Leading an Independent School

If you had suggested when I was at school, when I was training to be a teacher or in the early years of my career that I would at some stage move into the independent sector, I would never have believed you.  I was entirely state school educated, as was everyone I knew.  My parents had both left school at 14.  I was the first in my family to complete a degree.  I went on to a PGCE and taught in four state schools in the next 15 years.  Independent schools simply were not on my radar.

But when I was Head of Sixth Form I decided that I was ready to step up to be a deputy.  We had moved from one side of the country to the other when I took up that post, so we were not ready to move again.  I looked for deputy headships in my local area.  I had an interview for a deputy headship in a state school – a girls’ school – which, if I am honest, I thought I was going to get. The interview went well and I was feeling confident. They appointed someone else.

The following week I had an interview for a deputy headship in a girls’ independent day school. I didn’t think I stood a chance. All the other candidates were already working in the sector. I felt out on a limb. But I liked the school, and the head, staff and governors I met. Completely against expectations, they chose me.

I loved it. I loved the autonomy, the freedom from DfE initiatives which might or might not be relevant to the individual school’s context. I loved being able to make decisions which felt right for this particular school. I loved the ethos, the atmosphere and the focus on learning. I stayed there for five years and then went on to lead a similar school – another girls’ independent day school – for ten years. I never regretted the decision.

I fully understand that this is not what many teachers/leaders would choose, and I respect that.  However, if I had never taught across the sectors I would never have understood how much binds us, rather than separates us.  I would never have realised how ‘normal’ the pupils can be, and the staff, and the parents.  I would probably have taken my (false) assumptions, pre-conceptions and, dare I say, prejudices, to my grave.  I learnt so much from all six schools I taught in, and my career was richer as a result.

And I found so much more joy in headship than I ever expected to.

Since I finished full-time headship after ten years in 2010, one of the things I have been involved in has been a four-week online course on ‘Leading an Independent school’.  Andrew Hampton, a serving independent school head, and I developed the course and facilitate it together.  We’ve worked with sixteen cohorts in the last few years – on Monday 16 January 2017 we start our seventeenth cohort.  We take up to 25 participants each time.  A significant number of those who have completed the course are now heads.

Online learning can work well for busy professionals who want to invest in their personal and professional development but do not want too many days out of school.  It is flexible in that they decide when they want to spend time on it, so they can work at a time and in a way which suits them.  The participants make up a supportive, energising and enthusiastic community and there is warmth and humour in our exchanges.  We have had a great deal of positive feedback, and those who have completed it often continue to connect with us, use our support in headship selection processes, and let us know how they subsequently fare, especially when they have news of success to share.

The course runs for four consecutive weeks, and those who register need to commit to spending 3-4 hours a week on it. They decide whether to organise this time in short bursts or longer blocks, whatever fits best with their other personal and professional commitments.

The course covers vision and values, marketing, schools as businesses, governance, and leading an independent school through an Independent Schools Inspectorate inspection.  Tasks include reading, exploring scenarios, watching videos, doing research, writing blog posts and reading and responding to posts written by fellow participants.

Each week there is a 1-2 hour online synchronous hotseat: a ‘Welcome’ hotseat in week one and online Q & A sessions with a marketing professional, a chair of governors, and a bursar/school business manager in weeks two, three and four.  These are fast and furious, and enjoyable!  Participants then need to reread and reflect on the discussion thread after the event and pull out their main learning points.  If they are unable to be online during the hotseat itself, they leave questions and comments in advance, read the discussion afterwards and still access the learning.

The course is specifically targeted at those considering independent school headship.  If you think this might be of use and interest to you, visit:

Headship is, in my view, the most rewarding and potentially joyful role in the school.  It is worth investing time in preparing to make the leap and, if you are considering independent sector school leadership, this course could be an important part of that preparation.

View comments (2)
Jill Berry
20 Sep 2017 / 10:09

Hope this has been useful to those considering leadership within this sector.

Since the post was published, we have run two more cohorts and are starting cohort 19 on Monday 25th September 2017. Please do access further information and the registration form from the website if you are interested in joining us? Thanks.

Jill Berry
3 Jun 2018 / 12:06

And we've now just competed cohort 21! The website gives the dates for the next three cohorts: LIS 22 from Mon 24 Sept, LIS 23 from Mon 21 Jan 2019 and LIS 24 from Mon 29 April 2019. Come and join us!

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