Making the Leap – Part 2


‘Making the Leap: Moving from Deputy to Head’, was published by Crown House in November 2016. Jill Berry has provided Leadership Matters with a second 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.

Following ten years of headship, in 2010 I embarked on a Professional Doctorate in Education, researching the transition from deputy headship to headship.  I tracked the progress of six deputies who were moving to take up headship in schools which were new to them, and used this to analyse the process of transition.  What is the experience of moving from deputy headship to headship really like? What are the challenges of balancing a demanding deputy head role while preparing to take up your first headship? What support can you access, and what strategies can you develop, which will help you to manage this transition, leave your deputy job well and make the most positive beginning to your tenure as head?


I am aware that headship appears to some an unpalatable career choice – high-risk and pressured.  It is challenging, requiring judgement, courage, resilience, a strong sense of moral purpose and the capacity to build the most positive relationships with those within and beyond the school community.  Moving from deputy to head requires a change in professional identity.


There seems to be an underlying paradox here: on the one hand, being a deputy is the best possible preparation for becoming a head.  It gives you a taste of the role when your head is out of school.  If you work for a head who is invested in helping you ready yourself for headship, you can learn a great deal and hone your school-leader skills in the process.


However, it seems to me that being a deputy is different from being a head in a number of ways – more operational and less strategic, much more about the management of the detail rather than the leadership of the Big Picture.  As a deputy I knew the minutiae of how the school operated.  As a head I didn’t, and I didn’t need to – I had good people around me who I could trust to do this.  However, I was the face of the school, the spokesperson, the figurehead.  I was the driver of the vision – aligned with my own vision, but a communal vision.  The deputies kept the school running smoothly.  I did my best to lift, inspire and move us forward.


So what did I learn from my research?


  • I realised that as an incoming head you inherit a good deal from your predecessor(s), and you have to acknowledge this legacy, work with it, build on it. Few strong heads in my experience are content with only ‘inheriting’, however.  They also strive to ‘inhabit’ the role, to make it their own and to leave their mark on the role and the school.


  • The lead-in period between being appointed and formally assuming the headship is a crucial time for heads-elect to begin to tune in to the school, to start to establish positive relationships – to know and to be known. However, they have to balance this against the demanding deputy role they are fulfilling, and to respect and be sensitive to the position of their predecessor who is still, of course, the head of the school until the end of this period.


  • The dynamic between this outgoing head and incoming head is key, and, if it proves to be problematic, governors should be aware and supportive, because what matters most is the school, its continuity and strength. The school can be damaged if the transition does not proceed smoothly.


  • When a new head joins a school, this is not simply the journey of one person. The school community is affected, too, so the process of socialisation involved is reciprocal.  Incoming heads need to be aware of context, to reflect, to listen and to learn.  They will change the school they join in a number of ways.  The school will also change them.


  • There are strategies you can use as you prepare to make the leap: learning from the expertise of those in your current school, from former colleagues, role-models and networks. However, to a certain extent, you can only continue your learning by being in the role – you learn how to be a head from being a head.  As Robert Quinn (2004) said, we “build the bridge as we walk on it” – and it is an amazing journey.


When the thesis was completed, I took the decision to restrict its publication in order to protect the identity of my participants and their schools.  I had chosen a Case Study methodology, where a considerable amount of detail is included about each case.  Even though I had anonymised my participants and schools, nevertheless, for reasons of confidentiality, I was reluctant to have the thesis openly accessible.


However, there were messages about the transition to headship that I wanted to convey – to those deciding whether headship is for them; to those who are actively applying; to heads-elect who have been successful in the application process and are managing the ‘lead-in’ time; to new heads establishing themselves in the early months, and to established heads who are supporting future generations of headteachers, and, in due course, managing their own exit out of the role.  I thought my research might also be of interest to governors and trusts appointing new heads, and to all those in school who have a supportive role to play when the head changes.

I loved being a head, which was definitely the best job of the seven roles I had across my 30-year career. Despite the challenges, I found it joyful.  I hope ‘Making the Leap’ communicates that and encourages future heads to take the step, and to relish the opportunities it brings.

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