Taking the next step? Aspiring to headship

02 April 2015

Leader logoHeadship is potentially as rewarding as it is busy, so don’t let the scale of the job put you off, says Sue Dunford.

Senior leaders in schools are often in two minds about whether to apply for headship. They can see its advantages, but the additional responsibility and accountability look awesome.

Why might you not want to be a head? Ofsted, league tables, the breadth of knowledge required, the difficult conversations and negotiations – all of these and more could be reasons for not going for the top job.

But on the other hand, why might you be considering doing exactly that – becoming head of a school or academy?

When you go into teaching you have a love of your subject and a love of working with young people. You know you can make a difference to the students in your classroom.

If you become a head, your actions and decisions have a massive impact on young people and on their future life chances. You will touch the lives of staff, children, parents and members of the broader community. Heads are still considered to hold a significant and influential position in our society. Like it or not, you will be a person of substance in the local community and beyond.

Everyone has an opinion about the head. You like and respect some heads more than others. It is when you think about why this is so that you begin to realise, as you become more senior in a school, that there are things that you would do differently if you were in charge.

Headship offers the opportunity to put your educational vision into practice and, provided you can articulate that vision to the school community, you can plan how you can translate the vision into strategies and student outcomes.

Ultimate accountability

Life as a head is very different from that of a deputy. Yours is the acceptance of ultimate responsibility and accountability. What must you reflect on before you accept the role?

What sort of school will you choose to work in? No longer is that decision simply state or independent, selective or comprehensive. There is now a bewildering array of types of school and the role of head will differ according to the school’s type and context. Would you find it reassuring to be able to work under an executive head or would you prefer the ultimate authority to rest with you?

Headship is not a job for those who like a predictable life, with one week much the same as the previous one. Variety and unpredictability are the norm. Your ‘to do’ list will forever be rolling forward and you will need to prioritise ruthlessly. Time is short, but things will occur that you need to reflect on carefully before decisions can be made. There will be a need to decide occasionally not to do some things, even to put some cherished projects on one side for a while.

Your personal values form the core of the school ethos. How will you balance what you believe is for the good of the students with the demands of voices beyond the school? Your values and ambitions will, to a great extent, determine the students’ achievements and life chances.

How have you prepared yourself for applying for headship? What professional development have you participated in recently – or have you been too busy dealing with the development needs of others? There is a difference between the continuing professional development (CPD) of a deputy trying to become a better deputy and the CPD of someone aspiring to the role of head. How strong are you at dealing with data and its effective use or with the school budget, working closely with governors, or dealing with underperforming staff (including senior staff)? Have you read the new National Standards of Excellence for Headteachers, published by the Department for Education in January 2015, updating the 2004 standards?

Acting as a filter

As a school leader you will enjoy keeping up to date with educational research and debate, the political climate and government policy changes. That is not to say that you need to introduce them all into your school. Acting as a filter is a key part of headship.

As the ‘head teacher’, you are exactly that – the person in charge of teaching, so do not lose the pleasure gained from being in the classroom. Even if you do not have timetabled lessons, enjoy teaching a cover lesson and enjoy being the leading learner, too.

Leadership can manifest itself in many forms. There are the joys and challenges of working within a team. At other times, the role can leave you feeling isolated. Who can you turn to – family or friends, your deputy, chair of governors, senior colleagues in other schools, other ASCL members or the ASCL hotline?

Your ambition for high standards for all students and determination that disadvantage can be overcome and equality advanced, are mirrored by your enjoyment at the opportunity to nurture the skills and talents of the adults working with you, empowering them to be more effective. Results day, sporting and arts events bring shared pride and pleasure to staff and students, as well as shared disappointment if things fail to go as planned.

The head is able to communicate well, both verbally and in writing. Communication skills are essential when dealing with the angry parent or the underperforming member of staff. Courses on senior leadership always warn of the headship appointment questions about ‘difficult conversations’. Can you describe one you have experienced? What was the outcome? How did it make you feel?

Accountability is at the centre of a head’s thinking – accountability to students, parents, governors, the community and the local authority (LA) or academy trust. The head will be prepared to share responsibility through distributed leadership but will also know how to hold colleagues to account for their responsibilities. What would you do if mistakes are made? Criticise, or treat it as a learning experience?

You will be prepared for the hard work and time commitment – these will already be part of your life. As a head it is essential you keep time for yourself and your family. It is not just the work/life balance of your staff you need to be concerned about, it’s yours, too. Selection panels at interviews often worry about headteacher burnout and will question you about what keeps you awake at night and how you switch off.

Consider NPQH

If you aspire to headship you can and should prepare yourself. A conversation with your current head might be the place to start when you can discuss what areas of expertise you need to develop further. What CPD have you led in your own or partner schools?

Consider doing a National Professional Qualification for Headship (an NPQH) – it is no longer an essential requirement, but governor selection panels often look for it. Have you led action research in your school or considered doing an MA in education or an MBA?

Are you confident in your knowledge of recent developments? What are the implications of the latest Ofsted framework, Progress 8, assessment without levels, Changes to exams at Key Stages 4 or 5, or Pupil Premium spending?

Sue Dunford is a former headteacher, an ASCL Trainer and Consultant and a member of the ASCL Senior Leadership Appointment Service Team.