For the last 10 years of my 30 years in education, I was a headteacher. I can say without hesitation that it was the most enjoyable and rewarding of the seven jobs I had (including head of department, head of sixth form and deputy head).
As a headteacher, the scope and weight of your responsibilities are, inevitably, wider and greater – you have to make tough decisions as you balance your responsibilities to different groups within the school community. It is a challenge, but, in my experience, a joyful one. I certainly had far more good days than bad, and more positive, affirming experiences than negative ones.
But schools are facing a shortage of willing, strong candidates for the role. This raises a question: how can we encourage, prepare and support future generations of heads, to secure high standards of leadership in our schools?
What I secretly want to tell my headteacher
I researched the transition from deputy head to headteacher as part of a professional doctorate in education. I tracked six educators through their last months in the deputy role, visiting them twice in their schools, interviewing them and shadowing them as they went about their days. I talked to their colleagues about how these deputies were preparing to step up to headship. Then I visited each a third time, when they had experienced a term in their new roles. I also talked to their staff, governors, pupils and parents, and where possible, their partners, to explore what this transition had meant for families.
I learned a lot about the nature of the move and how it feels to make that leap. If you’re considering it, here’s what you need to know.
You need to prepare for the big picture
There is a paradox at the heart of this transition: in some respects, being a deputy appears the best possible preparation for headship, giving a senior leader a taste of what ultimate school leadership involves. However, in many ways, being a head is a quite different professional identity. As deputy you often act as a buffer between the staff and the head. As the head you are one step removed from this – you may not know the intricacies of your school’s systems and processes (especially if you are externally appointed) but you do not need to.
You will work to get the right staff in the right roles and support and challenge them to do the best job they can – you have to trust your senior leaders to manage much of the day-to-day running of the school. You need to let the operational detail go as you embrace the bigger picture and assume the role of a leader who represents the school and all it stands for within and beyond its gates.
You’ll have to juggle for a while
The lead-in period between successful appointment and formally stepping into headship offers an invaluable opportunity to get to know the new school context and to be known by those there. But it is always a challenging time, as the head-elect juggles a demanding deputy role while feeling increasingly pulled towards their new school.
The length of this period will vary: in some cases you may be appointed more than a year in advance of taking up the position, in other cases you will only have two terms. It is advisable to look at this block of time in its entirety and to decide in advance, along with your current head and your new governing body, the most productive way to use it. Discuss when you should visit, who you should meet and what you should be looking at. Make the most of this chance.
A happy handover makes all the difference
Making the transition to headship involves finding the balance between inheriting the role from your predecessor and making it your own. No incoming headteacher inherits a blank canvas, but good leaders work with the legacy they assume in order to move the school forward.
You should have vision and values
The role offers the opportunity to make a difference on a scale that’s probably unlike any you have ever known. It is a privilege to have the chance to help a school to develop in a way that aligns with your own vision and values. Becoming a leader will enable you to extend your sphere of influence and to apply at whole-school level those principles and priorities you may have honed at other levels. The foundation of a strong headship involves clear vision and values, integrity, a commitment to working hard and continuing to learn, and the capacity to build your resilience over time.