Former headteacher and education consultant Dr Jill Berry outlines her insights into headship for ambitious senior leaders.
I was a head for the last 10 years of my 38-year career. Headship is demanding, but I also found it hugely enjoyable and rewarding – definitely the most satisfying of the seven jobs I had across six different schools.
Since finishing as a head in 2010, I have completed a doctorate, focusing on the transition to headship, and written a book based on my own experience and my research: Making the leap – moving from deputy to head (Crown House, 2016). I carry out leadership development work for different organisations and individual schools, and am delighted to have been invited to speak at SSAT events.
The joy of headship
Headship is certainly challenging – I worked harder as a head than in any of my previous jobs, both in terms of the hours I put in, and in the nature of some of the issues I faced. But I also found the job joyful. I had far more good days and positive experiences than negative ones. I was proud of my school, and the pupils and staff within in, and felt it was a privilege to lead it. Headship gives you the opportunity to make a difference on a scale unlike any you will have ever known, and that is thrilling. If you aspire to headship you need to keep clear in your mind the opportunities it will bring. I can honestly say that I have never heard a head say, ‘I wish I were still a deputy…’
What is distinctive about headship?
How is being a head different from being a senior leader? In my experience, senior leaders are very much involved in the day-to-day running of the school, ensuring its smooth operation and solving problems. You should, as a senior leader working alongside a head who is invested in your professional development, be involved in school strategy too, but, the focus of much of your work is likely to be operational.
As a head you take a step back. You have responsibility for everything and need a clear overview of all elements of the school’s operation, but you are far less involved in the detail. You need to appoint the right people to the right roles and support, challenge them but trust them to do their jobs. Your role will be more strategic, working alongside your governing body. There will be a greater focus on PR, on representing and speaking for, the school, and over time perhaps having an influence on education beyond your school.
Making the leap from deputy to head
How do you ready yourself for this? There are many ways you can prepare – identifying and increasing your experience and learning in those areas where you feel perhaps less confident: Finance? Marketing? Governance? There will be information you can read, professionals you can shadow, conversations you can have and meetings and conferences you can attend.
You should make full use of the lead-in time between being appointed and formally stepping into the role. You want to begin your headship feeling as fully prepared as possible. Yet to a certain extent we continue (and may never actually complete!) our learning by actually doing the job, so you also ‘build the bridge as you walk on it’ (Robert Quinn, 2004).
Make full use of the lead-in time between being appointed and formally stepping into the role. You want to begin your headship feeling as fully prepared as possible
Moving from ‘inheriting’ to ‘inhabiting’
No head faces a blank canvas, and you need to be mindful of the legacy you step into, based on all that has gone before. There will be expectations within your school community about how headship should be enacted, partly based on the practice of your predecessor, and you inherit a good deal.
However, you are unlikely to content yourself with inheriting and will want, in time, fully to inhabit the role and to make it your own. You will want to put your stamp on the job and the school, and to leave it in a better place than you found it. And of course you need to be able to do this without alienating, antagonising or terrifying those on whom you will rely to help you translate vision into reality.
In time you move from being ‘the new head’ to being ‘the head’. Establish yourself within this community and work to find a sustainable balance between your professional and personal commitments. You will have the opportunity to satisfy your own sense of moral purpose, to work alongside others to direct the school’s journey and to make a significant, positive difference to the lives of both children and adults.
This is an exciting time. Relish it!
You will want to put your stamp on the job and the school, and you need to be able to do this without alienating, antagonising or terrifying those on whom you will rely to help you translate vision into reality