international, teaching, administrative and premises. Staff can make or break a school, especially a school in its infancy, and staff must be given the support they need to do their jobs well. Ensuring staff get to know each other and understand each others’ functions is key to getting the year off to a great start. Create as flat a management structure as possible, empower people to give of their best and share their talents, create a no-blame environment where mistakes are used to support and inform further growth and where honesty and integrity are prized. As the Principal, you must model this behaviour consistently from your very core.

The children’s parents and families will be your target community initially. As you all settle and the school grows you will become more and more prominent in the local community, but in the first instance those families will be your community – and will, most importantly, be your strongest advocates and ambassadors. Communicate, communicate, communicate with them! Over-communicate, be honest, be pro-active and do what you say you are going to do! One of the things that really successful schools do is over-deliver. They do NOT over-promise! Put the pupils first and get your procedures bedded down, but once you are confident in these – let the parents see what is happening. Share your successes, communicate your thoughts and make sure you are SEEN. It is exhausting founding a new school – for many reasons, one of which is the hours that you must put in. You need to be at the gate in the morning welcoming everyone and then again in the evening saying goodbye. You need to be at every meeting, every event, every game and every performance. Yes, it is tough to be everywhere, for everyone, at all times, but it pays off hugely, creating enormous trust and credibility.

The fourth group will be the people who have employed you to take on this role. Ensure that you understand what THEIR expectations are of what THEY consider to be full and active communication. Do they really only want to know the numbers and see the finances? Do they want to understand how you are marketing the school and what your conversion rates are? Or do they want to know the ins and outs of everything? You may have had multiple previous Principal positions and you may have far more experience and knowledge than them, but the key will be giving them what they want rather than what you think you ought to tell them. This is their school, and whilst you are running it, you must respect that their faith and trust in you need to be earned over time. Again, be pro-active, over-communicate, be positive and ensure that your response to challenges and even crisis situations is calm, pragmatic, practical and can-do.

Once the fundamentals for these four groups of stakeholders are in place you will find that the myriad tasks; policies, procedures, developments and growth can be given room and that you will be able to become more strategic as time progresses.

Founding an international school or stepping into a new position as Principal is always overwhelming. It can feel like stepping up to conduct a huge orchestra without having been handed the score! You will need to bring the whole school together, at the same time, in harmony – somehow. Get your responsibilities to those four groups right, get the communication and trust built up with them and you will be well on your way to a great and rewarding symphony!

Kiran, thank you so much for raising this important issue and good luck – here’s to a wonderful year ahead.

Thank you for reading, if you have any questions for Gráinne to answer about Leading Your International School, email them to:  or comment below.

2 thoughts on “Gráinne, What Should I Do? #2

  1. Sound advice for current and future school leaders. For me it really helps by separating out those four key audiences/stakeholders. Again, the health and wellbeing of our students is always the priority.

  2. Totally agree with you Gráinne, Actually to every school, no matter if they are startups or ones with a long history, students should always come first, above all else. Thank you for sharing, great piece!

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