“Making the Leap” – Moving from Deputy Headship to Headship

Taking the leap from deputy headteacher to headteacher

‘Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy to Head’, was published by Crown House in November 2016. Jill Berry has provided Leadership Matters with an excerpt of her work.  The chapters cover the appeal of headship, making a successful application, managing the lead-in period and early months, and what comes next. You can purchase Making the Leap here.

A great deal is currently expected of schools: they are seen as providing the mechanism through which young people access a range of opportunities as they attempt to take control of their lives. Being a school leader in the present educational and political climate is a challenging (though, I would suggest, hugely rewarding) role. Research confirms the quality of leadership comes second only to the quality of teaching with respect to pupil performance and the role of the head within this is core, acting as spokesperson for the school, driver of the vision and the person who, together with the governors, shoulders full responsibility for the school’s success. But what type of preparation are heads offered for this role?

Being a Deputy: The Best Possible Preparation for Headship?

I made the transition from deputy to head in the 20th year of my teaching career. This is a transition which has always fascinated me, as it seemed to me that there is a paradox at the heart of it. 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 deputy and being a head are quite different professional identities, and recognising that and adapting accordingly is a significant feature of navigating the transition process.

When I left headship after ten years in post, I embarked on a Professional Doctorate in Education, and chose moving from deputy headship to headship as the focus of my research. I identified six deputies who had already been appointed to their first headship, tracking their progress throughout their final months as deputies and into their first months as heads. Through their stories and the support strategies they accessed, I was able to reflect on elements of making this transition which might be of use to aspiring heads, heads-elect and new heads, the governors who appoint and support them and the senior staff who accompany them on the journey.

So What Did I Learn?

I concluded that making the transition to first-time headship involves negotiating the tensions, and finding balance, between inheriting the role from your predecessor and inhabiting the role and making it your own.

I became acutely aware of how the period in between being appointed and formally taking up the role, the lead-in period, offers crucial opportunities to begin to tune in to the new school context, to start to know and to be known. It is a challenging time as the head-elect is juggling a demanding deputy role while feeling increasingly pulled towards their new role and school.

The developing relationship between outgoing and incoming head exerts a significant influence on a new head’s experience of transition, in terms of how positive, or how challenging, this dynamic proves to be. In addition, the legacy the outgoing head leaves behind presents both challenges and opportunities to their successor.

Of the seven roles I held across a thirty-year career, being a head was definitely the most rewarding and energising. From my own experience and my reading and research, I would say that, while there are a number of ways in which heads-elect can, and should, prepare to take up the role of school leader, ultimately you learn how to be a head from being a head.  However well-prepared new heads are, they still need to “build the bridge as they walk on it”, continuing their learning once in post. They meet early unexpected challenges which test them, but which also give them the opportunity to prove themselves, to themselves and to others, as they begin to inhabit the role, rather than simply to inherit it.

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